Nate Parker’s blunt biographical drama “The Birth of a Nation” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, 11 days after members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences came under fire for nominating only white actors for a second straight year. Parker’s movie, which tells the story of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion, earned a rousing standing ovation, a record $17.5 million sales price and immediate status as a front-runner for the 2017 Oscars.
But the film’s standing has been damaged in recent days as new details of a 1999 rape case in which Parker was charged and later acquitted have come to light. (The accuser committed suicide in 2012.)
Fox Searchlight, which bought “Birth” at Sundance, still plans on showing the movie at the Toronto International Film Festival next month. But the controversy has erased the inevitability of the movie’s best-picture chances as well as those of Parker, who wrote, directed and stars as Turner. Whether that shoo-in status was earned on merit or a result of the propitious timing of its premiere will likely be debated as “Birth” faces a second wave of reviews in Toronto.
But the cloud hanging over “Birth” does not necessarily mean that we will be seeing #OscarsSoWhite trending for a third straight year in January. The next few months boast a strong slate of movies with African Americans and, in one case, a British Indian, in prominent roles. (Latinos and Asian Americans remain sorely underrepresented.) Here are seven films to watch:
“Queen of Katwe” This biographical sports drama about a young Ugandan girl dreaming of becoming a chess champion will premiere at Toronto. It’s an uplifting, inspiring story, directed by Mira Nair and released under the Walt Disney Pictures banner. For the time being, the marketing push will be focused on box office, not awards. But it’s a crowd-pleaser in the best sense and features “12 Years A Slave” Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o and the gifted David Oyelowo (“Selma”). If the reviews are ecstatic, expect an Oscar campaign. (Sept. 23)
“A United Kingdom” Another true-life interracial love story and another film starring Oyelowo, this 1940s-set drama tells the story of Prince Seretse Khama, the heir to the throne of Botswana, who marries a London office worker and basically causes a diplomatic earthquake between South Africa, the United Kingdom and his home country. Rosamund Pike (“Gone Girl”) costars in Amma Asante’s (“Belle”) film, which will premiere at Toronto looking for a U.S. distributor before opening the London Film Festival on Oct. 5.
“Moonlight” A24 and Plan B Entertainment — companies with great track records for nourishing filmmakers with distinct voices — teamed up for Barry Jenkins’ coming-of-age drama about a young man growing up in Reagan-era Miami. The recently released trailer stoked anticipation for the film, which will screen at both the Toronto and New York film festivals (and likely Telluride as well). There’s an unflinching, poetic beauty to the images in the teaser.
Adapted from the play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” the film unfolds in three different time periods as the protagonist deals with a deteriorating home life and his dawning sexuality. Naomie Harris, Andre Holland, Janelle Monáe and Mahershala Ali star. (Oct. 21)
“Loving” Jeff Nichols’ restrained portrait of an interracial couple fighting a landmark civil rights case to make their marriage legal earned admiring reviews at Cannes. Critics were particularly taken with the subtle lead performances of Joel Edgerton and, in particular, Ethiopian Irish actress Ruth Negga. Look for a significant awards push from Focus Features. (Nov. 4)
“Lion” Harvey Weinstein believes this true story about a young man, separated from his family at a Calcutta train station as a child and using small clues and Google Earth to find them 25 years later, could earn eight or nine Oscar nominations. And when has he ever exaggerated when it comes to his awards season slate? Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman and Rooney Mara star in the film, and it appears Weinstein believes Kidman is the standout. The movie will play at Toronto and London. (Nov. 25)
“Fences” This story of a former athlete and his yearning wife is one of August Wilson’s most accessible plays and one Denzel Washington knows well. Washington starred in a 2010 Broadway revival of the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama. He and Viola Davis won Tonys and reprise their roles as the couple in this film adaptation, which Washington also directs. Their onstage chemistry on Broadway was palpable and persuasive. If Washington builds on his previous solid directorial efforts (“Antwone Fisher,” “The Great Debaters”), this could be special. (Dec. 16)
“Hidden Figures” Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe play the unheralded African American math geniuses who helped NASA launch astronaut John Glenn into space in 1962. Fox likes this movie so much that it’s bringing a few scenes of the unfinished film to Toronto, where it will stage a screening and concert event headlined by Pharrell Williams, who is a producer and composed several of the film’s original songs. It’s set to open wide in 2017 on the Martin Luther King holiday weekend, but there’s talk of giving it an Oscar-qualifying run before the year ends. It’s probably more of an audience movie than an awards play. But then, that’s what people thought about “The Help” too.