This season, Fox Searchlight has served audiences a three-course menu of movies with African-American casts and themes.
First, it served an appetizer in September, with the romantic comedy Baggage Claim, starring Paula Patton as a flight attendant looking for a husband in a hurry.
Then, in October, the studio set out a substantial main course with 12 Years A Slave. The sweeping epic by director Steve McQueen is already an Academy Award shoo-in.
Now, Black Nativity is Fox Searchlight's dessert, a sweet Christmas tear-jerker. This musical features Oscar winners Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett and Jennifer Hudson, singing their way into the holidays. The film, set in Harlem, is a modern version of a classic Langston Hughes play familiar to many African-American audiences.
Director Kasi Lemmons says it was an easy sell to Fox Searchlight's senior vice president of production. "I was at the Spirit Awards and ran into Zola Mashariki from Fox Searchlight," Lemmons recalls. "I said, 'I want to do Black Nativity,' and she said, 'I'm doin' it.'
"I said, 'OK, 'cause I'm going around and I want you to hear my pitch.'
"And she said, 'I said, I'm doing it.'"
Mashariki adds, "I was like, 'Of course I know Black Nativity, the play. Of course I know Langston Hughes. Why hasn't anyone done this?'"
She is one of the few black studio executives in Hollywood. "It really took having someone in this position who had worked their way up the ladder to be in a position to buy who could hear that story and go, I know that story. It should be a movie, and people are gonna connect with that idea," she says. "I don't think many of my colleagues would have heard that and said, I know exactly what that is."
Mashariki started out as a Brooklyn-born lawyer who studied at Harvard and taught in its African-American studies program with Cornel West. She also co-founded an African-American theater group with playwright August Wilson. Mashariki says her passion for and intuition about black audiences informs her choices. At Fox Searchlight, she also brought in the films The Secret Life of Bees, Notorious and Just Wright.
"That makes me really proud, because I'm part of that community," she says. "When I came to Hollywood, I wanted to make many different kinds of films, but I think I would have died if I didn't have opportunity to tell stories about people who looked like me."
Mashariki says the studio's latest slate is a happy coincidence, since the films she shepherds are constantly in development. She's also excited by the recent box office success for rival studios: Universal's Best Man's Holiday and the Weinstein Company's critically acclaimed films, Fruitvale Station and The Butler, not to mention the movies Tyler Perry churns out every year for Lionsgate.
Movie reviewer Gil Robertson, who heads the African-American Film Critics Association, says there have been waves of black filmmakers before in Hollywood (think Spike Lee, who started one trend in the 1980s).
"Urban filmmakers who are outside of the mainstream tend to go through this dance every four or five years with the studios," Robertson says. "You see these rumblings, you see a nice body of work, and then the next year, it's nothing."
Robertson is still scratching his head over why the major studios don't promote their black-themed movies more internationally. And he says if audiences want to see more such movies, they need to support them during the crucial opening weekends.
Still, Roberton credits Fox Searchlight — and Zola Mashariki in particular — with supporting black filmmakers. He says major studios pay most attention to box office successes.
Black Nativity co-star Tyrese, the singer who also stars in the Transformers and The Fast and the Furious franchises, says he's really excited about the new energy he's seeing on screen.
"Black people have been getting a lot of play in Hollywood," he says. "Old Hollywood practices would be that you can't have a movie with that many black people and expect it to be successful because it's going to cater to a specific audience and demographic. But when you have a bunch of different type of movies that may have a prominent African-American cast and it ends up doing well, everybody in Hollywood [has] to start rethinking what their approach to filmmaking is."
Forest Whitaker, who stars in Black Nativity and The Butler has been in the game since the 1980s. He says he's also encouraged by the diversity of roles he's getting, and he hopes the box office success translates to even more films with black casts and themes. "As it continues to open up, and these films receive the audiences here and abroad, " he says, "Then I hope it opens the space for other cultures to be able to do the same thing."
In January, Fox Searchlight plans to add a fusion dish to its "cuisine": Belle. That's a British mixed-race romance set in the days of slavery.
For the past three years, there's been a shortfall in the payroll taxes collected for Social Security. And as more baby boomers join the ranks of the 57 million people already receiving benefits, that deficit is bound to keep growing.
At the same time, the overall share of wages being taxed for Social Security is shrinking as the higher wages that are exempt have soared. The Social Security Board of Trustees predicts a nearly $3 trillion trust fund built up over decades will vanish within 20 years.
But that does not seem to faze Sen. Elizabeth Warren. The Massachusetts Democrat has gotten a lot of attention for a speech defending Social Security that she delivered last month on the Senate floor.
"With some modest adjustments, we can keep the system solvent for many more years, and we could even increase benefits," Warren says.
In order to finance that, Warren and some of her Democratic allies want to lift the cap on wages taxed for Social Security.
Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin sponsored legislation that would gradually remove the cap that currently makes only the first $113,700 in wages subject to Social Security taxes. He says it's the only fair thing to do.
"If I make $50,000 a year, I pay Social Security taxes on every dime I make. If I make $500,000 a year, I only pay taxes on about the first 20 cents. After that, I don't pay any more Social Security taxes. That's regressive," Harkin says. "You want to make it more progressive, raise the cap so everybody pays their share on every dollar they make."
And as President Obama noted this week, an ever greater share of dollars are being earned precisely by those at the top.
"Since 1979, our economy has more than doubled in size, but most of that growth has flowed to a fortunate few," Obama says. "The top ten percent no longer takes in one-third of our income, it now takes half."
That concentration of wealth has taken place beyond the earnings subject to Social Security taxes. Melissa Favreault, a Social Security expert at the non-partisan Urban Institute, says that has meant an ever greater share of the national income is contributing nothing to Social Security.
"We do have this declining share of overall earnings that are taxed, reflecting the fact that the top half of one percent or so has been garnering a really large proportion of total earnings," Favreault says.
Favreault says three decades ago, 90 percent of the nation's wage earnings were taxed for Social Security; that proportion has now shrunk to 83 percent. And that's made an already regressive tax even more so.
Favreault says raising the rates for Social Security withholdings would be one way to shore up the program's finances, but that would only make the tax even more regressive. Removing the cap on income subject to the tax, she says, would make it more progressive.
"The cap, I think, is really a natural place to look, just because there has been this explosion in earnings inequality, and there's been stagnation for earners at the bottom and in the middle of the wage distribution. So it's definitely a good place to look," she says.
Removing that cap could keep Social Security solvent 30 years beyond what's currently projected. But Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank, warns that doing so would undo the original intent of Social Security, which was to be an insurance program for everyone.
"If Social Security comes to be seen as a welfare program, a highly redistributive program, it takes a "soak the rich" kind of approach," Biggs says. "Then political support among, certainly among conservatives, among Republicans, among higher income people is going to drop. And you need everybody on board in order to keep a system like this going."
Biggs says making all payroll income subject to the 12.4 percent Social Security tax would be a sharp tax hike for the wealthy. That's a tough sell on Capitol Hill, especially for Republicans. Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey, who serves on the tax-writing Finance Committee, says "I'm not interested in tax increases."
So at least for now, the wealthiest six percent of taxpayers will continue to be protected by the Social Security wage cap.
I can't be sure, but it seems to me I first heard the words "Nelson Mandela" when I was in college, way back in the '70s. There was a lot of anti-apartheid activity, lots of demonstrations to encourage several universities to pull their investments out of South Africa. Somewhere in there came the story of a freedom fighter who'd been jailed on a barren island, in solitary confinement, for longer than I'd been alive.
A few years later, an infectious tune started seeping onto dance floors, the product of an integrated band that mixed politics with their pop:
Free Nelson Mandela!
Free, free, free Nelson Mandela!
Written by Jerry Dammers and performed by The Special AKA, the song told about Mandela's imprisonment in an infectiously catchy Afro-pop/ska beat, and educated a lot of people who wanted to know more about who this Nelson Mandela was.
21 years in captivity
Shoes too small to fit his feet
His body abused, but his mind is still free
Are you so blind that you cannot see, I said ...
Free Nelson Mandela ...
And, several years and a lot of international intercession after that, he was.
Feb. 11, 1990.
You remember the pictures: Nelson Mandela, walking, erect, out of Victor Verster, his last prison, flanked by his African National Congress colleagues and his then-wife, Winnie, as shutters clicked, cameras rolled, and his countrymen joyously did the toi-toi to celebrate his liberation. You could hear his Xhosa clan name being chanted: Ma-di-ba! Ma-di-ba!
He toured the world shortly after that, raising money for ANC programs. His last stop in the U.S. was Los Angeles. It had been a grueling trip — 27 years in some of the world's most infamous prisons had to have taken its toll. But everywhere he went, Madiba smiled, waved and urged people to look forward, not back, and to work together to achieve a common goal.
We black Americans, who had seen so many of our own heroes in the struggle cut down, were especially touched: Here was a man who had lived to reach his goal — or at least the beginnings of it. Unlike the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers (and Bobby Kennedy, whose portrait hung with his big brother's and Dr. King's in many a black household), here was a hero who'd survived.
Morgan Freeman, who usually played God, was chosen to portray him in Invictus. It seemed appropriate.
The sad stuff would come later — tales of corruption among ANC leaders, the distance and eventual divorce from Winnie, the eventual return of violence to too many parts of South Africa. He became the subject of a tug of war among feuding political heirs, and even real family, who fussed over the intentions of his philanthropic largesse.
Of course there will be a huge state ceremony and memorial services around the globe. The hymn-like beauty of "God Bless Africa," the South African national anthem, will float up, up, slow and graceful, toward the arches of grand cathedrals, from inside small whitewashed churches in the countryside. On playing fields after a moment of silence.
But I'll be thinking of another song, and remembering the generosity of the man who inspired it: Free Nelson Mandela ...
Freed now. Godspeed.