Slavery is a hard sell.
That was the upshot of a recent L.A. Times front-page story about the conundrum of "Twelve Years a Slave," the Steve McQueen-directed movie based on a 19th-century memoir that's gotten plenty of critical plaudits but not the audience to match. This would not be the first movie to experience this, of course.
Historical, story-driven and/or literary-minded films, no matter how stellar, have always competed rather poorly with big-budget studio products like "The Avengers" and endless sequels of "Die Hard" for the public's attention. That is the American way, despite the fact that independent filmmaking and its general aesthetic of story over special effects has been on the ascent for the last decade or so. So there has been much progress, but not parity. We are not there yet.
But what makes "Twelve Years a Slave" uniquely audience-unfriendly, according to the Times story, is its subject matter: American slavery. Not slavery as a savage cartoon ("Django Unchained") or as a shadow of modern realities ("The Help"), but a straight-ahead depiction of the institution in its heyday, in all its daily horror. Not really since the 1977 television miniseries "Roots" have we seen such a treatment, and that was on a small screen. But those were different times; on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement, slavery as a serious subject for Hollywood felt timely, if not exactly appealing (I suppose it will never be that). Everybody in America was glued to their set for a week, watching a dramatic rendering of a major part of American history that we acknowledged belonged to all of us. That hardly meant that the success of "Roots" ended racism or changed public policy, but it did reflect a national willingness to at least examine up close what had always been deliberately blurred in order to protect certain American ideals about freedom and equal opportunity.
How times change, and not in a good way. In 2013 we are allegedly past race, which means we are past slavery and therefore have no need to look at it at all. That's how the thinking goes, anyway. Psychologists would say such denial makes perfect sense. Since the '70s -- as the racial gap in income and other areas has widened, not narrowed -- we've become so racially averse, to even call yourself "black" now is a radical act; to invoke slavery merely as a subject of conversation is to risk howls of protest that you are being a victim or playing the race card. All of which means that a hundred a fifty years after the end of slavery, we are still determined not to give it its due, but to forget it. The marketers of "Twelve Years a Slave" know this on some level. The entire struggle of black people after the end of the Civil War has been shaped by one long marketing campaign that casts the South as noble, and blacks as undeserving. Can't have one without the other.
I saw "Twelve Years a Slave" at a screening in Baldwin Hills with a largely black audience. It was riveted, as was I. My friend who saw it with me was much less enthusiastic. He is smart, educated, politically sophisticated, and works in Hollywood. He also happens to be white. His chief criticism was that the movie, though well made, was too violent, too over the top. I was incredulous; I stood in the parking lot and argued with him that America loves violence, the more grisly the better. There is almost no such thing as over the top.
But in a way he was right -- it is over the top for most people. Not in terms of violence but in terms of history, though the violence in "Twelve Years" certainly drives home the point of this particular history. In this foundational story of America, it is simply not possible for America to be the good guy. And that is a hard sell indeed.