MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Let's switch gears now and talk about your plans for the weekend. If you plan to head to the movies, you might be interested in the critics' picks from the Golden Globes. The nominations were announced yesterday. "12 Years a Slave" was one of the most honored films. That's the story of Solomon Northup who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. He's played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who was also nominated for his role in the film. Here's a clip.
CHIWETEL EJIOFOR: (As Solomon Northup) Days ago, I was with my family in my home. Now, you tell me all is lost. Tell no one who I am - that's the way to survive. Well, I don't want to survive. I want to live.
MARTIN: "12 Years a Slave" was just one of several movies with predominantly black casts that made a critical or commercial splash this year. Some were recognized by the Golden Globes or the Screen Actors Guild, which announced its nominations earlier this week. And some were not. And that's causing some commentary on social media and elsewhere. We wanted to talk more about this. So we've called Pulitzer Prize winning writer, Wesley Morris. He's the film critic for Grantland. Welcome back to the program. Thanks so much for joining us.
WESLEY MORRIS: By pleasure, Michel. What's happening?
MARTIN: So "12 Years a Slave" is what's happening. It earned 7 nominations including best picture in the drama category. Why do you think this movie made such an impact this year - and on you 'cause you wrote about it at length?
MORRIS: You know, there are a number of ways the movie could've gone. It could've been a lecture about how awful slavery was. It could've sought to make you feel any better about some horrible thing, which is what the movies tend to do. But this is a movie about slavery that you might get from a black director who both took his scenes seriously and didn't feel the need to make people feel good about it. It's a landmark in that it's explanatory as opposed to uplifting. It sort of - it gives you a very detailed understanding of what day-to-day life was like on a plantation for slaves.
MARTIN: You know, speaking of the level of detail - I mean, it has both kind of intellectual acuity, but also emotional acuity in the sense that it creates scenarios that I think people today can identify with and think to themselves, how would I feel about this? And one of the performances I want to point out was also recognized by Lupita Nyong'o, who earned a nod for best supporting actress. I just want to play a short clip.
NYONG'O: (As Patsey) Mrs. Epps won't even grant me no soap to clean with. I stink so much I make myself gag. 500 pounds of cotton, day in, day out - more than any man here. And for that, I will be clean, that's all I ask.
MORRIS: Every time I hear that, I get a chill. You get a real sense about how - or you're left to extrapolate as an audience member - about how what went on in 1853 sort of informs how we are now in some ways psychologically and in relation to each other. And that idea that you work all day, and you just want to be able to take a bath and were denied that - is interesting and powerful. And this idea that cleanliness is such a part of being a human being and you - to have that taken away from you. And the one act of rebellion she commits in the whole film is to go off and get a bar of soap so she can rest better on her day off.
MARTIN: A lot of people were talking about the number of films that addressed issues that are part of the experience of Africans in America and how impactful a lot of these were. I mean - but a number of these did not make the cut for best drama. I'm thinking some people were expecting "The Butler," "Mandela," "Long Walk to Freedom," even "Fruitvale Station" to get more attention at the Golden Globes. So first, I wanted to ask you - some people are calling this the year of the black film. But do you think it was? And I'm curious why you think it was. But also, why do you think some of these other films didn't get more attention at the Golden Globes?
MORRIS: It was a really strong year for black-themed movies directed by black directors. I mean, in addition to that, you had "Best Man Holiday" and "Baggage Claim" - two romantic comedies. By the end of the year, Tyler Perry will have had two movies. "Black Nativity" by Kasi Lemmons has come out. "Oldboy" by Spike Lee, which is not a black-themed movie, but he's a black director. I mean, I think what's interesting about this year is you have this real expansion of what a black movie is. And who - not so much who could make one, but what it means for a lot of black filmmakers to be able to make movies about themselves.
And I think as far as the Golden Globes go, it's really important to stress that this is not the Academy Awards in terms of the votership. This is a small, very private group of people who are open to having conversations with people in the industry about what films are good or not. And it's been a - it's not quite horse trading. But it definitely is about the relationships between the Hollywood Foreign Press, which is the organization that hands out the Golden Globes, and the people who distribute and market these films.
MARTIN: Do news events - things going on in the rest of the world affect how people vote for these awards? I'm thinking about Mandela, for example. And obviously very much the world is mourning the death of Nelson Mandela. But Idris Elba was already being noted for his performance in the film "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom." And I was wondering if you think that all the attention surrounding Mandela and South Africa right now will influence the voting.
MORRIS: Probably not. I mean, I think in some ways, in terms of the timing on that film's release and people's interest in seeing it, it can only help the movie.
MARTIN: It's worth noting - none of the actors we've been talking about to this point are African-American. They are either first generation African diasporas or they're British of African descent. In Idris Elba's case, I mean, he is a British actor of African descent playing a South African, which he is not. That's what's interesting. And I think a lot of people have noted his accent in the film, which I think a lot of people find, you know, quite authentic. And I'll just play a short clip for people who haven't yet had a chance to hear it.
IDRIS ELBA: (As Mandela) We are the people of this nation. But we don't have power. We don't have rights. We don't have justice. South Africa now is a land ruled by the gun. There comes a time in the life of every nation when there remains two choices - submit or fight.
MARTIN: Do find that interesting at all? That none of these actors is African American?
MORRIS: It is interesting. I mean, I don't know what it means, but it's kind of an exciting thing to see that group of people. And the fact that Idris Elba and Chiwetel Ejiofor are nominated twice this year against each other in two different categories is also kind of cool. And it wasn't as though there weren't African-Americans in the movies this year. I think that it just happens to be that the ones that got nominated for prizes were of African descent. And I also think that's interesting, too, in a movie like "12 Years a Slave," where that sort of African-ness that is really crucial to these characters since, you know, their characters who had been brought to the South - the American South from Africa.
MARTIN: Are the Golden Globes something that people should take a look at if they're thinking - you know, if their time is limited and they don't have a lot of time to go to the movies? Is that a list that you would recommend people look at to determine what might be worth seeing and what might not be? Or do find it so quirky that it really isn't something that the general public would care about?
MORRIS: This year, I think it's a pretty good list. I mean, the musical comedy - I mean, the problem with the Globes is they have expanded the categories so that you can get a lot of bang for your buck when it comes to the show. And so in that they've split the movies into drama and musical or comedy. And they split the acting - the lead acting awards into drama and comedy.
And this year, you've just got an embarrassment of riches. I mean, "12 Years a Slave," "Captain Phillips," "Gravity," "Philomena," "American Hustle," which opens in select cities today. And "Her," the Spike Jones movie which opens in a few weeks. "Inside Llewyn Davis," "Nebraska," - "The Wolf of Wall Street" is excellent. It opens on Christmas day. Yeah, if you're looking for movies, look at the Golden Globe list this year. It's very good.
MARTIN: Wesley Morris is a Pulitzer Prize winning film critic. He's writing now for Grantland and we caught up with him at his home office in New York. Wesley Morris, thanks so much for joining us. Happy holidays to you.
MORRIS: Happy holidays to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.