’12 Years a Slave’ and the Evolution of the Cinematic Black Experience

4 years ago ccwa 0

12-years-a-slave“We always wanted people to know that it’s ‘12 Years a Slave,’ not ‘1 Million Years a Slave‘”, are words that probably haunt Fox Searchlight co-president Nancy Utley to no end. The comments were first published in an LA Times article written by John Horn some months ago, before the debut of the excellent American Hustle heated up the Oscar race, and when there were no questions about what to do about a film like 12 Years a Slave.

We’ve all heard about the film’s incredible acting performances, and the harsh, hold-nothing-back approach that director Steve McQueen has taken. But what is it that makes movies like this so hard for Hollywood to handle? After all, it seems like only yesterday controversy was brewing about Django Unchained.

To fully examine such an interesting subject, we have to go all the way back to one of the movie industry’s first legitimate blockbusters—a little production called Gone with the Wind.

The southern tale of romance and heartbreak during the civil war was released in 1939 to much clamor and critical praise. Hollywood had never seen anything like it in terms of scale and revenue as the film nearly doubled the gross of previous record-holder—the insidious Birth of a Nation. But Gone with the Wind far outshines its predecessor for the racial issues it brought up more than anything else. Across the country, many black people condemned and protested a film that they felt glorified the practice of slavery, and a groundbreaking Oscar win for a black woman playing a slave who seemed to love her predicament offered little consolation.

As Hollywood and America have changed, the films have changed, and yet there has always been a thin line between doing some justice to the black experience and not making white audiences uncomfortable. The productions of the late twentieth century were the masters, with films like the extraordinary To Kill a Mockingbird being the gold standard. One scene in To Kill a Mockingbird is particularly skillful. We see white lawyer Atticus Finch standing guard throughout the night at the county jail because his defendant is under real danger of being lynched before his trial. As your stereotypical collection of farmers gather around menacingly, Atticus’ daughter Scout, wondering where her daddy is, runs up and inadvertently shames all of the men into going home. What makes this scene so atypical of the age is that the black experience is still honored through the threat of lynching, white audiences are placated by Atticus’ willingness to defend the black Tom Robinson, and we’re all hopeful for the future because a white child simply didn’t understand why “all those men were being so mean”.

Movies dealing with the African American experience have mostly followed the same formula since, with a generation of black leading-actors making memorable performances in movies that have definitely gone further than their predecessors. The only criticism in these films has been that some black characters in them don’t really have clear motivations or fleshed out characters. In fact, there is an unofficial African American lobby in Hollywood that has made its business out of combating the use of the “magical negro” stereotype, wherein a black character’s only aim seems to be to help the white protagonist. Some of these assessments have been true, (Will Smith’s role in The Legend of Bagger Vance), but others have been extremely harsh, such as the attack on The Green Mile.

This time last year, however, Django Unchained happened and a very real hell broke loose. Here, Tarantino had created a masterpiece that approached slavery just as M*A*S*H had approached the Vietnam War. The thinking was, cover the audience with humor and then every once in a while stab them with something truly, horrifyingly serious. As a result, Django Unchained ended up being what, at that time, was the funniest and yet most realistic film about slavery that had ever been made. For each devastating image of a whipping, and every usage of the word nigger, there was an equally (albeit somewhat differently) devastating joke. But how does one market such a film? The studio executives decided to advertise a comedy, and prominent black directors, such as Spike Lee, flocked the streets to protest how a truly awful experience had been mocked, all while never having seen the film. What those who did see the movie experienced was a truly unique work that made everyone feel equally uncomfortable. Django was the first film of its kind to raise a particularly distressing notion for the black community; the proposition that even amongst extreme violence and inhumanity, maybe some slaves had loved their masters. Not only that, but as a revenge movie, Django asked serious questions about the scarcity of slave revolt.

As the Oscars ended and Tarantino walked away with his first Best Director award, the criticism had stopped, and the mood coming from much of the black lobby was embarrassment. After all, a white director had created something far more powerful about the black experience than any one of Tyler Perry’s movies on his first foray into the genre.

It is with all of this history that 12 Years a Slave has entered cinemas, prompting standing ovations at film festivals and leaving its audiences both thoughtful and in need of a stiff drink. While a year has passed since Django Unchained, and a few months since the remarkable Fruitvale Station aired, we seem only marginally closer to fully accepting what slavery and racism done in the United States.

Movies like 12 Years a Slave and Django are tortuous for advertisers because they’re not uplifting and there is no sense of redemption to them. Fox Searchlight was right in their assessment that the story of Solomon Northup’s captivity only covers twelve years of his life, but utterly wrong if they think that his release makes anyone watching the movie feel some sort of closure. Closure on the subject of slavery is something that even today is far beyond anyone when they’re truly confronted with it, and films like 12 Years a Slave unearth that to no end.

Even the production and casting of 12 Years a Slave brings insecurities to light—namely that the backbone of the movie’s black acting talent is not African American. What does it say when both the director and the leading actor are British black men not from the African American tradition? What does it say when advertising highlights above almost all else Brad Pitt’s cameo as a Canadian farmhand who, on his second trip to the plantation, realizes that it might be a good idea to help the once free Northup flee his captivity?

These are questions that are difficult to answer, but what is clear is that some 150 years after slavery’s end in the United States, self-examination continues. We’ve been weighed, we’ve been measured, and we’ve been found wanting, but perhaps not forever.

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By Emmanuel Dzotsi

(photo credit: eurweb.com)