Steve McQueen leapt up and down like a punk rocker when he won Best Picture.
“I hate that guy,” I said.
And so another awards season came and went. It was a foregone conclusion, really. Prettified movies about “important” subjects are eternal shoo-ins for Academy Awards. 12 Years a Slave was spoken of as an Oscar frontrunner even before production finished. Quite alarmingly, when I finally forced myself to watch it just before the Academy Awards, I found it to be meticulously crafted, achingly emotional, and unabashedly noble in its intentions. That’s right, your standard awards-bait, art-house-meets-assembly-line formula product.
12 Years a Slave‘s IMDb page lists a combined 271 awards and nominations, a rate of almost two a day since its premier at the Telluride Film Festival last August. People are falling over themselves to praise it, and, as the triumphant jump on the Oscar stage indicates, director McQueen himself is very happy with the awards he has received. It even seems like, in the heat of the moment, McQueen forgot that the bedrock of his personal anointment as a major artist is a story of immeasurable suffering among an immeasurable number of similar stories. Or maybe he was happy that their ignored stories might receive more attention now. But a man of Steve McQueen’s intellect and industry savvy should know better. He should know that, while his subject matter deserves respect, the 86th Academy Award is no such token of respect. It is a piece of self-congratulation the overwhelmingly white film establishment loves to repeatedly give itself.
From The Blind Side to Schindler’s List, Hollywood continues to enshrine films that, while covering many different issues, never fail to congratulate, rather than implicate, their white audiences. Often the films feature white protagonists-surrogates for the enlightened well-to-do viewers-performing a noble act that brings the disenfranchised black everyman (as is the case with The Blind Side) up to their proverbial level. Contrary to 12 Years a Slave’s grounding of the slavery experience in a period-piece timeframe in a caricatured South-it is, after all, titled 12 Years a Slave and not Several Thousand Years a Transnational Phenomenon of Slavery-the notion of the White Man’s Burden still feels disconcertingly prevalent.
In the particular case of 12 Years a Slave, the issue is not so much that the audience enjoys a heroic surrogate-though producer Brad Pitt and his grey Jesus scruff appear in the role of benevolent figure-but that the film is a calculated portrayal of a slave experience through a lens which a white audience would find palatable. The film is shot with an aggressive artfulness focused on using camera technique and all of our conceptions of beautiful images to accentuate the visceral impact of the story. “I felt like I was there” summarizes much of the critical and audience praise given to 12 Years a Slave. But oh my, my friend, you certainly were not there. You couldn’t be farther from the muggy Deep South in 1845, all perched up in your comfy theater chair gorging yourself on $8 popcorn in air-conditioned comfort, surrounded by like-minded, politically-correct sensitives with a good deal more freedom than billions of people living or dead. But you feel awful about it, of course! I totally believe you. After all, that’s why you’re here.
But 12 Years not only wants you to feel like you were there, but also that you experienced the issue of slavery in totality. The script is lean and carefully plotted, with each scene functioning perfectly in the narrative so as to leave you with a different piece of knowledge about the movie’s major themes-the hallmark of a great film. But the big themes and watertight plotting provide a sense of form and finitude while attempting to summarize an issue for which explanation is tough and finitude is hard to come by. You leave the theater having enjoyed an experience tailored for your enlightenment. And, for the ability to feel great about how bad you can feel, all the film asks is 134 minutes of your time (assuming you stay dutifully for the credits), a very small investment when compared to longer periods of time like, oh, I don’t know, 12 years.
Okay, slow down. Because the “us” in “Watching Us Watch 12 Years a Slave” is the self-consciously self-aware American white viewer, and no one in that audience exemplifies that more than the one writing about the film. He’s the even more insidious kind of self-aware white guy feasting on the experience of 12 Years a Slave-the one who latches on to the rest of the white audience’s need to be congratulated by their art as a chance to distinguish himself. By supposedly seeing through the faulty dynamic 12 Years a Slave sets up with its target audience, he appears to have finally achieved that millennial ideal of enlightenment through total self-awareness. By pointing out when others are not self-aware, he figures that it will make him more aware than everyone else, and therefore as self-aware as someone could possibly be.
Then someone mentions Brokeback Mountain.
A remarkably similar case to 12 Years a Slave, Brokeback Mountain was an aggressively beautiful yet totally establishment depiction of a group with a history of being marginalized by mainstream American society. Until last week, I praised that movie to the high heavens. It was aesthetically supreme, meticulously plotted, and, dare I say it, “I felt like I was there” in those vivid landscapes and in the emotional experience of the protagonists. The comparison to Brokeback Mountain fills me with dread. I have no clue what other things I enjoy which should be held accountable to the infringements I only managed to spot in 12 Years a Slave. Most of the time none of us will be aware of our biases, the way our tastes bend around our urge to be congratulated or to stand out.
Editor’s Note: The views presented in this column are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of The Heights.