Who Are All These Slavery Movies Really For?

Who Are All These Slavery Movies Really For?

Why you should care

Because Tina Fey and Amy Poehler raised a brilliant point about slavery movies at the recent Golden Globes, and it’s a valid one.

This is my favorite time of year: awards season! I get a thrill watching all the Best Picture-nominated films, and like all the critics, I loved 12 Years a Slave . I also loved last year’s slave-narrative-meets-spaghetti western, Django Unchained , and Steven Spielberg’s magisterial Lincoln . But I have to ask: Just who are all these slave movies for?

These movies are created, funded and hailed by liberals who seem to be enamored with reflecting on our brutal and horrific past. Apparently I’m not the only one wondering about the recent influx of feel-bad American slave flicks. At the Golden Globes recently, co-hosts Amy Poehler and Tina Fey brought down the house when Poehler praised 12 Years a Slave ,the big screen adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir of the same name. “I can honestly say that after seeing that film I will never look at slavery the same way again,” Poehler said with a straight face. But it was Fey who delivered the punch line, asking, “Wait, how were you looking…” Laughter ensued, but it was a serious point.


Chiwetel Ejiofor and other actors walking  towards left in a scene from

Maybe having a black president makes Hollywood and the American public more comfortable facing the nation’s ugly historic truths. But are Americans who watch hours and hours of Fox News and look forward to the proposed changes to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 actually moved by Chiwetel Ejiofor’s portrayal of Northup’s 12 years in hell? Um, probably not.

So, who are these movies intended for?

The answer varies depending on whom you ask. In some cases, the audience can be fairly small. Despite all the raves, Slave has made just over $41 million domestically since it went into wide release last November, while Lincoln raked in more than $182 million and Django did $162 million. So someoneis going to these movies.

African-American film critic Armond White accused McQueen of confusing ’brutality, violence and misery’ with history.

One fact is generally discernible — these movies are created, funded and hailed by liberals who seem to be enamored with reflecting on our brutal and horrific past, accurately and graphically presented by 12 Years ’ director, Steve McQueen. It’s easy to assert that these movies are not for Republicans who suffer from conservative nostalgia, but what’s up with white liberals who seem to be rubbing their own noses in a mess abolished almost 150 years ago?

Some critics go as far as to judge 12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained and Lincoln for inserting “white saviors” in an effort to take the edge off the unsettling realities that take place on the screen. But I watched people of varied ethnic backgrounds at these movies tear up once the credits began to roll, so it doesn’t seem that the “white savior” theory actually makes anyone feel any better.

Others deem the violence in 12 Years excessive. African-American film critic Armond White accused McQueen of confusing “brutality, violence and misery” with history.

Jamie holding Kerry facing forward as another character's back is facing the camera

Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington in a scene from Django Unchained

Unfortunately, McQueen’s 12 Years , as graphic as it may be, is definitely not an exaggeration, so White’s real issue might be whether we need to face this cruelty head-on or not. And that’s part of the conundrum. We — liberals and conservatives and everyone in between — have forgotten how truly ugly our history is, and use these movies to remind us. On the bright side, the success of these slave movies ensures that we won’t forget past ills.

One thing is certain: The American slave narrative is definitely made for the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, Screen Actors Guild and Broadcast Film Critics Association, to name a few. After taking home the award for Best Motion Picture — Drama at the Golden Globes, 12 Years a Slave has nine Academy Award nominations and is a front-runner here, as well — much likeLincoln the year before.

Adversely, less violent but equally riveting movies like Lee Daniels’s The Butler and Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station — both released in theaters before most of the heavily nominated films — have not fared as well during awards season. But The Butler covered the 1960s–1980s, and the real-life events depicted in Fruitvale Station happened only a few years ago, so maybe these two films suffered from a case of “too soon.” At this pace, the civil rights movement will surely be in vogue in about 50 years or so.

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