Hattie McDaniel, the first black person to win an Oscar, did so for her role in Gone With the Wind as Mammy in 1939. McDaniel was a formidable actress but, for better or worse, roles that found her playing a maid dominate her résumé because, in her time, domestic servitude was the primary way popular culture could conceive of black women. In 2012, Octavia Spencer won an Oscar for her performance as maid Minny Jackson in the popular but deeply problematic The Help. While there’s a lot of shallow rhetoric about post-racial America, when it comes to the Oscars, Hollywood has very specific notions about how they want to see black people on the silver screen. There are certainly exceptions but all too often, critical acclaim for black films is built upon the altar of black suffering or subjugation.
This year, we’ve seen quite the cinematic parade of both of these kinds of depictions. In the excellent Fruitvale Station, writer-director Ryan Coogler deftly tells the story of the last day of Oscar Grant’s life before Grant was murdered by a BART officer on New Year’s Day in 2009. Lee Daniels’s The Butler chronicles the life of Cecil Gaines, a black butler in the White House for 34 years. Through the story of Gaines’s life, we also learn the story of black America, the challenges of desegregation, and how with dignity, one man persevered. The pinnacle of black suffering, though, comes by way of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. Since the movie’s debut on the festival circuit, it has enjoyed massive critical acclaim. It’s the movie everyone must see, the definitive accounting of America’s brutal legacy of slavery. While it's worth noting that having three movies about the black experience in the Oscar race is disproportionately high, their themes fit into a very narrow box. And that's especially true when you compare them to a few of the movies being discussed as possible Best Picture nominees that focus primarily on white people — the one set in space, the one about a dysfunctional family, the one about a cat-loving folk singer.
But the overwhelming acclaim surrounding 12 Years a Slave is especially curious, because slavery has been well accounted since the early 1800s. What more could possibly be said about slavery? Who has belabored under the impression that slavery was anything but an abject horror? 12 Years a Slave offers a relatively original conceit — the true story of Solomon Northrup, a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. As Michelle Dean notes for Flavorwire, “if on no other grounds, 12 Years a Slave is remarkable because it is the only film to date that is based on a slave’s own account of his experience.” The movie is also the first major studio backed slavery film helmed by a black director. These milestones are not insignificant. Despite the director and the source material however, 12 Years a Slave does not offer any new insight into the slavery narrative.
I chose not to read many reviews before seeing the movie. I wanted my viewing experience to be as unadulterated as possible. Now that I have finally seen the movie, I’ll confess: I am not impressed and I do not understand the effusive acclaim. The movie was brutal, almost mind-numbingly so. Nothing was spared in depicting the harsh realities of human enslavement — the loss of dignity, the physical, sexual, and emotional violence of the experience. The reality depicted in this movie is so harsh I cannot help but wonder if people find the movie excellent because of the sheer relentlessness. I cried more than once, but I was not moved. I was simply broken, the way anyone would be broken by witnessing such atrocities.
12 Years a Slave is a decent enough movie — certainly worth seeing if you’re unclear about slavery and its legacy. The actors involved acquit themselves formidably. The film does a remarkable job of revealing the ways in which white women were complicit in slavery; Sarah Paulson in particular is absolutely chilling as the wife of a cruel slave master. McQueen makes some lovely artistic choices throughout the movie but, at times, those artistic choices are jarring and out of place, and include extended, poetic shots of plantation beauty and overindulgent cinematic pauses that make no sense. The movie drags on at times, the boredom only interrupted by yet another unbearable violence.
Most movies about slavery have a fetish for depicting the mortification of black flesh to better expose the suffering and subjugation; 12 years a Slave is no different. There are a number of scenes where slaves are whipped for one infraction or another. When Solomon is first captured he is “taught his place” with a beating. Slaves are punished for not picking enough cotton. The most harrowing scene is one in which Patsey, a fellow slave, is punished for going to the neighboring plantation for a bar of soap with which to clean herself. Master Epps (played by Michael Fassbender), with a reputation for being a “slave breaker,” is so angry and sick with jealousy, he decides to punish Patsey, but then he can’t follow through because he has feelings for her.
So Epps hands the whip to Solomon, who is reluctant to take part in this brutality yet well aware he has no choice. Solomon does his best to mete out his master’s punishment but, in the end, Epps is not satisfied. He takes the whip from Solomon and uses it on Patsey himself. By the end of the scene, she is barely conscious, her back rent open and bloody. The scene is visceral, as it should be, but it also feels gratuitous because the scene is not designed to amplify Patsey’s plight. The scene is designed to amplify Solomon’s plight, as if he is the more tragic figure in this situation.
My reaction to 12 Years a Slave is borne, largely, by exhaustion. I am worn out by slavery and struggle narratives. I am worn out by broken black bodies and the broken black spirit somehow persevering in the face of overwhelming and impossible circumstance. There seems to be so little room at the Hollywood table for black movies that to earn a seat, black movies have to fit a very specific narrative. Thoughtful romantic comedies like Love & Basketball and the original Best Man, which has a sequel later this month, fail even to be included in most conversations about movies. Sure, they're not Oscar contenders, but they certainly capture the black experience and yet, somehow, they're viewed as being less worthy of talking about than similar fare like Enough Said, which has earned many plaudits. Filmmakers take note of this and keep giving Hollywood exactly what it wants. Hollywood showers these struggle narratives with the highly coveted critical acclaim. It’s a vicious cycle.
There is no one way to tell the story of slavery or to chronicle the black experience. It is not that slavery and struggle narratives shouldn’t be shared but these narratives are not enough anymore. Audiences are ready for more from black film — more narrative complexity, more black experiences being represented in contemporary film, more artistic experimentation, more black screenwriters and directors allowed to use their creative talents beyond the struggle narrative. We’re ready for more of everything but the same, singular stories we’ve seen for so long.