Tim here. Barring the unexpected end of civilization between now and January, 12 Years a Slave is going to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, and has the clearest shot of anything right now to taking the win altogether. Everyone reading this site knows that as sure as we know anything, which makes it a little shocking when you step back a bit and realise that, as of the day I write this, the film still hasn’t technically been released yet. So I guess we can add “general audiences thinking it sucks” to the list of reasons that it might crash and burn, though I think the end of humanity is at least as likely.
This will be the second time in two Oscar cycles that a film about slavery in the United States will be competing for the big prize. 2012 had Quentin Tarantino’s ultra-violent pastiche Django Unchained of course, and two more diametrically opposed films on the same topic can hardly be imagined: a white American making a hugely irreverent piss-take of the whole edifice vs. a black Brit with his excoriating historical drama. [more]
In the last 11 months, we’ve had essentially the whole gamut of slavery on film embodied in just two movies. And that’s not only true because of the wide stylistic and tonal gulf between the two, but because they represent very nearly the entirety of films that have ever directly and primarily addressed the Peculiar Institution. Which is kind of dumbfounding.
Maybe I’m the only one who thinks this is really weird, given how thoroughly every other aspect American history has been strip-minded by prestige filmmakers. But I doubt it. It has, at any rate, gotten me to thinking about two different questions: why have films about slavery been, historically, so rare? And why is there a sudden rush to fill that gap now?
There’s probably not a single answer, but the partial suggestions I have don’t entirely reflect well on my country. The question of now, I’m somewhat reluctant to suggest, might very well be because now, and not any earlier, is that we have President Barack Obama in the White House, the first African-American to lead the country. Perhaps this makes it “safe” to talk about slavery now, though 12 Years a Slave is certainly not “safe” in the way of the premature “racism is dead!” rhetoric that white progressives had a certain tendency to trot out right after the 2008 elections. Perhaps it’s the exact opposite: having a non-white president has, in fact, raised the profile of the country’s dubious racial history, and the time is right to actively and openly confront the sins of the past.
Both of those suggestions point back somewhat to the first question, I think. Frankly put, white people – and the commanding majority of American filmmakers are and have been white – are generally disposed to avoid discussing slavery, out of a squeamishness about saying the wrong thing, or simply out of deep-seated guilt. Grappling with uncomfortable crimes of the past isn’t something that comes naturally to the national psyche, and there’s no crime more obvious and daunting than this one.
But surely that can’t be the only reason? The treatment of Native Americans was every bit as immoral as the slave trade, and there have been, if not “many”, at least a good number of high-profile films openly attempting to confront the violence meted out on those peoples by the same 19th Century whites whose actions back east have remained such an ultimate cinematic taboo.
Whatever the case, it’s certainly a good thing that this apparent shift is finally happening. Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave may or may not be definitive statements on the slave trade, but we don’t want anything definitive right now. Just the fact that suddenly, filmmakers are willing to explore this sorry period of history is rewarding enough, and whatever feelings one might have about the movies in question, they’re doing it with stylistic brio that makes these more than glum-faced history lessons. They’re raising a conversation that badly needs to happen, and the conceptual issues of why not before, however fascinating they are to contemplate, aren’t as important as the fact that it is finally happening now.