Harvey Weinstein’s Oscar-Campaign Dilemma

Guest blog: His embarrassment of riches has arisen because his company is distributing two very strongly acted and directed films about race in America

It might be just mid-August, but Harvey Weinstein, the maven of Oscar campaigns, might already have an almost Biblical dilemma choosing between two films to focus on in the 2014 Oscar campaign.

His embarrassment of riches has arisen because his company is distributing two very strongly acted and directed films about race in America, Ryan Coogler’s "Fruitvale Station" and "Lee Daniels' The Butler."

Certainly both male leads deserve an Oscar push. Double Sundance winner "Fruitvale Station" features a strong performance by its lead actor Michael B. Jordan as it tracks the true story of young protagonist Oscar Grant’s last day in Oakland before he is wrongly killed.

In "The Butler," Forest Whitaker also delivers a commanding performance as Cecil Gaines, the true story of the man who served eight presidents during the turbulent civil rights years.  

Oprah Winfrey as Gaines’ wife gives a riveting portrayal of the neglected spouse. Hopefully the Weinstein Company will push for a nomination for Winfrey in the best supporting category as Cate Blanchett’s riches-to-rags role in "Blue Jasmine" is so far a shoo-in for best actress.

There also might be pushes for nominations in the director and Best Picture categories for both "Fruitvale Station" and "The Butler."  Although "The Butler" is a much bigger Hollywood movie, remember that last year one of the nominated directors was Benh Zeitlin for his very original independent film "Beasts of the Southern Wild." He was also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay.       

If Danny Strong’s strong script is nominated for Best Screenplay it probably will be listed as an original one. But if there are awards given for screenplays based on newspaper stories Wil Haygood would win as his sleuthing for the Washington Post unearthed Eugene Allen's incredible story of serving eight presidents.

When it comes to giving out awards for best films, the producers, especially executive producer Sheila Johnson, deserve special recognition for stepping in to provide the funds to bring "The Butler" and its strong Civil Rights themes to the screen. The struggle to raise money for this film is the classic story of Hollywood not believing in funding politically oriented films.

All the actors accepted lower salaries for their parts because they believed in the project. If the film does win Best Picture it will be a crowded stage akin to the Tony Awards with so many producers listed on the film.

Weinstein is not the only one who might be competing against himself as Whitaker, a potential Oscar nominee himself for serving up such a dignified butler role, was an executive producer of "Fruitvale Station."

And if an award existed for most ironic casting, "The Butler" offers up two possibilities. Jane Fonda’s cameo as Nancy Reagan, partially aided by recognizable outfits, is played to perfection. Her cameo competition is Vanessa Redgrave as the bigoted planation owner.

At a recent screening, director Daniels correctly pointed out that the “real heroes in the film were the freedom riders, including the white kids.” When the spirited director was asked “if main black characters will sell to general audiences,” Daniels correctly replied that “Civil Rights defines American history.”

Let us hope that the Weinstein Company’s plan to open "The Butler" wide in major cities works as anticipated so that more films about the civil rights era are made. 

And Harvey is just the person to test out the commercial appeal of black-themed cinema as his company is also releasing Justin Chadwick’s "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" about Mandela’s anti-Apartheid struggles in November. Just like Bill Clinton was labeled “the first black President,” the Weinstein Company has become today’s most committed black distributor. 

Maybe he will have to be promoting actor Idris Elba as Mandela for an Oscar also.  Three is a charm.