It’s very rare that you have a month like December 2016, during which at least 6 feature films that tell stories centered entirely around the lives of black characters, are opening in theaters around the country (the USA in this case). There’ll be at least one new “black film” release for each weekend in December. Now imagine if that happened every single month throughout the year. But it’s been a decent fall movie season overall for black filmmakers, actors and audiences, with the likes of “Moonlight,” “13th,” “Almost Christmas,” “The Birth of a Nation,” “Boo! A Madea Halloween,” and “Maya Angelou and Still I Rise” all released in the last 2 months. This may actually be one of the better fall movie seasons for black cinema in recent history. I’m sure there are other titles I haven’t mentioned here.
But looking ahead to the month of December, let’s briefly break down the 6+ films that are scheduled to premiere: One is based on a celebrated play (“Fences”) by a celebrated black playwright (August Wilson); another is based on a book (“Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race”) written by a black author (Margot Lee Shetterly); and still another (“I Am Not Your Negro”) is based on an unfinished book (“Remember This House”) by a literary icon (James Baldwin); three of them (“A Girl Like Grace,” “I Am Not Your Negro” and “Fences”) were directed by black filmmakers (Ty Hodges, Raoul Peck and Denzel Washington); two of the biggest stars in Hollywood (Will Smith and Denzel Washington) lead two of the films (“Collateral Beauty” and “Fences”); four of them are dramas, one is a romantic comedy (“The Bounce Back”), and one is a documentary (“I Am Not Your Negro”), so maybe a little more variety in genres would make this list even more exciting (maybe one sci-fi flick, one horror perhaps, or a mystery/thriller, etc); black women are central in two of them (“A Girl Like Grace” and “Hidden Figures”); and the work of a gay black man is central in another (“I Am Not Your Negro”); four of them are very much in the Oscar conversation (“I Am Not Your Negro,” “Collateral Beauty,” “Fences” and “Hidden Figures”); finally half of the 6 are independent productions, and the other half are Hollywood studio projects.
Unfortunately, they all won’t be opening in wide release immediately; some of them may never see a wide release (600+ screens). We know that “Fences” and “Collateral Beauty” will open nationwide during their respective premiere weekends (at least 2000 screens I would assume); We also know that “Hidden Figures” was originally set to open wide in January, but the film’s distributor (20th Century Fox) opted to give it an Oscar-qualifying early release over the Christmas holidays, but in a limited number of theaters, before expanding nationwide on January 6. Magnolia Pictures will give Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro” a one-week special run beginning December 9 in New York and Los Angeles, followed by a nationwide theatrical release on February 3, but still only in 25 markets; which means that even after it expands in February, many of you still won’t get to see it at a theater near you and will likely have to wait for the film’s home video release later in 2017 (Amazon Studios acquired exclusive streaming rights to the documentary, which will also broadcast on PBS in late 2017). As for “A Girl Like Grace” and “The Bounce Back,” “Grace” will open in Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, and will also be released on various VOD and digital platforms on the same day (cable VOD, iTunes, Amazon Video, etc). We’re told that “Bounce Back” will launch in theaters nationwide starting on December 9, 2016, but the exact number of screens/markets isn’t public info yet. I recommend you check your local listings for confirmation on whether it will be screening at a theater near you.
I should mention that the thriller starring Halle Berry (“Kidnap”) which was original slotted to open in December has been pushed to an early 2017 release. If I missed any *smaller* films that will be opening in theaters around the country (limited or otherwise), feel free to email me details (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I’ll update this post.
Also worth noting, the second of 2 (that we know of) young Barack Obama-related films making a splash this year, heralding star Devon Terrell as a talent to watch, and titled simply “Barry,” was acquired by Netflix after its Toronto International Film Festival premiere where pleased audiences. Netflix has set a December 16, 2016 release date for the film, but, at this time, all we know with certainty is that it’ll premiere on the subscription VOD service, without any word on whether it’ll also get a theatrical. Prior to the film’s release date announcement, I assumed Netflix would follow a similar release strategy as it’s done with previous high-profile pick-ups, giving the film a limited theatrical run together with a streaming release, even if only to make sure it qualifies for any Oscar consideration (although, at this time, there’s no evidence that Netflix plans to make an Oscar push for the film). All evidence in front of me currently suggests that the film will premiere on Netflix, without a theatrical. But that might change, and an announcement will be made before the 16th.
Directed by Vikram Gandhi, “Barry” is set in New York City, in 1981, and is inspired by true events, telling a story of a young Barack Obama as he tries to find his way as a college student in a new city, while faced with questions about race, culture and identity during what would be a crucial year in the future President’s life.
Devon Terrell (who won the lead role in Steve McQueen’s now-defunct HBO project “Codes of Conduct”) stars in the film as Obama, with Anya Taylor-Joy, Jason Mitchell, Ellar Coltrane and Ashley Judd rounding out the cast, playing his classmates and his mother (Judd).
I should also mention that, these 6+ “black films” aside, December is a month of some heavyweight releases with star power and strong brand recognition that’ll certainly give them all competition; maybe the biggest is the next film in the “Star Wars” franchise which is sure to occupy lots of theaters and dominate at the box office – “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” There’s also Michael Fassbender in the actioner “Assassin’s Creed” which is based on the popular video game franchise of the same name; and Jennifer Lawrence stars alongside Chris Pratt in the sci-fi movie “Passengers”; there’s also the Universal Studios animated musical “Sing” which will likely draw families in droves, with Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Seth MacFarlane, Scarlett Johansson, and John C. Reilly giving voice to the animated characters, and original music from the likes of Stevie Wonder and Ariana Grande.
It’ll be a busy month, and how the 6 “black films” highlighted in this post will fare at the box office is something that we’ll definitely be watching closely.
Here are summaries of the 6 films, along with trailers, in release date order (and even though we aren’t certain of whether “Barry” will get a theatrical, I’ve included it as well below):
— “A Girl Like Grace,” Dec 2
The coming-of-age drama from writer/director/actor Ty Hodges follows the trials and triumphs of a bullied High School girl who seeks guidance from her deceased best friends older sister. Meagan Good, Garcelle Beauvais, Raven-Symoné, Romeo Miller, Paige Hurd, and Ryan Destiny as the title character, Grace, make up the cast.
Watch a trailer for the film embedded below, followed by a clip:
— “The Bounce Back,” Dec 9
The story: Father, author and relationship expert Matthew Taylor is on a whirlwind book tour promoting his new best seller, “The Bounce Back.” He’s got it all figured out until he meets the acerbic Kristin Peralta, a talk show circuit therapist who’s convinced he’s nothing but a charlatan. Matthew’s life is turned upside down when he inadvertently falls for Kristin and has to face the painful truth of his past relationship.
Directed by Youssef Delara (“Filly Brown”), from a script penned by Victor Teran, Staci Robinson, and Delara, the film stars Shemar Moore, Nadine Velazquez, Bill Bellamy, Sheryl Underwood, and Kali Hawk.
Watch the trailer below:
— “I Am Not Your Negro,” Dec 9
Director Raoul Peck has described it as “a very creative documentary.” In short, the film toys with the idea that Baldwin actually wrote what was to be an ambitious book – “a masterpiece” as Peck puts it – on Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., whose lives all ended in assassinations. Baldwin knew it would be a challenge, and didn’t believe it would sell, but he felt that he needed to write it. Baldwin never did write the book (Peck learned about it via letters Baldwin sent to his agent); but Peck’s “creative documentary” imagines that he did. As the filmmaker has said: “The starting point of the film is to say – yes, he wrote it. He just didn’t bind it together, but if you go through his work, the film is there.”
All Peck had to build on were 30 pages of Baldwin’s notes for the book (which was to be titled “Remember This House”), and the rights to all of Baldwin’s writings.
— “Collateral Beauty,” Dec 16
When a successful New York advertising executive suffers a great tragedy he retreats from life. While his concerned friends try desperately to reconnect with him, he seeks answers from the universe by writing letters to Love, Time and Death. But it’s not until his notes bring unexpected personal responses that he begins to understand how these constants interlock in a life fully lived, and how even the deepest loss can reveal moments of meaning and beauty.
The film stars Will Smith, Helen Mirren, Naomie Harris, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Keira Knightley, Michael Pena, and Jacob Latimore.
The New Line film, is directed by David Frankel.
— “Fences,” Dec 25
Based on the acclaimed play by the late August Wilson. In brief, a former professional baseball player creates tension in his family when he contests his teenage son’s dream of playing college football, and comes home with the baby he had through an affair.
Denzel Washington (who also directs) and Viola Davis are reprising the roles they played in the Broadway revival of “Fences” that was directed by Kenny Leon, both giving strong performances that would earn them the highest honor in the theatre world, the Tony Award for Best Actor and Best Actress in a Play.
Joining Washington and Viola Davis (as Troy and Rose Maxson) in front of the camera are: Mykelti Williamson, Russell Hornsby, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Jovan Adepo and Saniyya Sidne.
— “Hidden Figures,” Dec 25
The film tells the untold true story of some of the African American women mathematicians who worked at NASA during the Civil Rights era. At the center of “Hidden Figures” (based on Shetterly’s book) are Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan, Kathryn Peddrew, Sue Wilder, Eunice Smith and Barbara Holley, who all worked at NASA during the Civil Rights era, often referred to as “the colored computers.”
Starring in the film are Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae, as the unsung scientists.
They are joined in supporting roles by Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge, Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons, Kirsten Dunst and Glen Powell.
The adaptation was directed by Ted Melfi.
— And finally, “Barry,” Dec 16
It’s the Fall of 1981 and a young Barack Obama —known to his friends as “Barry”— arrives as a transfer student at Columbia University. Thrust into Mayor Koch’s racially fraught and crime-ridden New York City, Barry finds himself pulled between various social stratospheres. As he struggles to maintain a series of increasingly strained relationships—with his Kansas-born mother, his estranged Kenyan father, and his classmates —glaring issues of inequality force him to confront questions surrounding his own identity. His experiences over that pivotal school year begin to shape his views on race, government, and what it means to be an American.
Directed by Vikram Gandhi, Devon Terrell stars in the film as Obama, with Anya Taylor-Joy, Jason Mitchell, Ellar Coltrane and Ashley Judd rounding out the cast, playing his classmates and his mother (Judd).