'12 Years a Slave' Does Away With Black Pity and White Glorification

Still from 12 Years a Slave (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Still from 12 Years a Slave (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

12 Years a Slave differs from traditional black slave films in featuring nuanced black voices, Wesley Morris observes in Grantland. It's one of the first slave films to discredit the idea that "black stories are nothing without a white voice to tell them that black people can't live without the aid of white ones,"  Morris writes. 

It's a rare sugarless movie about racial inequality. McQueen doesn't even give you any orchestral elevation. The score is hard and churning and sparingly used. The movie is about Northup, and at several points an audience is free to remember that most movies about the Civil War and slavery have been appeals to our higher, nobler selves. They've been appeals to white audiences by white characters talking to other white characters about the inherent injustice of oppressing black people at any moment in this planet's history.

This is how we get movies in which white lawyers defend innocent black men (To Kill a MockingbirdA Time to Kill). It's how we get romances — JezebelGone With the Wind, Cold Mountain — that use the antebellum South and Civil War as backdrops but feature either the most entertaining black slaves or almost no slaves at all. It's how you get Mississippi Burning, a thriller about three murdered civil-rights activists in which even the one-dimensional racists have bigger speaking parts than any black person.

It's how you get Cry Freedom, a thriller about Steve Biko (Denzel Washington) that mostly locks Biko into flashbacks while a white journalist (Kevin Kline) tries to flee apartheid-era South Africa; a movie about the death of Medgar Evers that's focused on his assassin; Steven Spielberg legislative historical dramas about white men fighting over who owns black people and what it means to do so. It's how you spend 35 minutes hearing Christoph Waltz talk and talk in Django Unchained and get nervous that Quentin Tarantino momentarily forgot what his movie was called.

The quality of these films is not the issue. A few of them are great. But after decades and decades and dozens of titles, you get the political point. Moviesare the most powerful ways Hollywood has to say it's sorry. There is a kind of audacity in something like Lincoln, in which important white men get discursive about the moral quandary in which slavery mires the country. That debate required men to search their souls and vote accordingly. But after enough of these movies, you're just hot with insult. You have to stop accepting apologies, accepting, say, The Help, and start demanding correctives, films that don't glorify whiteness and pity blackness, movies — serious ones — that avoid leading an audience to believe that black stories are nothing without a white voice to tell them that black people can't live without the aid of white ones.


Read Wesley Morris' entire piece at Grantland.  

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