Lupita Nyong'o has been nominated for best supporting actress in 12 Years a Slave.
Lupita Nyong'o has been nominated for best supporting actress in 12 Years a Slave.
Chiwetel Ejiofor in a scene from 12 Years a Slave, which has been nominated for a couple of awards.
Chiwetel Ejiofor in a scene from 12 Years a Slave, which has been nominated for a couple of awards.

A string of black artists are in line for awards tonight, making this an unprecedented occasion, writes Adekeye Adebajo.

The most prestigious film awards – the Oscars – with a global audience of about 40 million, will be held in Hollywood tonight. This event has been criticised in the past for focusing too much attention on white actors, directors, and screenwriters, while ignoring the achievements of black artists.

In the last 84 years, less than 4 percent of acting awards went to people of African descent. The Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts, and Sciences (Ampas) – whose 6 000 members choose Oscar winners – has also been criticised for lacking diversity, with 94 percent of the members being white and 77 percent male in 2012.

This year has, however, been different, and could prove historic for the descendants of Africa and its diaspora.

Nigerian-Briton Chiwetel Ejiofor has been nominated for best actor; Kenya’s Lupita Nyong’o for best supporting actress; Somalia’s Barkhad Abdi for best supporting actor; Grenadian-Briton Steve McQueen for best director (and his film 12 years A Slave for best picture); Egypt’s Jehane Noujain for best documentary; and African-American John Ridley for best adapted screenplay.

Ejiofor and Nyong’o both starred in McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, which won nine nominations.

Four black artists have won Oscars for best male actor: American-born Bahamian Sidney Poitier in 1963 (Lilies of the Field); and three African Americans: Denzel Washington in 2001 (Training Day); Jamie Foxx in 2004 (Ray); and Forrest Whitaker in 2006 (The Last King of Scotland).

Five African Americans have won Oscars for best supporting actress: Hattie McDaniel in 1939 (Gone with the Wind) – she had to sit at a segregated table during the award ceremony in an apartheid America; Whoopi Goldberg in 1990 (Ghost); Jennnifer Hudson in 2006 (Dreamgirls); Mo’Nique in 2009 (Precious); and Octavia Spencer in 2011 (The Help). Four African Americans have won for best supporting actor: Louis Gossett jr in 1992 (An Officer and a Gentleman); Denzel Washington in 1989 (Glory); Cuba Gooding jr in 1996 (Jerry Maguire); and Morgan Freeman in 2004 (Million Dollar Baby).

Benin’s Djimon Hounsou became the first African-born artist to be nominated for an Oscar (best supporting actor) in 2003. He was again nominated the following year for Blood Diamond. No black director has ever won an Oscar, and only John Singleton (in 1999, for Boyz n the Hood) and Lee Daniels (in 2009, for Precious) have ever been nominated. If he were to win tonight, Steve McQueen would become not only the first black director to triumph, but his film could also become the first ever black-directed movie to win an Oscar for best picture. African American TJ Martin is the only black director to have won an Oscar for best documentary (in 2012 for Undefeated); while Geoffrey Fletcher is the only black person to have won for best adapted screenplay (for Precious in 2009). The South African film Tsotsi memorably won the Oscar for best foreign language movie in 2006.

The film 12 Years A Slave deals with one of the most shameful episodes in American history: the 250 years of slavery in which 20 million black people perished, with the country failing spectacularly to live up to its founding ideals of liberty and justice. Even star-studded movies about the subject like Glory (1989), Amistad (1997), and Beloved (1998) failed dismally to attract large audiences.

Slavery is a largely forgotten subject in the American imagination. This is why the surprising commercial success of Steve McQueen’s uncompromising film is so important. The movie is being compared to Steven Spielberg’s 1993 Oscar-winning Holocaust film, Schindler’s List, for its authentically haunting depiction of the “banality of evil”.

12 Years A Slave is a true autobiographical account of Solomon Northup, a black middle-class violinist and family man, who was tricked in 1841 into travelling from his home in Saratoga Springs, New York, to Washington DC as part of a performing circus, only to find himself sold into slavery and transported to work on three plantations in Louisiana for 12 years.

The film is unrelenting in depicting the unspeakable cruelty and savagery of psychotic white plantation owners involving the lynching, whipping, and rape of black slaves. The artistic elegance of the cinematography vividly depicts the casual brutality, sheer helplessness, and monotonous tedium of plantation life.

Harvard University’s Henry Louis Gates jr described the movie as “the best film about slavery ever made from the point of view of a slave”. Infantile African American critic Armond White dismissed it as “torture porn”. The fact that the slave-fuelled cotton industry enriched America’s economy has, however, never been officially acknowledged, let alone repaid.

Two brilliant Oscar-deserving performances stand out in 12 Years a Slave: the lead actor, Ejiofor, and Nyong’o as the concubine of a cruel slave-master. Ejiofor’s performance is particularly masterful in depicting the indomitable dignity and stoicism of his subject, while the suicidal Nyong’o perfectly captures the pathos of her unimaginable situation.

The 36-year old Ejiofor was born in London to Nigerian parents. He witnessed the horrific death of his 39-year old father (a medical doctor) in a ghastly car accident in Nigeria at the age of 11, and the scar on his face is the outward expression of inner scars that this melancholy, reserved, and sensitive actor still carries.

As a reclusive child, Ejiofor would lock himself up in his room and read aloud Shakespeare’s plays. Having studied at British private school Dulwich, where he acted from the age of 15, Ejiofor is highly intelligent and eloquent.

He dropped out of acting school at 19, having landed a role in Amistad, playing a slave in his first film as he would in the one that earned him an Oscar nomination. He often plays restrained and calm characters, as in Dirty Pretty Things, a film that delightfully explored the life of London’s immigrant underclass, in which Ejiofor played a Nigerian doctor who drives a cab while working in a plush hotel.

The workaholic Ejiofor went on to act in Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda, Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, and Spike Lee’s Inside Man. The last film also involved Denzel Washington in the lead role, with whom Ejiofor teamed up again in American Gangster. The Nigerian-Briton also masterfully played Thabo Mbeki in Endgame, and another South African politician in Gillian Slovo’s Red Dust.

He has starred in 25 films in a two-decade career. Ejiofor demonstrated his versatility with a breath-taking performance of Othello that won him an Olivier – the highest British theatre acting prize – in 2007. An artist par excellence, he talks of the “alchemy of acting” and the “brushwork” of his craft.

A meticulous actor, he travelled from Nigeria across the Atlantic and to the Congo to prepare for two movie roles. It was Ejiofor’s “humanity” and “dignity” that attracted him to McQueen. Ejiofor is, however, quietly and astutely subversive and politically conscious. He played the role of martyred Congolese Pan-African leader Patrice Lumumba, in Martiniquan Aimé Césaire’s play A Season in the Congo – Ejiofor will also star in a movie version. Ejiofor’s short film Columbite Tantalite was also set in the Congo and exposed the exploitation of global capitalism.

In playing the role of Solomon Northup, Ejiofor was reminded of his Igbo roots in eastern Nigeria, from where many of the slaves crossed the Atlantic. He at first declined to play the role out of fear of failure and self-doubt. His parents fled to England during the Biafran war, and Ejiofor recently starred in Nigerian writer Chimam- anda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of A Yellow Sun which deals with the Nigerian civil war of 1967-1970 in which one million mostly Igbos perished.

The 30-year old cosmopolitan ingénue Lupita Nyong’o was born in Mexico to Kenyan parents (her father is the politician Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o).

She spent her childhood in Kenya, before going to the US to attend Hampshire College and Yale School of Drama. 12 Years a Slave is amazingly her first film, a “breakout” role she landed as she was graduating from Yale.

Nyong’o drew inspiration from Whoopi Goldberg’s performance in The Color Purple, noting that Goldberg “looked like me, she had hair like mine, she was dark like me”.

The Kenyan always felt that she had an instinct for acting – which she describes as “mysterious and magical” – but needed the tools provided by drama school to fulfil her dream.

The 28-year old Barkhad Abdi was equally nominated for an Oscar in his first film role.

Born in Somalia, he left the war-torn country at the age of 7, arriving in the American city of Minneapolis seven years later through Yemen, after his family had won the green-card lottery. He was working as a limousine driver when he auditioned for the role of a Somali pirate who hijacks an American cargo ship in Captain Phillips.

The humble, workaholic, and sometimes prickly 44-year old Steve McQueen had a difficult childhood in a British school, where he had to deal with deep racial prejudice. He now lives in Amsterdam with his Dutch wife.

After studying at London’s Chelsea College of Arts and Goldsmiths, he won Britain’s prestigious Turner prize in 1999 for his video art. He had directed two previous films before 12 Years a Slave: Hunger, about Irish prisoners on a hunger strike, and Shame, about sex addiction.

His outrage at the amnesia about slavery compared to the greater focus on the Jewish Holocaust pushed him to make 12 Years a Slave. His art-house style is prominent in his movie. McQueen is currently planning a major television drama about Britain’s historically marginalised black community.

Jehane Noujaim’s The Square became the first Egyptian film to earn an Oscar nomination, covering the popular uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak in 2011 up until events that led to the ousting of Mohammed Mursi last year. The documentary unfolds mainly through the eyes of three protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

Beside 12 Years a Slave, John Ridley’s other screenplays have included Red Tails, All is By My Side, and Three Kings.

The Golden Globe-winning 12 Years a Slave faces stiff competition from Gravity and American Hustle; Ejiofor will be competing against Golden Globe winner Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club); Nyong’o will have to get past Golden Globe winner Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle); Abdi will have to outshine Jared Leto (Dallas Buyer’s Club) and Michael Fassbender (12 Years A Slave); McQueen will have to defeat Mexican Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity); while Ridley will have to overcome Spike Jonze (Her).

Mark Kermode of The Guardian dismissed the Oscars as “an essentially frivolous sideshow, the petty foibles and prejudices of which have little or nothing to do with the art of great movie-making”.

Tinseltown certainly knows how to put on a show and razzmatazz is synonymous with Hollywood. For one night, however, the hope is that substance will triumph over shallowness, and that at least three out of the six children of Africa and its diaspora will come away with golden statuettes tonight.

* Adekeye Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Sunday Independent