There is little question that “12 Years A Slave” which last week won the Best Picture Oscar, as well as Academy Awards for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress, is a well-made, powerful and important film that deserves the plaudits it has won.
Since that triumph in LA, media gossips have pondered, in between musings about Kim Novak’s and John Travolta’s plastic surgeries, an apparent rift between the film’s director Steve McQueen and its screenwriter John Ridley, both of whom declined to acknowledge the other while receiving their respective awards.
But the success of the film and the sometimes disingenuous ways in which it was marketed raises more interesting questions: questions about Hollywood and slavery, about film and historical accuracy, about the supposed moral superiority of British filmmakers, about why Oscar voters behave the way they do, and the different forms that political correctness takes on both sides of the Atlantic.
It was always a good bet that ‘12 Years a Slave’ would win Best Picture regardless of the films it would be up against, and this year that included superb movies like ‘American Hustle’. Academy voters as a group care very much about the image of their community. They like to reward serious, socially conscious, safely “brave,” conventionally-liberal-minded movies that prove the industry cares about social issues. And, if they can comfortably hand major awards to ethnic minority or women filmmakers they will, because that too makes the industry look politically progressive, unprejudiced, diverse etc. ‘12 Years A Slave’ was a “two-fer” in that regard, and it also happened to be a genuinely first-rate film, unlike, say, “The Butler”.
Some Oscar-watchers have therefore wondered why the film won the Oscar for Best Picture but not Best Director.
The answer could well have something to do with prejudice. Not racial prejudice but genre prejudice. “Gravity” was long a favourite to sweep the Oscars. But no matter how much Academy voters may have admired and enjoyed that film, it is science fiction, and there is an enduring sense that SF films are not entirely serious or worthy.
Only a handful of scifi films have ever been nominated for Best Picture. Even “2001: A Space Odyssey” only won Best Special Effects and was nominated for Best Director but not Best Picture. Incidentally, the same goes for light comedies (“It Happened One Night” and “Annie Hall” are the main exceptions), horror films (the only exception being “Silence of the Lambs”), animated films, and westerns (only three best picture Oscars in the history of Hollywood).
So while the Academy was willing, indeed happy to award Best Director to Alfonso Cuaron for “Gravity” because making that film arguably required tremendous skill and vision, Best Picture might have been a step too far. It’s also worth remembering that Cuaron is Mexican (the first Latin American to win Best Director) and therefore ticks the minority box as well as being unquestionably brilliant.
A cynic might point out that by splitting Best Picture and Best Director between McQueen and Cuaron, the Academy was able to show twice as much affection for top minority filmmakers.]
The extent to which diversity of that kind is a concern for Hollywood may have bypassed British pundits, but it was in evidence on Oscar night in rather admirable ways. The host was the openly lesbian Ellen DeGeneres (who also happened to be the best host in decades). The Academy outdid itself in the number of African-American presenters, culminating in the presentation of Best Picture by Will Smith, but notably including Sidney Poitier who shattered racial barriers 50 years ago when he won Best Actor for “Lilies in the Field”. And the evening included a speech by the Academy’s widely admired president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who happens to be black. It’s hard to imagine any British cultural event that could match that.
It wouldn’t be necessary to make a big deal of this if the UK publicity for ‘12 Years A Slave’ hadn’t made so much of Hollywood’s supposed failures when it comes to race and slavery. Some of this merely manifested the usual cultural jingoism that accompanies the marketing of British films (though co-produced by Brad Pitt, “12 years” was directed by a Briton and starred a British actor in the lead role). But there was an extra edge this time.
Steve McQueen, the artist turned film director who was responsible for the visual beauty and marvelous restraint of ‘12 Years A Slave’ gave the impression in interviews that until he came along Hollywood had ‘ignored’ or sugarcoated slavery, and that he had discovered a lost masterpiece in the book that inspired the film. He added for good measure that “the Second World War lasted five years and there are hundreds and hundreds of films about the Second World War and the Holocaust.”
It is true that Hollywood has made few films that centre on slavery – especially if you don’t count films about American civil war like “Glory” and “Lincoln” – but it’s not really true that it has been a suppressed subject.
After all, this is not even the first time that Solomon Northup’s memoir has been adapted for the screen in Hollywood. The 1984 film “Solomon Northup’s Odyssey” was directed for the PBS network by the pioneering African-American filmmaker Gordon Parks, best known for “Shaft”. (The film starred as young Avery Brooks who is now famous for his lead role in “Star Trek – Deep Space Nine.) This rather undermines the idea that McQueen or his wife unearthed an unknown book.
And Britons who bought the line that “12 Years A Slave” would finally bring the horrors of slavery to the attention of a supposedly naïve American audience might consider that almost the entire adult population of the United States sawAlex Haley’s “Roots” in 1977, a miniseries which hardly soft-soaped the cruel realities of slavery. The same was true of Richard Fleischer’s lurid but compelling 1975 film “Mandingo”; its depiction of slavery is at least as brutal as that in “12 Years a Slave”. Spielberg’s “Amistad” makes no bones about the murderous brutality of the Middle Passage, and in Charles Burnett’s 1996 TV film “Nightjohn” you see a slave having his middle toes cut off for teaching another slave to read.
It is true that before the 1970s, Hollywood eschewed head-on confrontation with slavery, though its sinister afterglow is the context of any number of films like “To Kill A Mockingbird”, “The Defiant Ones”, “Home of the Brave,” and “In the Heat of the Night” in which Sidney Poiter famously demands to be called “Mister Tibbs”. And even in the ‘90s it was common to deal with slavery in an oblique way. Jonathan Demme’s harrowing adaptation of Toni Morrison’s novel “Beloved”, for example is about the terrible psychological toll of slavery.
But the idea that floated around the early publicity of “12 Years of Slave” that Hollywood habitually depicts happy slaves on elegant plantations in the manner of ‘Gone with the Wind’ (1939) and Birth of a Nation (1915) is rubbish. The only modern film I can think of that depicts contented slaves is Mel Gibson’s “The Patriot”, which is what you might expect given that filmmaker’s unusual worldview.
As for McQueen’s other controversial point, it is of course true that that there have been many WWII films. This presumably reflects that it was an event in living memory that profoundly involved much of the world’s population, and also the way that war stories have stirred audiences since the first stories were told around cave dwellers’ campfires. But contrary to myth, there have not been many films about the Holocaust. The only major ones that come to mind are “Schindlers List”, “the Pianist”, “The Boy in Striped Pajamas” and “the Reader”. As with slavery, until the 1990s (and with the exception of the 1978 TV miniseries ‘Holocaust’) the subject was almost always dealt with at one remove as in films like “Judgment at Nuremberg” and “The Odessa File”. After all, feature films are primarily designed for entertainment (albeit sometimes of a serious nature), and it is hard to make the spectacle of mass suffering bearable, let alone entertaining.
This is why in both good and bad ways “12 Years a Slave” is the “Schindler’s List” of its time and its subject. Like “Schindler’s List” it makes the compromises necessary to represent a huge historical horror in a film that people are going to be willing to watch. One of those necessary compromises is basing the film on a character who is essentially untypical of the myriad victims of that horror.
“Schindler’s List” doesn’t view the Holocaust from the point of view of one its typical victims but instead from that of a German witness turned rescuer. He belongs to a category that in real life was extremely small and unrepresentative, but one with which audiences can identify more comfortably. Similarly, Solomon Northup is not a typical slave but one of a small number of free blacks kidnapped into slavery and the even tinier number of those kidnapped free blacks who were rescued from bondage before the Civil War. Both Northup and Schindler are outliers, and have stories that end in triumph. Their unrepresentativeness makes it possible to bear a representation of the unbearable.
And like “Schindlers List”, “12 Years A Slave” is horrifying while holding back from depicting the depth and extent of history’s real horrors.
Indeed, as the American critic John Podhoretz has pointed out, Northup’s book provides “a portrait of slave life far more brutal and grinding and unimaginably dehumanizing than the movie’s” and that if the movie had shown all the horrors that Northup recounts “it would be unendurable.”
Although people are shocked and horrified by the film’s one explicit piece of cruelty – the whipping of the slave woman Patsy – I would argue that McQueen’s movie is a work of remarkable restraint and reticence (especially compared to the indulgent voyeurism of his first two films) while remaining faithful to the book and scrupulously accurate historically. The rapes are implied; you don’t see any children being beaten; there are no mutilations and unlike in the book no-one is ripped to pieces by dogs trained for that purpose. Yet John Ridley’s screenplay brilliantly captures the drama and tone of the book while leaving stunned audiences in no doubt about slavery’s savagery.
Even so, the controversial African-American film critic Armond White says that McQueen’s film is “torture porn”. He sees it as being the most prominent of an Obama-era wave of films that portray blacks as victims – a wave that includes The Butler, The Help and Fruitvale Station. The implication is that solidly Democrat Hollywood is making movies that support the notion that opposition to the President is motivated by racism
None of this means that the film will prompt America to “come to terms with slavery” as some British commentators have hoped. Nor is it obvious that Americans need a film for that to happen. They did after all fight a vast civil war about slavery, one that cost at least 600,000 lives. As the historian Orlando Patterson has pointed out, the United States is one of two countries in all human history, the other being the United Kingdom, that battled and ended slavery by force of arms.
Which means that it is interesting that some commentators have used the film to call for more British apologies for this country’s role in the Atlantic slave trade. It’s a call that ignores Britain’s unique, costly efforts to stamp out slavery. It fails to consider that in comparison to other former slave-trading European nations like France, Spain, Portugal, Denmark and Holland, Britain is an exemplar. It takes no note at all of the lack of regret expressed by the Gulf Sultanates that ran East Africa’s slavery, or the successor states of West African kingdoms like Dahomey that grew rich on the slave trade. And of course, it is ignorant of the forms of slavery that have never been genuinely banned in South Asia and the Middle East.
Indeed Britons can take pride in the fact that Steve McQueen more than made up for his initial marketing strategies, when at both the Baftas and the Oscars he used his acceptance speech to make an appeal on behalf of the “21 million” people trapped in the modern-day slavery that continues in the Gulf, in Asia and even in Europe.
It is hard to imagine Spike Lee, were he to make a film about slavery and win an award for it, ever making such an appeal, or resisting the temptation to deliver an anti-white harangue with a statuette in his hand.
It is why there is perhaps some truth to Brad Pitt’s generous claim that 12 Years A Slave “could only have been made by a Brit”. Since the Blaxploitation era of the 1970s African-American filmmakers have concentrated on other aspects of the American experience and been keener to depict Black pride and success against the odds than the vast victimhood of slavery.
Of course an American might well ask why a Black Briton of Barbadian descent didn’t make a film about Caribbean slavery, which was arguably much crueler than that in the American South.
But perhaps the real lesson of the success of “12 Years a Slave” in particular and this year’s Oscars in general is that what people call “Hollywood” is more than ever a joint British-Australian-American industry, and all the better for it. Indeed you could go further and argue that filmmaking is one of two areas –the other being defence – in which the Anglosphere is real and flourishing and good for the world.
(A shorter, slightly version of this piece appeared in the Spectator on March 17 2014 and is available here.