The Reel Breakdown

Could 2013 Be a Groundbreaking Year for African American Oscar Contenders?

The Reel Breakdown

With this week's release of the trailer for Steve McQueen’s period drama, "12 Years a Slave," starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender (with Brad Pitt and Benedict Cumberbatch, too!), the first trend of Oscars 2014 is clear: African Americans should find multiple nominations in the Best Actor category, a field that’s already overstuffed.

Only four African Americans have won a best actor Oscar: Sidney Poitier ("Lilies of the Field"), Denzel Washington ("Training Day"), Jamie Foxx ("Ray") and Forest Whitaker ("The Last King of Scotland") – although that bests the leading lady category where only Halle Berry won for "Monster’s Ball" in 2001.

2001 was the first year in history in which two African American actors competed for Best Actor: Denzel Washington, who won for “Training Day,” and Will Smith, who was nominated for “Ali.” However, this year could see a majority of the Best Actor nominations going to African American stars with three or more.

The trailer confirms our suspicion: this will be a landmark year for African American males vying for Oscar. What else do these actors have in common? They’re all playing characters based on historical figures.

Here are the top contenders:

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12 Years

• Chiwetel Ejiofor, "12 Years a Slave"

Even in the trailer, Ejiofor makes a powerful statement as an African American freeman living in upstate New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery. Based on a true story, this movie, from the director of "Shame," sounds like a cross between "Lincoln" and "Django Unchained." The Londoner with Nigerian roots, 36, is best known in American for "American Gangster" opposite Denzel Washington and "Salt" with Angelina Jolie.

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Verdict: A serious contender and likely nominee.

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The Butler

• Forest Whitaker, "The Butler"

American actor Whitaker, 52, plays the title role in Lee ("Precious") Daniels’ period drama about Cecil Gaines, an African American man who served six presidents in the White House from 1952 to 1986. The hard-working actor ("Platoon," "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai") , Whitaker is the only one in the pack with an Oscar ("The Last King of Scotland"), and he’d make history if he took two. The Weinstein Company, ace packagers of Oscar talent – think Colin Firth ("The King’s Speech") – are distributing Daniels’ drama.

Verdict: Another serious contender, although Whitaker’s already received one statuette and this role is clearly part of an enormous star-studded ensemble.

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Fruitvale

• Michael B. Jordan for "Fruitvale Station"

Already popular for his role on TV’s "Friday Night Lights" and "The Wire," the California native, 26, has been winning raves for his portrayal of Oscar Grant, the ex-con and father shot and killed by Oakland police on New Year’s Day 2009.
Verdict: "Fruitvale" is this year’s "Beast of the Southern Wild," a breakout low-budget festival darling that will give Jordan a better chance at the Indie Spirit Awards in a field this crowded.

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Mandela

• Idris Elba for "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom"

English actor Elba, 40, takes on the fourth of four historical roles. The actor ("Thor," "Pacific Rim," "Prometheus") plays Nelson Mandela, the South African leader who could pass away at any moment. The biopic, which casts "Skyfall’s" Naomie Harris as Mandela’s controversial wife Winnie, traces the leader’s journey from his childhood under Apartheid to his groundbreaking election to President. The role earned Morgan Freeman an Oscar nomination for "Invictus," while Sidney Poiter, Terrence Howard and Dennis Haysbert, among others, have already played the role.

Verdict: Great actor, serious role – the timing couldn’t be better for an Oscar nomination if the movie backs up its early promise.

With Ejiofor, Whitaker, Jordan and Elba clearly in play and at the top of their games, the arrival of the "12 Years a Slave" trailer portends a groundbreaking year of African American male contenders in the Oscar race.

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