It finally happened. Eighty-five years after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences began recognizing leaders in the still-developing field of film, it finally happened. An honest, painful, but ultimately cathartic film about slavery with a Black director and Black lead actors won Hollywood’s highest award, the first time a “Black” movie did so. From the Cinderella rise of the film’s lead actress, Lupita Nyong’o to household name status and icon of a different shade of flawless beauty; to the establishment of director Steve McQueen as a powerhouse auteur with the industry in his pocket; to the backdrop of a watershed year for attendance, impact and funding for films with Black directors, casts, and stories; it seemed like last night was the culmination of a dream of sorts in American cinema. If art truly does imitate life, last night was perhaps a sign in the art that perhaps people were finally accepting that folks of color have a place within it and within the larger bounds of the cultural ethos. That the film is based on a autobiographical work from a real Black man-turned-slave brought the triumph full circle. However, the response to the victory was far from universally celebrated.
Among the standard gripes that other films deserved the award more (valid arguments for such a packed field, but ultimately easily dismissable as usual award show fodder), were deeper undercurrents of criticism, both from those who thought it represented a sort of “struggle” trope that Black films are typecast into, and from those who think it was an “affirmative action” choice. While these two arguments couldn’t seem to have more different subscribers (the former is espoused by some Blacks, while the latter is largely the domain of Conservative Ann Coulter types), they aren’t really distinct and are both functions of a deep discomfort with real portrayals of the Black history, a subconscious desire to make that history seem less painful than it actually was, and a strong recency bias.
Let’s just get the facts straight on that first argument. There is no established “slave movie” trope. There isn’t even a larger encompassing subgenre of “subservient Black films.” The films that tend to be mentioned to support the notion that slave/servitude movies are all that are accepted in critical analysis of Black film are “12 Years a Slave,” “Django Unchained,” “The Butler,” and “The Help.” While these are certainly important entries in what looks like a modern-day renaissance in Black film, that’s still only four films in a three year span or so. When you consider that in Hollywood, “movie twins” or films with similar subject matters released in the same time period are very common, then it becomes clear that any argument using the Django/12 Years and The Help/The Butler dualities as its cornerstones is severely limited by recency. When you expand the historical focus beyond just the past few years, it’s even more clear that there’s no basis for the aforementioned argument. In the “Big 4” categories of Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Actress, among films with Black producers or directors and Blacks in the roles up for award, 7 of 38 nominations were for films in which slavery or servitude were the major subjects, over a total of five films. Of the winners in those categories, just one film fits the bill. “12 Years a Slave.” Hardly an unbreakable mold.
The more nuanced form of this particular argument is that critically acclaimed Black movies tend to be about struggle from a racism/poverty context, at the expense of lighter fare or stories about triumph and happiness. But this assertion too rings hollow when you consider that critically acclaimed films tend to be dramas that center around conflict, struggle, or a crisis. Aside from the self-serving annual odes to Hollywood that invariably get laurels, good films often delve into humans at their worst. Actor and actress awards tend to go to those who portrayed inner turmoil and neuroses the best on film. It just so happens that the most common struggles to Blacks involve poverty and racism. I honestly consider any art form about the Black experience that doesn’t touch on what it feels like to be considered part of underclass by many to be incomplete, especially for historical films. Every work of Black art is a statement, and not acknowledging the struggle in these statements just for the sake of promoting a whitewashed dream of happiness is disingenuous. Also, this form of argument casts aside what’s often the actual point of the films: that we have dignity and have often overcome against the terrible odds that beset us. At their purest, most stories about the Black struggle are meant to be essential distillations of the basic American narrative: success against the odds.
This question of the narrative of history is where the first argument joins streams with the second: that the Oscar win was a result of some sort of Affirmative Action pick spurred by White guilt. This argument casts aspersion on the merits of the film and usually asks why we need more slave films since “slavery is over” and talking about racism just makes racism worse (?). While it’s certainly more despicable on its face than the first argument, both have the same insecurity at their cores: a discomfort with facing unpleasant truths of history. On the one hand, many Blacks have been forced to adopt an identity of John Henry style stoicism and a belief in an inner nobility dating back to a mythological monolithic Africa in order to cope with the harsh realities of oppression. The oppression was so deep that many felt they needed to cling to constructs like these to feel worth something. Acknowledging oppression or the role it played in our history often feels like an admission of weakness; so much so that many of us would rather see totally sanitized or fantasy versions of history instead of having to deal with the pain of what really happened.
Blaxploitation film was a function of this need for fantasy. However, these same impulses actually bolster the White instinct to also turn away from history. The discomfort with acknowledging their own role in oppression (or outright racism) led to countless “happy slave” and “happy servant” shuck and jive movies. Of the very sparsely populated slave movie subgenre, most are of the “happy slave variety.” Blaxploitation and “happy slave” movies both make up the outer bounds of fantasy and are a large part of the established canon of Black portrayals in the media. It’s no coincidence that the “slave film” was brought back to prominence by “Django Unchained,” which was a sort of melding of the two themes. That film failed to deliver on its lofty promise not solely because it was too focused on oppression nor because it was too focused on white feelings, but because the director was ill-equipped to understand that he was unleashing the worst of each trope in mixing them.
This is why the victory of “12 Years a Slave” is so important. Not as an end of a difficult century of competing Black narratives and hiding from the truth, but hopefully as the beginning of a renaissance of Black filmmaking that is honest and unblinking. The most salient limitations of “12 Years” are mostly that it is still in some ways linked to white guilt, white savior complex and a stoic black hero complex. These are still hard-wired tropes that will take some time to truly eliminate, and being tied closely to an autobiographical work of limited scope is likely a restraint here. But it’s a much more honest film than most attempted before in the genre, and we need more stories that don’t shy away from explaining the starkness of our nation’s past. McQueen and his ilk deserve a spot at the table alongside the Tyler Perrys and the Kevin Harts and the John Singletons. Maybe then, once we can be assured that there are a range of voices telling multiple sides of the truth and seizing the narrative for ourselves, we can look forward to expanded opportunities in plots. But it seems to me that we’re just starting out, rather than hitting a dead end.