Awards, But No Audience: What '12 Years a Slave' Tells Us About America Today

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup and Paul Giamatti as Freeman in "12 Years a Slave." | Photo: Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures

I haven't seen all the Oscar-nominated movies, a situation in which I find myself every year as the hour of the Academy Awards telecast approaches (though, admittedly, the older I get, the less these things seem to matter. But I try to do my civic duty as an Angeleno by being as cinematically informed as possible). One movie I have seen that a good chunk of film fans and Oscar-watchers evidently haven't is "Twelve Years a Slave."

Today, the L.A. Times ran yet another front-page story about the movie's persistent lack of appeal to the general public, despite its multiple nominations and accolades from Hollywood and the general movie critic-sphere. Betsy Sharkey's somewhat distressed conclusion in the Times story is that slavery is simply too discomfiting a story for American audiences to really contemplate deeply, let alone watch unfold on a big screen. It clashes directly with our foundational ideas about democracy and self-determination and all that. Any mildly true rendering of slavery is cognitive dissonance of the most ear-splitting kind.

She is right, of course. But there some other things going on that she overlooks or misses. She says that slavery as a movie idea is not taboo -- there was the '70s miniseries "Roots," Steven Spielberg's "Amistad," and Quentin Tarentino's "Django Unchained." Three slavery-themed projects in 35 years doesn't exactly constitute a willingness on Hollywood's part to explore the subject, especially as compared to its enduring interest -- nearly a moral obligation -- in other large-scale human tragedies like the Holocaust or world war. But more important is the fact that those projects were really nothing like "12 Years."

"Roots" is most similar, but it was on television; you didn't have to sit with other people in a theater and relive the horrors of slavery as a single group of Americans. You could grieve, or be angry or be indifferent in the privacy of your own home. In other words, "Roots" allowed us to experience a collective tragedy individually because the medium of television has a safety valve that a big screen does not.

I admired "Amistad," but it was typical Hollywood fare in that there was a clear-cut hero in the enslaved black man who eloquently challenged an evil system, defended by the equally eloquent and heroic former president-turned-lawyer John Quincy Adams. Both blacks and whites got to feel like we conquered slavery, though of course we didn't; "Twelve Years" offers no such illusions.

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As for "Django," it was a feverish cartoon that mostly indulged Tarentino's penchant for masochism and gory excess that audiences are already familiar with. It grossed plenty of money but had about as much to do with the real history of slavery as "Hang 'Em High" had to do with the history of the old West.

Last, but hardly least, the legacy of slavery lives on, which means that a movie about it, far from being the period piece it should be, sharply reminds us of what's still wrong. I've cited many examples in previous posts of what is still wrong, but the most vivid is something that Sharkey herself pointed out: that President Obama, the first black president who has become a hero to ordinary black people, has said nothing at all about "12 Years a Slave."

Certainly he isn't obligated. He's busy. But the symbolism of his silence is painful and unmistakeable. The truth is that he is a black man who was elected to the presidency partly because he made a tacit agreement with the white electorate that he would not invoke slavery or any other overtly racial issues that taint the grand old flag that he now represents.

The sad paradox is that Obama cannot out himself as black, even though plenty of people have in pretty savage fashion -- just this week, Ted Nugent called the sitting American president a "sub-human mongrel" and a "chimpanzee." These are descriptions of black folks straight out of slave times. You could say Ted Nugent is one guy, and that he's a professional provocateur. But the lack of any real condemnation of his remarks by his Republican confreres, including establishment types like John McCain, speak to the fact that Nugent is not quite alone in his rabidly racist views. Or his racist views have enough currency amongst enough Americans to give politicians who represent them pause.

I always thought it interesting that "12 Years" was written by John Ridley, but brought to life by Brits and Nigerian-descended blacks -- director Steve McQueen, lead actors Chiwetel Etiofor and Lupita N'yongo -- not black Americans. But even that fact doesn't give us the emotional distance we desperately try to maintain between ourselves and our own history. A tragic story for sure, as any good filmmaker or psychologist will tell you, one that surely can't end well. Somebody ought to make a movie about it. Happy Oscar-watching.

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