I Still Haven’t Seen “12 Years a Slave,” and I Probably Won’t.

First of all, congratulations to John Ridley on winning an Oscar for Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay for “12 Years a Slave,” and also to Steve McQueen, Brad Pitt and everyone else who helped this film land Best Picture. It’s an incredible accomplishment on its own merits, but the fact that two black men were so central to the vision of such a successful movie make these awards especially noteworthy. As an African-American, I’m aware of feeling a tangible sense of pride in their accomplishment.

I haven’t seen “12 Years a Slave;” 2013 was pretty busy and I saw fewer movies than I would’ve liked. I had multiple chances to buy a ticket, but I always chose something more escapist.

When it was released, it received an inordinate amount of promotion in the media I generally consume, particularly on MSNBC. Over there, different hosts relentlessly promoted the film, sometimes on the same day — panel discussions, multiple interviews with the writer, director and stars, ongoing reporting of its progress at the box office, etc. At the time, I was working from home with MSNBC on in the background: the saturation coverage drew attention to itself because the entire tenor of the channel changed for a sustained period.

Discussing race (particularly slavery) in America is very difficult, so I’ve lowered expectations to be satisfied whenever it blips on the radar. Even beyond MSNBC, people who don’t typically cover film were enraptured by the apparent cultural phenomenon this movie “12 Years a Slave” had created.

By all accounts, it’s a truly excellent film. Top-notch performances, stunning production values, emotionally-riveting moments that horrify and exult. It certainly made a lot of money ($140M on a budget of $20M) and it ran the table through awards season, partially a result of good marketing, but underneath it all, quality.

And I have absolutely no desire to see it.

I was born to middle-class, educated black professionals who 1) wanted to make sure I knew our history and 2) understood that no one else had any interest in teaching it to me. One Black History Month in elementary school, I asked our teacher if we were going to hear about Toussaint Louverture or Nat Turner; she had no idea to whom I was referring. The only TV program I remember our entire family watching together is “Roots.” Much of the assigned reading in my Introduction to the Black Experience class freshman year of college was on my bookshelf before I’d ever seen a PG-rated movie.

So, I wasn’t moved when I first saw trailers for this lush period piece with actors, producer and a writer I admire. Days after its opening weekend, the heartfelt proclamations from talking heads who’d been swept away by the film’s alternating brutality and beauty left me cold.

I’d never heard of Solomon Northrup until the PR blitz leading up to the release of “12 Years A Slave.” However, once I became familiar with the story of how his freedom was stolen and how he endured, survived and escaped, I didn’t develop an interest in seeing the film; no disrespect intended to Mr. Northrup or the filmmakers.

Only a few black people I know went to see this film. My stepmother: “I could barely stay in my seat. Such ugliness, so hard to watch. Nothing new.” From looking at 2013 movie box office stats, I wonder how many other black Americans felt similarly:

1) The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
2) Iron Man 3
3) Frozen
4) Despicable Me 2
5) Man of Steel
6) Gravity
7) Monsters University
8) The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
9) Fast & Furious 6
10) Oz The Great and Powerful
69) 12 Years a Slave

I suck at math, but I’m pretty sure more black people forked over hard-earned money to see “Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas” and “Tyler Perry’s Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor” than “12 Years a Slave.” Which suggests to me that any national conversation about race spurred by “12 Years a Slave” didn’t include a significant or representative amount of African-Americans. Again, I might be wrong, but I don’t think so.

I have no idea how to go about addressing, let alone resolving our racial problems. Good art that dramatizes our ongoing struggle to accept and understand each other can raise awareness and foster empathy. So, yes: let’s continue to look at the past so we can understand how we got here, and why we’re stuck here.

But that doesn’t mean art exploring racism should be confined to an historical setting, and that shouldn’t create a dramatic ghetto for actors of color. Clearly, corporate media disagrees with me.

Perhaps that’s why “Fruitvale Station” was shut out of the Oscars.

Or why African-American actors are much more likely to gain recognition portraying maids and criminals than they are as businesswomen or frustrated everymen.

Setting aside action films and historical dramas: what was the last film you saw with a black character where his/her race wasn’t directly related to the character’s actions/motivation? I can’t name one; I’m sure I can think of a few if I gave myself more time.

Here’s The New York Times’ 1853 account of Solomon Northrup’s ordeal and his pursuit of justice. It’s an amazing individual story and a noteworthy event in American history.

I’m told it’s also an excellent movie.

7 Comments

Filed under Movies, Personal

7 responses to “I Still Haven’t Seen “12 Years a Slave,” and I Probably Won’t.

  1. You’re a pussy. You are comparing a film that you saw (Fruitvale Station) with one that you didn’t see. (12 years). It’s a lot like some one saying. I won’t go see “Schindler’s List” because I already saw ‘the Diary of Anne Frank.” Yes both are about the same time in history but they are different takes on a vast history. The play and movie versions of Anne Frank have always been gentler than the actual diary, by the way.

    “12 Years a Slave’ is a tough movie. It challenges our complacency about history and the failure of the U.S. That’s why it deserves the accolades it gets. “Fruitvale Station” and “Madea” in their respective ways confirm people’s notions about police brutality and matriarchical love, even Perry’s buffoonish version of Grandmotherly love. Movie going audiences will always gravitate towards films that comfort their preconceptions.

    I find it very interesting that it took people outside of the US to bring this story to the screen with as much honesty as it has and without the usual Hollywood Tropes and sentimentality. The lack of the glossy touch that we are conditioned to expect from a Hollywood product is profoundly absent in 12 years. And it is that absence, that lack of the predictability that makes the film much stronger. The film is no more violent than Gibson’s the Passion of the Christ. (which many people went to see) But the effect is more brutal because of the frankness of this portrayal of Solomon Northrup’s story. You cut yourself off from a worthy experience by assuming it’s just another regurgitated piece of ‘accepted’ black literature.

    • Hi, Benjamin. Thanks for commenting.

      I’ll set aside your ad hominem opening (“you’re a pussy”) because we’re strangers in an online setting; in turn, you should acknowledge your limited rhetorical skills.

      If you re-read my post, you’ll note that I saw few films in 2013 and that the stuff I did see was largely escapist. That, plus the fact that I never acknowledged watching “Fruitvale Station,” might have led you to the logical conclusion that I didn’t see the film. Because I didn’t see “Fruitvale Station.” Bit of a strawman there.

      Both films did very well critically, but the contemporary one was completely shut out of The Academy Awards. I thought that was notable in passing.

      I also acknowledged hearing/reading that “12 Years a Slave” unflinchingly depicts aspects of slavery in the US, and I didn’t say it wasn’t worthy of accolades. In fact, I said the opposite:

      First of all, congratulations to John Ridley on winning an Oscar for Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay for “12 Years a Slave,” and also to Steve McQueen, Brad Pitt and everyone else who helped this film land Best Picture. It’s an incredible accomplishment on its own merits, but the fact that two black men were so central to the vision of such a successful movie make these awards especially noteworthy.

      I agree with you here: “Movie going audiences will always gravitate towards films that comfort their preconceptions.” Using your own logic, that’s what’s responsible for the domestic success of “12 Years a Slave.”

      I don’t agree with the parts of your statement that speak to “our complacency” or that “we” are conditioned to expect a glossy touch when it comes to dealing with our brutal history. In fact, I referred specifically to books I’d read as a child that described the horrors of slavery even before I’d seen a PG-rated movie. Really, man: did you read this post?

      I’ve cut myself off from nothing. I said I “probably” won’t see it: a close reading of the text suggests that I don’t have a strong interest in seeing it because I was (and am) skeptical that it would deepen my personal understanding of slavery in America because I’m already intimately familiar with its horror. Based on the feedback I’ve gotten from friends, they saw the point I was making. I’m genuinely sorry you did not.

      I’d like to end the dramatic ghetto that exists for actors and artists of color. You’re a playwright; do you believe the way people of color are reflected in popular art is representative? Do you think it’s inaccurate to state that corporate media are more comfortable exploring historical racism than its contemporary manifestations?

      Lastly, can you tell me how “The Passion of the Christ,” “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “Schindler’s List” relate to the points I was making? You lost me there.

      But seriously: if you can’t reply without being civil, please don’t bother.

  2. I couldn’t agree with you more, Walter. I did see 12 Years a Slave and wish I hadn’t. I had to leave the theatre at one point because I couldn’t bear the prolonged whipping and I couldn’t cover my ears and eyes tightly enough to shut it out. I spent a lot of time during the movie with my ears and eyes shut. The scenes of prolonged beatings and physical abuse in 12 Years a Slave are similar to the scenes of prolonged torture in Zero Dark Thirty, which I started to see, but walked out of. Why do they need to be there? When a scene goes from the suggestion of violence to the prolonged witnessing of it, we move from realism into the realm of sadism.

    Like you, I heard all the hype about the film and went to see it expecting more of an epic film of redemption. Rather, it should have been renamed 12 Years a Slave and 15 Minutes a Free Man. It was all about the torture, and the degradation of the human spirit. I suppose there was some redemption because people survived, but really what human spirit could survive that and why do we have to see this again to appreciate that it happened? I’m not afraid to see movies with tough subjects and often seek them out, but I don’t need to be sadistically exposed to prolonged torture to empathize with how bad slavery way. Between 12 Years, Lincoln, and Jango you’d think that the only story to tell about the African American experience is one of slavery. Give me a story of a regular, day in the life black person. Give me some damn diversity in film and television.

    I love watching Scandal. It’s over the top dramatic and a real tele-novella so I love it for it’s totally escapist content. But, I notice that when I watch it I also take an out breath. I’m in the company of real people, a mix of people who resemble real life. I also enjoy Person of Interest, but between last year and this year, they’ve killed off their three African American main characters and this year the police station that enjoyed some measure of diversity is literally all white. Really?

    I’ve been thinking of starting a rating system, or maybe a reward system that would rate a film and TV show according to racial, and gender diversity. I heard a stat that the number of women directors is something like 11%, women hosts of the Oscars are rate and yet, at the same time, we saw this year, the oldest average age of nominees for best actress. It would be cool to reward as well as call out on this issue. Any interest in pursuing this with me?

    You’re spot on, Walter.

  3. “Between 12 Years, Lincoln, and Jango you’d think that the only story to tell about the African American experience is one of slavery. Give me a story of a regular, day in the life black person. Give me some damn diversity in film and television.”

    And to that, I say a heartfelt, “Amen!”

    I agree; it would be useful to have something like a Bechdel test (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bechdel_test) to quantify diversity and stereotypes. In general, I don’t think raising awareness is going to be enough to overcome the limitations placed on artists of color.

    What may be needed is generational change; the corporations which produce media are rather homogenous, but the people empowered to actually create these sounds and images are even less diverse. When there are more female and non-white studio heads, producers and directors, the lineup at the multiplex will be a lot different.

  4. stop watching tyler perry shit and demand he make better movies..his films are retarded and serve zero purpose for me.

  5. Hi, Phil. I approved your comment so everyone can see how much value you bring to the conversation.

    I’ve never seen a Tyler Perry movie in my life. Given the tone of my piece, I’m confused about why you drew that conclusion. (Then again, you don’t seem particularly intelligent.)

    Do you feel like your “grow up pussy” comment put me in my place? Also, have you seen any of Benjamin V. Marshall’s plays? You two seem like you’d get along like besties.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s