Movies / Race

12 Years a Slave is Just Liberal Enough

12-years-a-slaveI saw 12 Years a Slave before New Years. Now, why would I do that to myself? A friend of mine mentioned that it was probably going to win an Oscar, and I decided I didn’t want to miss out on it, and forgot momentarily that the Academy Awards is silly and worthless.

The movie is well done. Really. Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Solomon Northup, does an excellent job. The film is scored by Hans Zimmer. The script is complex, and faithful to the source material. The cinematography is interesting, and director Steve McQueen makes use of static landscapes and silence to make the viewer feel uneasy. Slave overseer, Tibeats, played by the weak chinned, whiny Paul Dano, sings a song that goes on for six verses and uses the n-word in every verse, and makes everyone cringe. Even in a film where Benedict Cumberbatch manages to weasel his way into a role where he needs a southern accent, and then fails to deliver it, 12 Years a Slave is Oscar bait to the max. That said, I hated it, and wish I hadn’t seen it. Not just because I hate movies that make me feel like crap when I walk out of the theater (though I admit that’s most of it), but because at the end of the film, some white lady in the back shouted at the credits, “It hurts, but we gotta hear it!”

Solomon Northup at a fancy dinner, wearing fancy clothes, and looking very offended.

What did you just say to me?

That’s when I realized this was a white guilt movie. Gotta hear what, exactly? 12 Years a Slave accomplished what it wanted to accomplish—it made the horrors of slavery fresh in our minds in a time when Ani DiFranco callously tried hosting a writing retreat on a former slave plantation (she has since apologized twice). That’s important, because people have terrible memories. But the film also creates a space for most viewers to agree on benign things, like for instance “Slavery was bad” and “I’m glad we don’t do that anymore!”

Considering the long list of movies where Black people are routinely disenfranchised, tortured, and made miserable because of their blackness, 12 Years a Slave doesn’t feel particularly empowering. A film that lets us look back on slavery, allows white viewers to think about how far we’ve come, while ignoring the problems that still exist. Meanwhile, Black viewers are shown a portrait of themselves only as sufferers and victims. You know what slavery narrative does feel empowering? Django Unchained. Yes, an ahistorical, popcorn, action packed, one-liner ridden revenge film where most of the white characters are brutally murdered by Jamie Foxx, yes.

In Django Unchained, there’s a distinct power reversal in the narrative, as often occurs in a revenge film. But this doesn’t just apply to Foxx’s character. This applies to the script, which gives more than a nod to Blaxploitation films from the 1970s. Django often gets the last word against his oppressors, with lines like “I like the way you die, boy” and “The D is silent, hillbilly.” Tarantino swaps out Zimmer for noted Black musicians. Some of the songs composed for the film are “100 Black Coffins” by Rick Ross,”Who Did That To You?” by John Legend, “Freedom” by Anthony Hamilton and Elayna Boynton, and “Ancora Qui” by Ennio Morricone and Elisa. These four songs were all contenders for an Academy Award nomination in the Best Original Song category, but none of them were nominated.

candie with a black man's skull on the table in front of him

What’s particularly empowering is that Tarantino’s stylistic choices in the film—the music, the pulpy dialogue, the violence, the title, and the all-encompassing badassery—gives every indication that the movie is on Django’s side. And yet, the film being fun, exciting, and triumphant doesn’t diminish the evils of slavery. An empowering narrative is a narrative that already acknowledges the horrors that exist, both in the past, and today. There’s a scene where the film’s main villain, Calvin Candie, is presenting Django with a skull of a Black man, and asks, “Why don’t they kill us?” His answer is that Black people are simply inferior, that they don’t know how to be autonomous. These dimples in the back of the skull prove it. Of course, we know now that phrenology is a heinous science. But the stereotypes still remain where people routinely blame the issues Black people face on their blackness.

Then there’s the problem of the white savior. A recent Salon article questioning Brad Pitt’s role in the film (which, as a producer, he obviously chose for himself) points out 12 Years a Slave makes heavy use of the white savior trope, while interestingly, Tarantino’s cameo in Django is that of a slave trader, a man whose very existence and career is morally reprehensible due to the fact that he benefits from the subjugation of people like Django. Tarantino chose a role where he’s the “bad guy.” He’s not a white savior, he’s a white devil.

Pitt’s role fails to acknowledge any of this. In a movie that forces tears out of you every twenty minutes, his role gives the impression that the only way out of being disenfranchised lies in the actions of goodhearted white people. That’s you, gentle white viewer. That’s you, Academy. He might as well have looked directly at the camera and winked. How much white guilt does it take to win an Oscar? White guilt ultimately manifests into self-congratulatory pride at having put up with white guilt, and nobody needs more white people feeling proud of feeling bad. But in order for Hollywood to stay relevant, it has to pretend to be kind of political, and kind of controversial, traditionally with a liberal bent and a whole lot of catharsis and tears. But it can’t go too crazy. Too crazy doesn’t get the same recognition. And in this case, “too crazy” means empowering disenfranchised people.*

The questions this raises is, how do we choose to tell our stories? Again, who are we empowering? Why do we focus so much on Solomon Northup’s slavery, and not his abolition? I can think of three historical figures right off the top of my head who were born into slavery, and who escaped and dedicated their lives to abolition. One of them even wrote a memoir about it, so it is particularly interesting that Hollywood chose this one.

My next post shall be a comparison between Funny or Die’s Drunk History and Spielberg’s snorefest, Lincoln, a film where Frederick Douglass appears to be absent, and where Lincoln’s stance on the war and on slavery is largely romanticized. Think on this, then watch the video below.


*Brokeback Mountain was a good example of what “too crazy” looked like in 2005, when the Academy Awards passed it up for Crash, a movie that pretended to talk about racism.


13 thoughts on “12 Years a Slave is Just Liberal Enough

  1. Interesting article! One question: You say, “Considering the long list of movies where Black people are routinely disenfranchised, tortured, and made miserable because of their blackness, 12 Years a Slave doesn’t feel particularly empowering”. Apart from the horror movie trope of “the black person dies first”, I’m unfamiliar with this as such a frequent occurrence.

    Are there are articles you can point me to that discusses the topic further? I only ask here (instead of running a search myself, {but I’ll probs do that too}) in case there’s a particular article or essay you think I should read about this, and in case anyone else has the same question.


    • There was an article that was going around when 12YaS was trending, which had a title of something like, “Can we stop making movies where black people are miserable?” It had a lot of good examples. Now I can’t find it, which is really frustrating, because I would have liked to link it in this post as well. I’m afraid in this case you’ll have to do the research alone. I’d start with pretty much anything historical.

  2. Well, given that Pitt’s character is based on Solomon Northrup’s book. And that really happened historically, I wonder: What else could Steve McQueen could have done. I’m biased: I think it’s the best film of the year because it gives consideration TO where we are today.

    • I’m not really complaining about the fact that it was historically faithful. I’m more complaining about the fact that Hollywood is fixated on the trope, regardless. The true stories we choose to tell mean something (see part where I wonder why Northup and not Douglass). Choosing to start a film in a certain place and end a film in a certain place, says something as well (see part where I wonder why we don’t focus on Northup’s abolition except in 4 sentences before the credits). I believe McQueen is a talented director, and did a good job. It’s just the stories we choose to tell end up falling somewhere on our narrative landscape. The fact that it actually happened this way doesn’t mean it’s excused from the trope.

      I’m also just peeved that Brad Pitt seems to have chosen that role for himself. It reeks of self-congratulatory Clooneyism.

  3. Hi Ari. Well, I want to say ‘thanks’ for writing this; because essentially you’re voicing a point-of-view one of my more progressive, thoughtful friends made after the movie. Why this? So I actually spent much time asking the same thing, including suggesting “12 Years…” is a jumpstarter in the cinematic pantheon on Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, and maybe the Stono Rebellion ( Basically, historically, there hasn’t been hardly any slave films PURELY from the point-of-view of the enslaved (one who’s free enough to see witness the psychological and physical minefield he’s going through, thus, perfect for contemporary audiences). Often, the “good-hearted” slave master gets a pass. Not here. I call it the antidote to “Birth of a Nation” — both groundbreaking in form, but opposite in perspective. Get this important story that I think is RELEVANT to understand how this country was literally built upon flesh — and I think important for Americans of all walks of life to go, “See, this is reality? It’s not sugar-coated.” People forget history. How can we talk about inequality today until we fully understand the seed in which it was built?

  4. I’m just saying, I can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater on this one, even though I understand the tropes. But they’re also preferences. Some folks preferred “Django Unchained” and I had real problems with it because ALL those injustices appeared to happen in 24 hours, and some of them, like Mandingo fighting, wasn’t all that prevalent. I found that sensational, not “12 Years…”. So what’s the takeaway beyond entertainment, To me, it’s another one of Tarantino’s revenge films, which is a trope with diminishing returns (Kill bill: women; Inglorious Basterds: jews; Django: slaves). I call it gratuitous violence for liberals. Oh, and Brad Pitt can get the hero part, Clooneyism? It’s a net positive for me, because my vision for a better world (helping in Katrina; Darfur) matches theirs. If they ONLY had roles that are sanctimonious a la Robin Williams for a few years there, I’d agree. Again, baby & bathwater. But I can see where people get tired of it. P.S. I wrote a million words on this w/ friends; feel free to read more. Cheers from Chicago. – david

    • That’s fine if you disagree. I did say in my post that I do think the movie accomplished what it wanted to accomplish. I just argue that it’s yet another movie that doesn’t feel empowering in a tradition that’s obsessed with making movies like this. I also argue that the violence in Django isn’t gratuitous, since it serves a purpose in a role/power reversal. Also, I’d MUCH rather a movie make white people feel uncomfortable because of a role/power reversal, than a movie that makes white people feel uncomfortable because of white guilt.

  5. Below is an excerpt from the google doc link “12 Years a Slave: An Email Discussion with Friends, Nov 2013” if you hit my name above (sorry, I hardly ever do “responses” to essays; don’t mean to over-saturate.) Ari, we may have to agree to disagree, because I think we come from slightly different perspectives (saw your Dan Savage posts just now, too. I’m new to your website, which I found recently trying to read more on “Fruitvale Station”). I’m a glass half full, “is this world better for this, or not” viewer on film or culture. I think your arguments, while powerful, are also misguided just from what I’ve entertained for years: viewing purely from the prism of reductionist analysis, but not “Does the world need this?” So yeah, I like Pitt; he’s better than the alternative who doesn’t care to get $20m for movies this unrelenting (which is revolutionary, it could be argued). I like Fassbender — he deserves accolades for portraying the sickening pathology of a slave owner. McQueen the director? Was so-so before, but felt this film worked better than the 40 other flicks I saw this year. I thought it was genius, actually. I love Chiwetel Ejiofor now that this movie helped me discover him — give him the Oscar gold. Purity isn’t what I’m looking for in art or entertainment; the bigger picture ideas I am seeking. Purity can be the enemy of progress. Maybe I’m an apologist, but let’s see “12 Years…” prime the Hollywood pump to make the pictures I think BOTH of us would like to see. NOTE: I actually kinda want to see “Philomena” now based on what some of my bleeding heart friends have said. Trailer was kinda milquetoast.

    ## start excerpt ##


    And I suppose a counterpoint to those who feel Hollywood tends to depict African Americans as slaves, butlers, maids, etc. and not catalysts to their own herodom, or more positive figures. I would argue they are made, but intermittently. And truly,more should be made.

    I guess the one bias I have for and against Hollywood (a defense and critique): It’s all about the money — and the audience who pays for tickets — and if people want to see Tyler Perry’s films, or “Big Momma’s House,” then that’s what producers will continue to make. The latter was even a punchline in the “Philomena” trailer we saw before “12 Years a Slave” with Steve Coogen and Judi Dench (see 1:30). Dench’s rich anglo-centric commentary on the state of American film and audiences: “It’s about a little black man pretending to look like a fat black lady, it looks hilarious.”

    George Lucas had to finance “Red Tails” (about the Tuskegee Airmen of WW2 himself because the studios seemingly balked at an all-black cast, and it didn’t break even, but it did have a huge $58m budget and epic fight scenes. But Lucas has the money and the love of his life, so he’s doing OK. (It also got bad reviews, and seemed a bit corny. Still, it’s a good example of “well, we tried.”) However, in 2013, the story of Jackie Robinson hit a box office, ahem, “home run” with $27 million opening weekend for the biopic movie “42”.

    So, if there’s ongoing popularity for “12 Years a Slave” and “Django Unchained” (which made over $425 million worldwide), there’s hope for a big-budget Nat Turner uprising story yet. Or a decent Harriet Tubman film. So go see this movie. I always say, media shapes culture, whether we like or not. We vote with our dollars and sense.

    We talked before about there being a great dearth of realistic slave movies — American audiences just don’t want to face it, so no one has made them. That’s an argument for this movie coming to fruition. I also ask: Why are audiences continuing to support WW2 and Nazi films, which come out every year, and was one of our trailers (“The Book Thief” which was a bit much)? Is one tragedy OK to hit upon over and over through multiple perspectives, and the other not? Or does one hit a little too close to home?

    And if one wants to see how “12 Years a Slave” one ups “Django Unchained” and “The Help” in terms of seeing past struggles, I’d look at this article that defends the intellectual complexity of the film on several levels.

    ## end of excerpt ## Much More if want to Click Link ## also, I’m open to reprinting parts, if interested, I’m not too precious about it ## cheers from chitown ##

  6. Good points on the “Django isn’t gratuitous, since it serves a purpose in a role/power reversal,” and i may chew on that a bit. I’ve felt that Tarantino has had his bit of “have his cake, and eat it, too” that he gets to toss out Evil Dead levels of gore AND get a pass because of those role reversals. i.e. He’s savvy, but it’s convenient. I find after 3 films in a row, “Django” didn’t work for me. But I have to accept: white guilt. (Being white, but not entirely guilt-ridden; I had my own marginalization issues, but pretty well past that.) Anyway, we all speak from experiences; and appreciate yours. I think with “12 Years…” I kept thinking, “this is unique; I haven’t seen a movie that’s THIS uncomfortable AND brutally honest AND necessary in the cinematic oeuvre.” Others may find it dishonest, but I thought it was a rare gem in cinema. Historically on-point. And gave me a stronger understanding of the past so I can better come to terms with injustice today.

    • I mean a lot of critics are comparing 12 Years to Schindler’s List in terms of its brutality/cinematic work/overall level of despair. I do believe Schindler’s List was made somewhat romantic, as Spielberg is wont to do (*cough* Lincoln), but I mean I think when someone says the word “Oscar bait,” it’s because the film and the narrative have lots and lots of elements that audiences have seen.

  7. Yeah, I saw that Lincoln / Ferrell clip you had up there. Personally, the “Oscar bait” tag I’d put on “Lincoln” any day over “12 Years” which is hardly uplifting, conventional, or easy — I find it psychologically complex. (re: Northrop “apologizing” to his family for his appearance is heart-breaking; merely because it captures the full internalization over 12 years of the slave methodology.). But I’ll admit, I liked “Lincoln” for what it was, which was *that* particular story: legislation. “12 years” is hardly as palatable, and thus, it’s being received by a much smaller audience. Tough medicine.

  8. The thing with movies is: It’s 2 hours. Maybe 3. You can only stuff so much. You choose an angle, a style, a story — it may not be as radical as some may like; it may not be as palatable as some folks would like. It can’t be stuffed with multiple angles, characters, or info like a book. But I can’t think of many “Lincoln” films, nor authentic “Slave” narratives. (Trust me, I watched “Roots” on a whim in W. Africa, on a cheap-ass DVD and it was pretty awful; but I respect WHEN it came, and WHAT it tried to do.) I can only hope Frederick Douglas gets his story told sometime, too. Maybe after George Washington. I think he’s due. (That’s joke; but also: amazingly, he’s untouchable.)

    • I’m totally in agreement with you that the problem with making a movie based on a true story is that it will always be limited by a movie format and that format will belie is politics. But if anything I think it means we should still critique it because it means we know where our values, as an audience, are. And if this was a post on how problematic Django was, I’d of course have some thoughts. The inclusion of Drunk History against Spielberg’s Lincoln was just to point out that Drunk History had a far more accurate (historically, not like the authenticity of the wigs or anything) portrayal of Lincoln and the emancipation than the movie Lincoln did. Even though it was for humor. Which is goofy because they had 4 minutes and Spielberg had 2.5 hours lol.

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