Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s Shared Hot Topic: Slavery

Brad Pitt appears in a small-but-pivotal role in “12 Years a Slave” as a philosophical vagabond who objects to the oppressive living conditions forced upon the slaves around him.

And Brad’s not the only member of the household dipping into this dark topic.

Jolie’s directorial debut was “In the Land of Blood and Honey” (2011), about an unlikely romance that develops in a Bosnian wartime prison camp. Like “12 Years,” it holds a mirror up to the gruesome horrors of such imprisonment, depicting ruthless killings and rape against women.


Now, Jolie is exploring a parallel theme on “Unbroken” (filming in Australia). It’s the harrowing story of Olympic track star and World War II vet Louis Zamperini. And the film will cover, in part, the two-and-a-half years Zamperini spent as a prisoner of war inside Japanese internment camps.

A free man is held against his will, and lives to be free again. Sound familiar?

For a pair who have been comfortable for years working in popcorn blockbusters like “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” “Tomb Raider,” and the “Ocean’s” series, the world has now become a very serious place.

When it comes to “12 Years,” Pitt said recently, “It’s one of those few films that cuts to the base of our humanity… It’s why I got into film in the first place.”

It may be no coincidence the star couple has focused their lens on the world’s most unjust human experiences. They’re known for their humanitarian work, after all. Just a few years ago, they donated $340 thousand to aid mothers and children in war-torn Somalia, when the nation was suffering its worst famine in 60 years. Pitt also oversaw the building of more than 50 affordable, ecofriendly homes in hurricane-ravaged New Orleans. And that’s just some of what they’ve done.

UNHCR Ambassador Angelina Jolie Tours Pakistan

With humanitarian causes becoming the household hobby, it seems a natural progression that the pair’s choices in film roles would begin to reflect that passion. Particularly as they age out of the young action hero roles, and what with a flock full of children to look after, life becomes more grounded and serious, their relationship seems to be leading each to explorer darker corners of the human experience on the screen.

Pitt argues that his recent career moves, along with Jolie’s, don’t really reflect a master plan. “We talk about work short term rather than a major game plan,” he said in a 2012 interview. “It’s like, ‘this interests me, let’s set the divining rod in that direction and see what we can make out of it.'”

But the couple’s emerging determination not to just be popcorn bait has driven them lately to do as much work behind the cameras as in front. Jolie’s directing career has grown from more than just a sideline, becoming her driving artistic force. As for Pitt, acting isn’t the only thing the 49-year-old has done for the buzzy Steve McQueen film — “12 Years a Slave” was made by Pitt’s production company, Plan B. And Pitt is one of the film’s producers.

[Related: ’12 Years a Slave’ Casts Light on the Dark History of American Slave Hunters]

“Superstars love to prove their might by succeeding as multi-hyphenates,” says entertainment awards expert Tom O’Neil He points to George Clooney’s Oscar nominations and wins for acting, producing, writing, and directing as a prime example. “When you’re cool, you’ve got to prove you can do it all – you’ve got the magic touch.”

Brad Pitt in 'Troy,' Plan B's first film

Brad Pitt in ‘Troy,’ Plan B’s first film (Warner Brothers/courtesy Everett Collection)

Pitt’s producing aspirations started back in 2002, when he founded Plan B with then-wife, Jennifer Aniston. The fledgling company’s first film came out in 2004 — the big budget Greek mythology action flick, “Troy,” in which Pitt starred. However, Pitt’s producing credit started appearing on Plan B projects in 2006 — when he Jolie were a new couple. The films he worked on were more passion-project than box office bait. First came a documentary about four Sudanese boys called “God Grew Tired of Us.” Narrated by Nicole Kidman, it won six awards including the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize. That same year Pitt was a producer on Martin Scorsese’s cop-and-gang drama, “The Departed,” which won four Oscars.

Not too shabby for his first time up-to-bat in the producer’s chair.

Pitt calls Plan B “a little garage band” with the mission to get “difficult material, that might not otherwise get made” to movie theatersand to “work with directors we respect.”

Now the awards heat is on “12 Years,” and Pitt is involved in projects that are a mix of box office successes and awards season darlings. “Brad and Angelina are the ultimate Hollywood hipsters,” says O’Neil, who contends they have risen above their steamy, tabloid past.

[Related: Finally, Films About Slavery Have Their Day]

“Right now, ’12 Years a Slave’ is the Oscar favorite … and that’s largely thanks to Brad. He helped to lure the stars, the big investment capital and to seduce Fox Searchlight executives into bankrolling a monster academy campaign,” O’Neil adds.

As “12 Years” expands into theaters nationwide this weekend, one can only guess whether this film would have been made without Jolie’s influence. “Angie is a force,” Pitt has said. “She cares deeply. I want her to be proud of her man.”


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