I 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!”
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.
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.