A retrospective look at some of the best-loved and most popular black stars to have graced cinema screens over the past seven decades. Narrated by Don Warrington.
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In 1939, the most successful film ever made was first released
in cinemas - Gone With The Wind.
A box office sensation, it won nine Oscars and one of those wins
was truly extraordinary,
especially considering the time.
Hattie McDaniel took Best Supporting Actress for playing the maid,
Mammy, and became the first black person to win an Academy Award.
I don't know why she's comin', but she's a-comin'.
It took 24 years for another black actor, Sidney Poitier,
to win an Oscar and there wasn't a black Best Actress winner
until the 21st-century, when Halle Berry won for Monster's Ball.
The film industry has always struggled when it comes to race,
Hollywood in particular.
Its champions would claim that over the years,
film-makers have challenged racism and showcased black actors
who became positive role models and champions of change.
Detractors say that Hollywood has reflected, even perpetuated,
the racism of American society and continually blocked black talent.
So which was the case with Gone With The Wind?
It's a question that was still being asked as late as 2006,
when George Clooney praised the Oscar Academy for being progressive.
And we talked about civil rights when it wasn't really popular
and this Academy,
this group of people gave Hattie McDaniel an Oscar in 1939,
when blacks were still sitting in the backs of theatres.
I'm proud to be a part of this Academy.
Clooney's speech drew plenty of criticism -
the arguments against his take on things perhaps put best by
Spike Lee, director of Malcolm X and Do The Right Thing.
I love George Clooney, I mean, what he's done,
not too many Hollywood stars are going to use their power to do
a film like Good Night, Good Luck and Syriana.
But I don't know how you use Hattie McDaniel
winning an Academy Award
as an example of how progressive and liberal Hollywood is -
I mean, the Academy.
When Hattie McDaniel won that award,
she had to sit in the back of the room.
That role in Gone With The Wind, she played a mammy.
Also, Gone With The Wind,
there's no doubt about it,
if you look at film,
the Union are the bad guys
and the Confederacy are the heroes
and according to the film,
the Confederacy should have won
and kept Negroes enslaved forever!
Hattie McDaniel won in 1939.
Halle Berry won... The next African-American woman to win
the Best Actor was 2003 -
that's over 60 years!
So how can you use...?!
That shows how risible they are.
It took 60-something years...
1939, Hattie McDaniel, 2003...
Come on, George - you know better than that.
The actress Butterfly McQueen appeared alongside
Hattie McDaniel in Gone With The Wind,
cast as the O'Hara's family servant, Prissy,
was famously slapped by Scarlett in one scene for telling lies.
-What do you mean?
-I don't know!
You told me you knew everything about it!
I don't know how come I told such a lie.
Ma ain't never let me around when folks was having them...
Critics have described the role as a racist caricature.
McQueen's feelings about the part were complicated -
she hated the character for being stereotypical,
but enjoyed talking about being part of a movie milestone
during appearances like this one, from 1989.
-Good to see you.
-OK. Yeah, don't worry.
Tell me, did that blow from Vivien Leigh, did it hurt?
-It wasn't a slap!
I bargained with them, I said, "If you slap me, I won't scream,
"but if you don't slap me, I'll scream as loud as I can,"
so she comes like this...
And somebody behind the camera goes...
-No, I was not hit.
-Oh, thank goodness.
-But I think Prissy should have been.
-Well, she shouldn't have lied.
-Did you like her?
-Did you like that part?
-Oh! Ooh! I hated that!
I hated it THEN, Mr Wogan, I hated it THEN,
but NOW, I'm very happy!
Yeah, because it was your very first film role,
you know, and you tested for the part...
Yes, I tested in New York for the part and they sent for me
and I just went...
cos I wanted to make money
to pay for some new furniture I'd just bought.
I mean, the film was made at a tremendous pace, wasn't it?
-Made very quickly.
He was two years searching for Scarlett,
but I think that was just for publicity and then
Mr Selznick was very painstaking and careful - it wasn't made
quickly, it was made very...
Well, no - from the time it was started
to the time of the premiere, it was less than a year.
You are the one to bring a person out, no, no!
It took longer?
There you are, you shouldn't believe
-everything you read in the publicity.
Did you... Was it fun on the set, was everybody nice to each other?
Everybody on that set was a lady and a gentleman.
Everybody was so happy and content, but I...
And Mr Selznick understood,
Prissy was stupid and backward
and maybe she smelled and she...
Well, Mr Selznick understood that
no intelligent person would want to be Prissy!
What did you think of Gone With The Wind when it first came out?
-I thought they should bury it.
-Put it in a hole?
The first time...
The first time I saw it, I thought, "Oh, they should put that..."
Because, as I said, we weren't concerned about the past.
-What do you think of it now?
I meet nice people and I have money to help the people who need
homes, people need food...
And I can now...
help dig wells in Africa
and give soap in South America.
Thank goodness Canada doesn't need anything!
LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE
The great Sidney Poitier once said that
he knew what it felt like to be in an audience watching images
of black people that were uncomfortable.
For decades, Poitier was THE face of black cinema and throughout
his career, he fought to avoid parts that were caricatures or negative.
Here, he explains how he told his agent,
a man called Marty Baum, to reject one such stereotypical role.
The offer was one week's work for 750, which was,
for me, a lot of money at that time.
And so I finally had to tell him,
"I can't play it."
And he wanted to know why.
And I said, "It's very difficult to explain,"
He said, "Try," and I said, "OK."
..anything I do...
..has to have...
..positive reflection on my father's name.
There's a certain dignity that he is
and he insists upon from others.
He insists upon it in his roles.
It's not that I would have made those choices,
but I admire the fact that he did.
He said once,
I don't mean to quote him,
but that he wanted to play roles
where young black people,
young boys in particular, would leave the theatre saying,
"Yeah, I can be a cop, I can be a psychiatrist,
"I can do this..." Rather than whatever they had thought
they were going to end up being.
Marty Baum would go out to the studios
and he would talk about this young actor that he had.
He would never say to them,
"This is a black actor."
I would walk in and they would say...
"Marty Baum sent you? You're the guy Marty Baum was talking about?"
I'd say, "Yes, I'm the guy..."
I suppose that the habit of doing such a thing
by an agent in New York
in 1951, '50...
..must have impressed some of
the people I went to see,
because we got good responses.
Amongst those good responses
were roles in important socially-aware films
like The Defiant Ones
and Raisin in the Sun.
But the best response came in 1963
with his role in the film
Lilies Of The Field.
With it, Sidney made history,
becoming cinema's first Oscar-winning black man.
The winner is Sidney Poitier!
WILD APPLAUSE AND CHEERING
Mr Poitier is the first Negro to win such a high award
and the announcement is received warmly by the audience.
When it came to the moment and Annie opened the envelope,
I thought I'd faint!
I thought I'd fall down, I almost did!
Sidney, the fact that you're a Negro,
-did that make this particularly significant tonight?
You're going to have to let me mull that one for a while.
Um, it's a very interesting question
and I would prefer not to answer it
in my present anxiety!
I'd rather be much more collected
to deal with such a delicate question.
A delicate question, and it was typical of the man
that whilst breaking new ground, he did it carefully.
Poitier sought to charm, rather than alienate those white audiences
who weren't automatically on board
with the change he represented.
And at times, he even resented becoming a symbol for civil rights.
You ask me questions
that fall continually
within the Negro-ness of my life.
You ask me questions that pertain
to the narrow scope
of the summer riots.
I am artist...
I am an awful lot of things,
so I wish you would...
..pay me the respect due
and not simply ask me about those things.
But in 1967, Sidney chose a part
with civil rights clearly in mind -
Guess Who's Coming To Dinner - which dealt with the issue of
interracial marriage and co-starred Hollywood royalty
Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.
I'm not intruding?
Of course not, John - please, come in.
'It was one of the most emotional scenes in the movie,
'when I addressed them to talk to them as their future son-in-law.
'And I stood before these two people and I looked them in the eye
'and I couldn't remember a word!
'It went on for hours.
'Ultimately, I had to ask Mr Kramer to do me a favour.
'I decided that I cannot look into the eyes of these people,
'because, to me, all I could see,
'instead of seeing the father and the mother of the girl,
'I am seeing the legends
'of the American film industry in front of me.
'So I said, "Would you please do me a favour? Send them home."
'And he did! He packed them off and they went home,
'he gave them the afternoon off.
'And I then was able to play the scene to two empty chairs.'
On paper, Guess Who's Coming To Dinner should have cemented
Poitier's position as a leading challenger of the status quo.
If anything, the fact it was banned in America's South
was a testament to its significance.
But for some audiences,
it had the opposite effect.
One New York Times writer claimed Poitier's character slipped
so far into tokenistic caricature that it was impossible
to identify with and gave the impression
that only a black man who was so perfectly refined
and impossibly high-achieving could be embraced by a white family.
It was a tough article for me,
because it came at a very...
..delicate time in my life and my career.
I had had tough articles before,
but the extent to which this was, to my mind, totally...
It was a couple of months before I was OK with what he had written.
And, er, I went on with my life.
I never forgot it.
The controversy eventually faded.
Poitier's significance never will,
with many black stars citing him
as the first and most important
aspirational figure they've encountered
and also, of course, he was just a very, very fine actor.
The 1970s saw an explosion in black cinema
and the rise of Blaxploitation films like Shaft,
made specifically for a young, urban, black audience.
But the struggle for roles and recognition continued with
only five black actors nominated for Oscars over the entire decade.
In 1982, Louis Gossett Jr won the Best Supporting Actor prize
for An Officer And A Gentleman, and then,
in 1985, came a film that looked like a guaranteed awards magnet -
The Color Purple -
based on the Pulitzer prize-winning novel by Alice Walker
and directed by Stephen Spielberg,
who took a specific approach when it came to casting.
I didn't want to cast traditional black movie stars,
which I felt would create their own stereotype.
I won't mention any names, because it wouldn't be kind,
but there were people who wanted to be...
To play these parts very much, but if they had played those parts,
it would represent a kind of...
"OK, these black people are the only black people accepted
"in the kind of white world's mainstream".
And I didn't want to do that,
that's why I chose so many unknowns who had not been seen before,
like Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah and Margaret Avery
and wonderful talents like that.
I wanted to really avoid that.
I sort of missed black repertory in America,
there just hasn't been a lot of it.
There hasn't been enough of it and when I saw the wealth of
talent out there when I began casting this film with
Reuben Cannon, I couldn't believe it.
It shocked me to see so many...
I mean, one good black actor,
male, female, old, young,
one after the other, coming in to read for me,
to do videotape performances and being tested.
One after the other, hard to make up your mind, they're all so great.
I kept thinking, "Where have they been?"
"And where's the outlet, where's room to work?"
If you don't have the subject matter,
there's no work for these talented people.
The most significant piece of casting was Whoopi Goldberg,
a relative unknown, who took the lead role of Celie.
I'm a very good actor, I'm very good at what I do.
I believe in myself, you see
and I couldn't get it through people's heads
when I would go to audition for something that they should
hire me because of course they would look and say, "Well, you're not..."
And I'd go, "What?" And they'd go, "Well, you're very good!"
And I'd go... "And?"
And they'd go, "But you're..."
And I'd say... ("Black?")
And they'd go, "Well, yeah, essentially, yes.
"We have a white lead here," and... You know.
But the most amazing thing about this film
is it's truly not a black film.
Here, they always talk about "the black experience", you know,
when this is more like the HUMAN experience,
of someone trying to understand that there's another way.
The film was eventually nominated for 11 Oscars with Whoopi Goldberg,
Margaret Avery and Oprah Winfrey all competing
in the acting categories.
It didn't win a single award,
but Whoopi was to get another shot five years later,
with the much-loved fantasy romance Ghost,
in which she played fake clairvoyant Oda Mae Brown.
There's a lot of comedy, but it's also...
I sat and wept watching that.
Well, yeah, it is a weepy movie,
it's kind of mushy,
in these days of, you know,
Total Recall and Recall It Again and Lethal Weapon Seven
and, you know... Die Hard
and then Harder and then Harder Again!
You know, this is a strange little film,
because it allows the audience
to have old-fashioned...tastes.
But in a sense, you're the heroine, aren't you?
I mean, Demi Moore, she's very beautiful and all the rest of it -
she has to cry a lot in this film.
I punched her, that's why she cried so much.
-But you're the heroine, aren't you?...
I'm very sort of leery of words like that, because they sort of
set you up to be something that might not be everybody's idea,
but she does take a stance
and goes for it.
What do you think the chances
of getting another Oscar nomination are?
I don't even think about that stuff. You know, they can make you crazy -
"Am I going to get it? Am I not? Am I going to get it? Am I not?"
If I get it, I'll be very pleased, if I don't, you can...
..believe that I will be back, trying to get another one.
But is it important... It's important to you?
Oh, absolutely, I want one.
There has not been, and I rarely refer to myself as black,
because it's not something that just happened overnight,
I've always been this way.
You know, so it's not like something that's foremost in my mind,
but strangely enough, there hasn't been a black woman since 1939
to get an Oscar and I would like to be the first since '39 to get it.
You don't see your colour as any kind of barrier, do you,
in your profession?
-Well, no... I mean, do you?
-No, I don't.
-There you are.
CHEERING AND APPLAUSE
So what you have to do is go to a film producer and point out
to him that you could play a role that he's automatically
thinking of for Meryl Streep or Glenn Close or...
Well, yeah. I mean, pretty much in the dark, you can't tell.
Yeah, but when they're filming you, they put lights on you!
Yes, but there's no experience
that you could have had that I could not have.
There is no experience that I have had that you have not.
But how do you get that message across to a film producer?
-You say it very succinctly.
-And you've said it?
-I say it.
-What do they say when you say it?
-Sometimes they said, "OK."
I mean, the only two films that were written for me
with me in mind were Color Purple and Clara's Heart.
All the rest were for men and other women.
But did you have to go knocking and say, "Excuse me, listen,
"look at me - I know I'm black, I can play that role?
Well, actually, I go knocking,
I say, "I hear you have this movie and I'm interested in it,"
and they generally will say, "Really?
"But you're..." And I say, "Fat?"
And they say, "No, you're..."
And I say, "Got braided hair?"
They say, "No, you're black." I go, "Oh! No!
"My God, when did it happen?! Who knew?"
And then pretty much, they relax and start talking to me as an actor,
because if you remember,
all of Shakespeare's actors were men playing women's roles. You know?
So the idea of the art of acting
is that we are supposed to be able to play everything
and very few people write for white or black
or Asian or Puerto Rican.
And what do you want to play now?
You've played a man, you've played any kind of age,
you've played white, black - the colour doesn't matter.
What do you really... Who do you admire?
Who would you really like to be in the cinema?
I just want to see what'll happen, you know, if I played God.
Whether the Vatican would crumble or something.
Ghost did of course earn Whoopi Goldberg a Best Supporting Actress
Oscar and made her for a while the highest-paid woman in Hollywood.
This period also saw the release of the epic drama Glory, which
told the story of a black regiment fighting in the American Civil War.
The film brought together Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington,
who would both go on to become influential Hollywood figures,
much-loved and highly successful.
And Glory wasn't Morgan's only hit that year.
His real breakthrough came with his performance in Driving Miss Daisy.
You did a lot of theatre work.
You were in the theatre in a part which, in a movie, was your biggest,
first biggest hit over here, which was Driving Miss Daisy.
Now, that must have been particularly sweet, to create the
role on stage and then to transfer to the screen, which is quite rare.
It is quite rare, but that wasn't what was particularly sweet to me.
What was particularly sweet was before Driving Miss Daisy,
I did this movie called Street Smart,
which I don't think got here, but I played
a really dastardly character, a pimp,
and that was the film and I was doing the play Driving Miss Daisy
and the play opened when the film opened.
So I had these two characters being reviewed by the press at the
same time and both getting these incredible responses from the press.
That was... That was...
I started telling everybody around me,
"Look out, look out! I'm on my way!"
-Tell me about working with Jessica Tandy.
-Jessica, she's been acting...
I mean, at that time, she'd been acting for 65 years.
65 years. She was a consummate professional.
On time, on-the-job,
lines down, ready to go.
You know? It's never, "Miss Tandy's in her trailer.
"Miss Tandy's not ready." Miss Tandy is on the set, Miss Tandy's ready.
Because her health was not all that she wanted it to be,
they would only let her work six hours a day,
but she'd put in the full six, the full six, every day.
Oh, I just love the smell of a new car! Don't you, Miss Daisy?
-I'm nobody's fool, Hoke.
-My husband taught me to run a car.
I remember everything he said,
so don't you think even for a second that you...
Now, wait - you're speeding, I can see it.
No, Miss Daisy, we only doing about 19mph.
When you're looking at a film, I reckon you can often tell
when the people making it had a really good time, and looking at
that, I just got the impression that you really enjoyed making that film.
I did, I loved that character.
I LOVED the whole thing, I loved that piece, that play.
I thought that it was one of the few times ever that someone went
to a Southern situation and told a different story.
You know? Because that was real.
-Do you enjoy watching yourself on film?
-No, not particularly.
I like watching a good film and if I happen to be in it, fine,
but for the most part, no, I don't,
because when you're on stage and you don't get to see yourself,
except as you're mirrored through the eyes and responses of the
audience, you look a lot better.
You don't see your...
or things that you always think of as shortcomings in yourself,
which we all have, you know? You're perfect.
You're as perfect as your audience says you are.
When you actually see yourself,
then the audience becomes less believable.
You seem to be a man who likes to keep his feet very much on
the ground. You sail a lot, you get off in your boat.
Is that important to you,
that Chicago upbringing as a kid kind of keeps your feet on the
ground, stops you getting a bit head in the clouds?
You've got to keep contact with reality,
because if you lose contact, and it slaps you, then it's going to hurt.
Morgan Freeman got a Best Actor Oscar nomination
for Driving Miss Daisy.
Denzel Washington won Best Supporting Actor
for his role in Glory.
He'd already earned widespread acclaim playing Steve Biko in
Richard Attenborough's 1987 drama, Cry Freedom.
He would also tackle Shakespeare
in Kenneth Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing and star alongside
Tom Hanks in the Aids drama Philadelphia.
This appearance comes from those early days -
a visit to the Wogan studio in 1992 in which Whoopi Goldberg's
previous appearance on the show came up for discussion.
Now, I saw Whoopi Goldberg being interviewed,
I think it was actually when Miss Sue Lawley was doing this show
while I was away on holiday and doing it dammed well...
She spoke of a lack of good leading roles for African-American actors
or for black actors generally.
Has that been your experience?
It hasn't been so much my experience,
I've been very fortunate.
I know a lot of American actors,
who aren't able to get good parts - who do they blame?
-Yes, you think it's an easy excuse.
-Yeah, it can be used that way.
But black actors tend to...
I mean you've got a Supporting Oscar, Whoopi's got
a Supporting Oscar. It tends to be support roles, doesn't it?
Well, you know...
I got a big house in California,
I'm a fairly wealthy man,
I can't complain.
It would be easy to sit here and say, "Oh, yeah,
"there's a lot of prejudices, a lot of racism." Well, that's a given.
I try to be a positive person and figure out
a way I can do better, not give into those problems.
It's just that some of the interviews I've read
that you've given, they are casting you in some ways as
-a role model for other African-Americans...
..for saying that you do take a strong line,
but obviously...you're relatively happy with your lot.
As I said, I'm a positive person.
I think you have to take what you're given and do something with it,
you know, the easiest thing to do is complain about it and give in
to that, but I try to turn that into something positive and
-so far, it's worked for me.
-Good for you. You won the Oscar of course...
-Did you find more people wanted to know you?
I'd like to think that things are pretty much the same, you know.
I guess it's been a little better for me in terms of opportunities,
but I've still got to put out the garbage when I get home...
For goodness' sake.
-Do you do the washing up? All that stuff?
I find myself standing at the sink, saying,
"I bet Frank Sinatra is not doing this in Palm Beach.
-"He's not doing that."
-Just you and I!
-He's not cleaning the dog turds off the lawn.
We're the only ones doing it!
The people don't understand.
-When you're a star, you shouldn't be asked to do this.
-Do you get sent out to the supermarket?
-All the time.
-And I always bring back the wrong thing!
Again, a film in which you made a tremendous impact was
as Steve Biko in Cry Freedom.
Was that the first time that you'd worked in Africa?
-Yes, first time in England and in Africa.
-How did that strike you?
Well, it was like...
Being an African-American,
we're one of the few groups of people on this earth that
don't know where we're from, specifically, you know,
because our history was taken from us during slavery.
We know we're from the continent of Africa,
but not specifically where, so when I went to Zimbabwe where we filmed,
it was sort of a homecoming, like, "Yeah, this makes sense now.
"I'm back home," even though it wasn't necessarily my block!
-But I still felt good about it.
-You just made a film with Spike Lee...
-On the very controversial black American leader...
That's going to make a few waves...
-Yes, that'll stir the pot!
Yes, we just got off the plane from Cairo yesterday afternoon
and finished up shooting down there.
Once again you've been cast as a kind of...
Well, if not a Malcolm X, sort of leader, somebody to look up to.
Yes, and I don't mind that.
You know, I've done different types of roles.
I also did a film that's opening here in April called Ricochet,
which is just sort of an action-adventure,
hanging off of tall buildings, hero-type stuff,
so variety is the spice of life.
Does Bruce Willis know that you're stealing his thunder?
I'm right on his heels, he'd better watch out!
Denzel did indeed have all of Hollywood watching out.
His popularity is huge and his critical achievements
have seen him compared to Sidney Poitier many times,
which is something that he has mixed feelings about.
I heard it many times in my career,
"Oh, you're the next Sidney Poitier," and I said, you know,
"That's the most racist thing I've ever heard in my life."
Because you're saying it can only be one person at a time -
there was one 40 years ago and now there's one now?
You know, and you can only be compared to one other person
and that person has to be black? That's who you are?
We've decided who, what you are what category and see you later,
that's who you are.
I always resented that. Excuse me.
At the same time, I was like,
"I'll take it!" You know? Great actor.
Wonderful human being.
In 2002, Denzel Washington won his second Oscar,
this time for Leading Actor for the film Training Day.
That same night, Halle Berry made history -
her role in Monster's Ball
making her the first black female to win the Best Actress award.
Here, we join her talking about her experiences
and that important Oscar win.
You know, for the first time in my career, I've had like, three or
four projects in development - I've never had that happen in my career.
But I think when anybody wins an Academy Award,
you get a bit more respect from your peers and from the industry,
but it's such a competitive industry,
you still have to be very aggressive and have your eye on the ball
and be very sort of, um, relentless in your approach.
I think the big myth is that you win an Academy Award and then the
script bus comes by your house and drops off all these great scripts.
Many times, more times than I care to tell you,
I have been told, "I don't want to see Halle Berry for this role,
"because we don't want to go black."
Now, what does that mean, "We don't want to go black"?
But I'd hear that over and over and over,
or, "If we cast a black woman in that role,
"it will change the whole dynamic and the meaning of the movie."
And those are hard pills to swallow
when you've been chugging along,
working at your craft and feeling like,
"if I only had the opportunity, I bet I could do a good job at that,"
but being denied.
Not even a chance to audition, not even a chance to be seen,
just because the colour of your skin and that still exists today.
I really wish that people would start to see people of colour
as people and not let our colour precede us - sure, notice it, sure -
but I hope the day comes when it doesn't always precede me.
But what it did do was it inspired people,
it inspired their hearts and minds and those inspired people
who maybe thought about giving up,
thought it was a dream or goal that was insurmountable, now have hope
and faith and they're fighting harder because it's happened.
So it's almost tangible for them now.
That WILL transform into a change down the road, it will take a couple
of years I think to really start to see the effects of that night.
Hollywood loves a happy ending, of course,
and what could be more perfect than Sidney Poitier being honoured
with a lifetime achievement award on the same night that Denzel
and Halle won their Oscars?
The message was clearly that after years of black talent
being overlooked, a change had come.
Oscar winners over the next few years included Forrest Whittaker,
Jamie Foxx, Morgan Freeman,
Jennifer Hudson and Octavia Spencer.
And then, in 2013,
more than 70 years after Gone With The Wind,
came a Hollywood film that explored
the slaves' experience of the American South, 12 Years A Slave.
Here we join its British director, Steve McQueen, and his cast
talking to the film critic Mark Kermode.
I'm from the West Indies,
my parents were from the West Indies and of course some of my
ancestors were slaves, so for me, not to have that history
visualised on film, on celluloid, was very strange.
It is a huge part of not just America's history,
but world history. European history.
So therefore, I needed it to be on film and to see...
Investigate myself through the camera what occurred, as such.
Solomon's story begins in 1841.
His world implodes when his comfortable family life
in New York state is taken away from him
and he's sold to work in the plantations of the deep South.
Powerless to protest,
he's unable to get word to his family that he has been kidnapped.
Solomon is somebody who starts off in the story believing that
he's in a battle for his freedom, but discovers through the story
that, actually, he's in a battle for his mind.
It's an amazing first person account from
so deep inside this experience that really speaks to...
I mean, so much of the way the world worked then,
the way it works now, his way of being able to relate,
and poetically relate the story of what happened to him
so powerfully I think was so extraordinary.
And that servant...
that don't obey his Lord...
shall be beaten with many stripes.
Tell me how you approached the physicality of the subject of
slavery, because it's very difficult to know exactly what you can show,
what you can't show, how you can put the audience in those positions.
Well, I didn't want to censor myself on anything, so I decided,
I'm going to show everything.
Do you have a completely non-censorious
approach to your vision?
I'm a bit weird like that, I suppose. Um...
No. In this case, it was about the truth.
How can I make a movie about slavery and not show certain aspects of it?
-I cannot. It would be,
I mean, sort of... For my ancestors,
and for other people's, it would be sort of...
You know, it would be a travesty. You can't do that.
It's like, you cannot do that. What is slavery?
Slavery is sort of, you know,
making people work in servitude,
and how do you get them to do that?
Well, you punish them,
you scare the hell out of them and how do you do that?
By making examples of people. How do you do that?
By the most horrible acts of sort of brutality one can think of.
And how am I sitting here? Because certain people survived that.
Um... So, you know, there was not a choice, it was not a question.
We shot scenes by actual lynching trees and it's impossible not
to feel that, to know that you're really dancing with spirits.
I mean, you feel that you're connected to something and
you're connected to one of the most extraordinary experiences
that a collective of people have ever gone through.
That was really powerful, to be on a set where everything
just took you back to a totally different time.
I never thought that I would be picking cotton in my life,
and to be doing that at the height of summer,
at the height of noon, I just...
..was faced with how strong
these people were that lived through these days.
These people did it for 16, 18, sometimes 20 hours a day.
I mean, that is something to reckon with.
Tell me about working with Chiwetel.
-I mean, it's an extraordinary performance from him.
He's done great work before, I think, anyway,
but tell me about him,
how you cast him and how you discussed the role with him.
Well, I asked him, I rang him on the phone, he said...
I said, "Have you read the script?" He said no.
He said no. I said, "What?
-"I just offered you this..." He said no.
I think, you know, as he has said before,
it was like having the role that you've been waiting for all
your life and this thing landing on your lap and him being paralysed
and him saying to himself, "I can't do this."
I'm not filming that.
'I was just very aware, first of all, the responsibility of it,'
the responsibility of telling Solomon Northup's story...
Because it's a real story and an important story?
Yes, it's this man's life and his experience,
there's the responsibility to him, his descendants, you know...
There was a responsibility to the overall idea.
I'd never seen a story like this before,
I'd never read a story that was so deep inside this experience
and I was shocked by that, compelled by that, obviously,
but I was also...
It took me a moment, it took me some pause.
And what about Patsy?
That was Lupita Nyong'o.
It was like searching for Scarlett O'Hara, it really was.
It was over 1,000 girls we auditioned for that part.
It had to be someone who was new.
It had to be someone that we had to find,
because there was no-one like that, so it was a long and hard hunt.
We found this girl who had not just graduated from Yale yet
and she was just amazing.
And that was it, a star is born.
12 Years A Slave won that year's Best Picture Oscar,
saw Lupita Nyong'o win Best Supporting Actress
and, alongside the Martin Luther King drama Selma,
was held up as proof that Hollywood had made real progress on race.
We must march, we must stand up.
You march those people into rural Alabama,
it's going to be open season.
The reason why this film wasn't made earlier
is because Hollywood
had a tendency of wanting to tell this kind of story
through white eyes, because there was this notion that
A) you need a movie star,
so there are very few to none black movie stars in their 30s,
because they have less opportunities
to become movie stars...
And also, there is a notion about white guilt
in relation to slavery and the civil rights movement, so you have
a white character who's nice to black people who ends up effectively
saving them, so it's always been through this prism that these films
have been made until 12 Years A Slave came along
and did critically well, and well at the box office,
proving that people are ready to see these kind of films.
I've seen the glory! Glory!
But it took just 12 months for the 12 Years factor to disappear.
David Oyelowo's much-praised portrayal
of Martin Luther King in Selma was overlooked in 2015,
and no other black actor received Oscar nominations that year, either.
When the situation was repeated in 2016,
there was an explosion of controversy.
Now, the absence of black actors among the nominees for the Oscars
for the second year running is unforgivable,
according to the British actor David Oyelowo.
The race row over this year's ceremony
shows no signs of going away.
I think it's wrong. Not even nominated. We're not...
We're just saying being nominated. I just think it's wrong.
Like last year,
all 20 acting nominees for the 2016 Oscars are white.
I'm Chris Rock and I'm hosting the Oscars.
He may be the host,
but the Hollywood elite does not look like him.
The director Spike Lee says he won't be attending.
He's boycotting the ceremony, calling the Oscars "lily-white".
The body which decides who gets an Oscar said it's reviewing
its membership because of the anger at the lack of racial diversity
among this year's nominees.
Too late for this year's Oscars,
already drowned out by the question, "Is Hollywood racist?"
Hollywood is still struggling to properly reflect its cinemagoers
on-screen, but as we've seen, it's not through a lack of talent.
The trailblazing black actors we've been celebrating here
have proven that the business that is show could be bolder
and look beyond race for its stars of the future.
A retrospective look at some of the best-loved and most popular black stars to have graced cinema screens over the past seven decades, from Gone With the Wind right up to 12 Years a Slave. The programme examines how black actors' achievements have been recognised by the movie industry and the Oscars Academy, and explores Hollywood's complicated role in America's fight for civil rights - sometimes praised for championing black artists, often condemned for perpetuating racial stereotypes. Featuring rarely seen interviews with Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Whoopi Goldberg and Halle Berry.
Narrated by Don Warrington.