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Early Reactions To ‘Twelve Years A Slave’ Suggest Average Black Audiences Won’t Like It

Early Reactions To 'Twelve Years A Slave' Suggest Average Black Audiences Won't Like It

A film I’m eagerly-anticipating this year, which we believe will likely premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May, is Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years A Slave – one of 7 more slave-themed films I highlighted in a January post, that we can expect some time this year.

It’s a film whose title was mentioned often in discussions about Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, although, from what we know of McQueen’s film, there’s very little to compare between both films, other than they’re both set during a time before slavery was outlawed in this country (the USA). But the narratives of each film, as well as the motivations of the filmmakers behind each film, are very different.

As we wait for an announcement on when McQueen’s film will make its debut, as well as for a glimpse at the film, via a trailer, clips, or some official stills, test screenings of the film are currently taking place in a few cities across the USA, and some of our readers attended those test screenings and shared their reactions with us, although, more specifically, the reactions that attending audiences had to the film. So, no spoilers here.

I won’t post every email I received, because they all had very similar reactions, but I thought this one was especially interesting in its focus on how black people in the audience received the film. So, check it out below.

As I told my comrades here at S&A, I’m sure Twelve Years A Slave will generate a lot of discussion within the black community. I certainly don’t expect it to make anywhere near the box office that Django Unchained did. Not because of its quality – McQueen doesn’t disappoint – but, again, these are 2 very different films (one was made strictly to entertain; the other – while its story of perseverance and triumph will move and even entertain you – will most certainly challenge you in ways the other did not). As I said a couple of months, if you were overwhelmed by the so-called realistic, disturbing violence in Django Unchained, you’re not ready for Twelve Years A Slave, which, if you’re familiar with McQueen’s past work, and you’ve read the novel its based on, or read the script, is far more brutal than anything Tarantino showed you.

But, I’m looking forward to seeing it this year finally!  Depending on who the distributor is, and what kind of marketing push it gets, Chiwetel Ejiofor could very well be in the mix for Best Actor during awards season next year; and obviously, Steve McQueen for Best Director. There could also be some Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress roles as well.

Without further ado, here’s one reader-submitted reaction to reactions to the test screening of the film:

I’m a regular reader on your amazing site. I just wanted to let you know that I saw 12 years a Slave at a test screening. Technically, I can’t say anything about it, but I just felt the need to write to you about it since it is heavily anticipated amongst the readers and creators of your site. It wasn’t quite finished, it was a little long and still needs editing. However, I did enjoy it a lot. What I wanted to write about were the reactions of the crowd. The crowd was very diverse. I would say most of them were average movie-goers. There were also quite a few Black people in the crowd and of course cinephiles and film students. It seemed like a lot of Blacks (at least the ones that I was paying attention to) didn’t like it. I mean the film is brutal and really dives into the horrors of slavery. There were no Black women dressed up like pets and there was no Dr. King Schultz (a White guy that the White audience could identify with as being cool and not a racist). Not to say all the White characters were evil racists, just saying there was no White Savior that had a huge part. The story was mostly Solomon’s and really focused on Slave life. So I understand that it was going to be uncomfortable for many. A lot of Blacks lambasted it for not being inspirational or for not being fun and being too brutal. There were a few who have seen McQueen’s previous films who liked it, but the majority of them did not. I guess they wanted a nicer sugar coated story like The Help or a fun Blaxploitation film like Django. I guess this just brings me to say what do we want? I mean not all Black people think alike or act the same. We are all different, but if we are shaking our heads at a more serious film about slavery then I’m just dumbfounded. I guess what I’m trying to say is maybe We are part of the problem with diversity among Black films. I mean if Black people do not want to see a serious film about slavery then why would anyone else? Why don’t we just fill the theatres with Tyler Perry’s films and films like The Help or Jumping the Broom? Is that fair? We have many different stories to be told and I don’t think we should be subjected to just 3 or 4 types of films. Of course most of the Audience were average movie goers who have not seen Shame or Hunger. 12 Years a Slave would probably play better with the art-house crowd. Whites have the luxury of being the majority (in more ways than one) so it’s much easier for them to have a diverse range of films. I just wanted to reflect a bit that’s all and give my thoughts. Oh and I’m not saying that the film had a negative reception. Overall it was positively received. I just wanted to focus in on the reception from Blacks. I almost forgot, the N-word was dropped a lot. I know a lot of people were up in arms about that in Django.

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Comments

Brad

Twelve Years a Slave is NOT A NOVEL – it is a slave narrative published in the 1850s. One of many at that. Novels are fiction…the story of Solomon Northrup is all too true.

gavla

This was a terrible, boring article

eggton

"obviously, Steve McQueen for Best Director."

Why's that then? His debut, Hunger, was grandstanding, shallow and massively over-hyped. The second one, Shame, bombed critically and commercially, rightly making many "worst of the year" lists. The idea of this puffed-up fame-whore tackling the issue of slavery is almost too hideous to contemplate. In any case, Tarantino hit the nail on the head already with the excellent Django.

Terraformer

"average black audiences won't like it"
WTF. . . If I were black I'd be massively offended by that. Can anyone explain to me what an average black audience member is like?
PEOPLE will like it judged on their personal tastes, not on SKIN colour. Article writer needs a good slap
– See more at: http://prometheusforum.net/discussion/4533/twelve-years-a-slave#Item_4

lilkunta

@No Brainer For you to compare slavery to a toothache is absolutely horrible and ignorant. Please dont ever do that again.

NO BRAINER | February 24, 2013 3:09 AM
This is why Hollywood doesn't touch slavery films. They know black folks better than black folks know themselves. They know people like you crowd the community, people who think they know how bad slavery was and a film focused in that area is limited to a vague theme like "slavery was awful." Yes, slavery was awful, but so is a toothache. It the story is told…..

lilkunta

tambay : please change this post title. This isnt 'ealy reactions', this is ONE PERSON's reaction. And the film wasnt finished.

starry118

I have to say, I'm disappointed with Shadow and Act for framing the discussion about this film in this way … very, very disappointed … that is all.

Temi Olutunmbi

Post more reactions. I want to know more.

NO BRAINER

Still with your Oscar predictions. You never get it right…lol.

julian steptoe

The "slave film", as a genre, serves more to educate, than to entertain, the general movie goer. In addition, the Black audience is reminded of the root of many perso.al dilemmas and delivered a personal impact. Quentin's film soundly achieves all three traits. It is an extraordinary film. Indeed, the value of all such films lies in their capacity to inspire discussion and movement towards reparations, as its due is curative of major, real, social and personal problems. For this purpose, I champion the release of tjese seven.films

Britgirlblack

I've never thought of S&A readers as your average movie goer, thus the title infers a sense of snobbery as well as the email it's self

lil nut

all u pea-brained-short-sighted fuckas talking ill about spike need to keep his name out ya mouths! the man is a legend who has single-handedly EARNED the right to like or not like whatever he chooses. WE LOVE U SPIKE! thanks for big upping black folks for 20+ years!

Brian

Readers of the site should now know to never email your opinion to any editors or creators of this site. It's funny how the title of the post suggested that the emailer used the term "Average Black Audiences" when the term that was used was "average moviegoer". A lot of people are average movie goers, which is perfectly fine. We all have hobbies. As CareyCarey said I understand what the person was trying to say even if it was misconstrued by the title of this post.

Shantel

"So now we have a visitor who was kind enough (and maybe mis-informed enough) to share her thoughts with Tambay… which found its way to this board. Oh lord, I can't help but believe she couldn't have known all hell would break loose. Little did she know (I'm assuming, now) that her every word would be picked and poked and analyzed to death."

I agree, I'm not going to pick apart someone's opinion apart when the editors of this site are the ones who decided to post it. For all we know the person could be a teenager.

Poe

But, is it fair to judge the entire black community of film goers by the reactions of a small sporadic few black faces in an audience. This appears to be what many are doing in the comments as well as in the email above. I am open to the film and WANT to see it. People of African descent are not monolithic in thought and behavior despite what whomever may want to think—-not all posters here are of African descent! Oh well…

AccidentalVisitor

Without knowing the quality of the film whatsoever I still am not surprised by this one individual's view of the interpretation (if accurate) of the black audience's reaction.

You know the old saying if "America has a cold, black people have a fever"? Well, to put it in a film perspective, if the movie preferences of Americans in general are shallow, simplistic, uncomplicated and safe, black audiences take it to a whole other level of depravity.

I'm just being real. I can name quite a few black folks who love to tackle what I view as more challenging movies. But they are the clear minority. Most black people I come across have no tolerance for subtitles, complicated plot structures and characters, open-ended interpretations, social realism, untidy endings and subtlety. Now again…to be fair….these traits may be found in most Americans overall. But with black folks the roots are deeper and more troublesome. We feast on junk. Junk food. Junk literature. Junk cinema.

When I worked a year at a video store during my first year in college, I'll admit it was difficult to get most customers interested in renting foreign films and independent movies. But my black customers presented the most difficult challenge. Anything out of their comfort zone was a no-no. There were some rare exceptions. And some others who would attempt to broaden their minds if the non-Hollywood films centered around black characters. But if those particular films came across as too foreign, if they traversed filmic territory that the viewers weren't used to, they ended up being disappointed in those movies and at times made uncomfortable by them. And if those flicks were in a foreign language? Good God, that was too much to ask. I was told countless times by the black customers that they didn't want to "read a film".

In my post-video store days I still hear that term from black co-workers and friends when I mention foreign language movies full of subtitles. And then there are the sideway glances amongst each other as they wonder what this idioic black man is doing watching subtitle movies about poor, desperate characters living in urban Turkey. They ask why I would watch something like that instead of a Tyler Perry film. I don't try to convince these folks to check out mot of the films I watch; it would be pointless. These individuals tend to only see loud Hollywood mainstream flicks, silly Hollywood comedies, and low-brow small budget black movies (often with a heavy Christian theme) geared to a black mainstream audience.

So, no, most of these people probably wouldn't be interested in "Twelve Years". They don't want to see suffering of black characters, often explaining this by saying they go through enough pain in their own lives. They want feel-good films with clear, moral messages. They want neat and happy endings. They want simple shots and even more simpler storylines with characters who are not shades of grey, but more black and white. They want "positive" characters doing "positive" things. And they want TV-lighting that makes all the black people look perfect and pretty in their perfect and pretty clothing. And many have no desire to see slavery depicted on screen. Plenty of them wangted nothing to do with Django; one even asked me why I would want to see any movie that tackled the subject of slavery.

Well to these particular folks "Django Unchained" may likely be as light as a Star Wars flick in comparison to Twelve Years. At least Django Unchained had almost all of the black women looking as if they had just walked out of today's beauty salons. I'm guessing that is not how the black women will look in Steve's movie. Very darkskinned black women with natural hair that hadn't seen any beauty combs and in clothing that is not much more than rags. Black people want NOTHING to do with that. They don't want to see that on their screens. Black people also don't want to see representation of just how bad it may have been for their forebearers,. Forebearers who for the most part were not in a position to fight back. They want something like John Singleton's "Rosewood" instead which took a tragic tale based on real life events and turned it into some John Wayne flick with Ving Rhames playing the cowboy riding to the rescue while taking on the white mob.

CareyCarey

Kilgore: Smell that? You smell that?
Lance: What?
Kilgore: Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that.
[kneels]
Kilgore: I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hill bombed, for 12 hours. When it was all over, I walked up. We didn't find one of 'em, not one stinkin' dink body. The smell, you know that gasoline smell, the whole hill. Smelled like
[sniffing, pondering]
Kilgore: victory. Someday this war's gonna end…

When I think of Shadow & Act I am reminded of that quote. I change the word napalm to – CON-TRO-VER-SY. And I love the smell of controversy in the morning.

Now excuse me while I HIP HIP HOORAY for S&A because it knows what side its bread is buttered on. That be the controversial issues surrounding everything related to — as MsWoo said — Covering Cinema of and about the African Diaspora.

So now we have a visitor who was kind enough (and maybe mis-informed enough) to share her thoughts with Tambay… which found its way to this board. Oh lord, I can't help but believe she couldn't have known all hell would break loose. Little did she know (I'm assuming, now) that her every word would be picked and poked and analyzed to death.

But, as I said, I love the smell of napalm (and controversy) and this is what we do at S&A. We blow shit up. Let me count the ways…. The Help… Django… Scandal… everything slave related… Spike Lee… things white people do… Tyler Perry…

But in the end, I am reminded of what Angie Stone said:

[Controversy of the black diaspora] It'd be the kind of habit you don't wanna break, and aggravation you don't mind takin'. An argument or two, well and that's ok cuz (Cuz it really don't matter what he's sayin') Cuz it goes in one ear and out the other. You gon' make up anyway under the covers (See, you don't really want much). But you know, but you know, but you know 'bout that, cha'll

Mark and Darla

FADE IN

INT. TYLER PERRY PLAY ROOM – ATLANTA – DAY

Large screen television is on; Tyler relaxes comfortably in his recliner munching gourmet popcorn, sipping champagne, cell phone rings.

TYLER
Dude what's up…

QUENTIN
Your people at it again…

TYLER
What people, and what do you mean
'your people' niggar done tell you don't
be talking to me like that.

QUENTIN
Tyler just joking, just love it when
you call me niggar, give me goose
bumos

TYLER
You crazy.

QUENTIN
Forgot what I call for, oh yeah
Shadow and Act.

TYLER
Oh the 'WE HATE TYLER PERRY'
blog, what are the fools saying.

Quentin laughs.

QUENTIN
Steve McQueen '12 years a slave' moving
screening and how black people not going
to like it.

TYLER
What's that got to do with us.

QUENTIN
Our name is all over this post, we are
their whipping boys when something
ain't gonna go right with an intellectual
black movie coming out.

TYLER
Same old argument, well me and Madea say
FUCK'EM ALL.

QUENTIN
(grinning)
Yeah baby, hey Tyler lets get together and
make a movie'

TYLER
Sound good.

QUENTIN
Can you imagine if the movie is success and
win a Oscar.

TYLER
That will be the HOLY GRILL, people on
Shadow and Act will hunt us down and kill us.

Laughter erupts

TYLER
Talk later man.

QUENTIN
Check back with you soon.

Cell phones click off, Tyler exhales, lie back relax singing to his self.

TYLER
(snapping his fingers)
I got the world on a string, dada dada, I did it my way, dada dada.

FADE OUT

Blackman

If it is not BRUTAL, NASTY, AND FILLED WITH PSYCHOTIC White people doing all the God Awful HATEFUL things to the New Africans in America. Then this film is Trash.

White people DO NOT want to tell on themselves.

QT

Thank you dumb black people in these comments continuing to drop Django every time another black film is mentioned. I couldnt be as successful as I am today if I didn't realize that black people in America constantly measure everything they do or other black people do against white people. For that I say you will never win as long as you play our game.

Troy

This reader-submitted reaction is pure propaganda. What did the viewer enjoy about it and why wouldn't other less sophisticated blacks? It is a complete echoing of subjective opinions shared on this blog. To suggest that all black films released every year can fit in under 4 categories expresses a lack of historical film context. From a commercial standpoint articles like this make me feel more comfortable visiting this site as I know that you guys are willing to do whatever you have to do to stay open to core the topics you and we want you to. This however is not one of them. Every time someone creates something only time can tell. This viewers prognostications can be used to sway a few from watching this film. The subjective dilemma perpetuates itself when other sites that cover this angle use this topic for traffic. It doesn't have to be this email but the cast of doubt on an audience that hasn't viewed the content is ridiculous and almost inflammatory. No matter how many nice things thy can say about McQueen.

LeonRaymond

This person hit it right on the head. a Black audience is far too schizoid to appreciate a film that is honest and okay yes brutal, not very film can be sugar coated but it appears that's what Black audiences want -don't you dare hold a mirror up to them or else you will suffer the fate of so many. A work of art that depicts is not what Black folk want. They did not want the Great Debater's which was served with joyous tone. Django no matter how good was a cartoon. It was set out to be anything other than a very well thought out cartoon. You could almost substitute AVATAR for DJANGO cause both were cartoons. A real heart felt historical story that deals with tones of slavery is something that should be seen. But I know the person who went to see the film was right on point. Let's just make nothing but Tyler Perry Movies and Help Sequels and Black audiences will be fine!

Aaron

Well since the viewer thinks that the average black audience will not like it then they will just love "Tyler Perry Presents……..Madea Tubman: A Sassy Slave Narrative". Hellur Massa!!!

Maya

Okay, I was at a test screening in L.A. last night – McQueen was there, too – and as I was reading that person's emailed account of Black people's reaction to the movie, all I could think of was how the hell does he/she know WTF "the Black" people were thinking? If the audience was mixed, as they stated, and I'm assuming the theater wasn't a tiny one, then how can you know what the consensus was among ONE group of people?

In my theater, that would've been impossible. As someone previously stated, before screening the film you wait in line for what seems like forever and there you get a chance to meet people standing near you and listen to nearby conversations but once you're in the theater and the movie starts and ends, you're filling out the questionnaire afterward and it's just not possible to gauge the response to the movie by ONE particular race of people as though they were all sitting together and then huddled up in a post viewing discussion. I mean, as a person who sat there in a large theater with a mixed audience, myself, I just don't see how on earth I would've been able to tell you what it seemed like all the Black folks thought of the film. Shoot, I can't tell you what on earth all the white people thought of the film and I was surrounded by them in my row. And of course, while you're walking out of the theater you hear bits of conversation from people around you but it would've been to a far lesser extent at the screening since people were finishing their questionnaires at different times and thus leaving the theater in trickles rather than in bulk like normal movie-going. Sorry, but that email doesn't wash with me.

Camaro

I am happy that the film is good but less be clear. This film will have the same fate as Steve last two films. When it comes to Boxoffice and Oscars this film will have the same fate as Beloved and Amistad and not like Django. I don't see critics loving this films as much as Django. The reason why black people and everybody else for the matter ran out to see Django was because it gave us view of slavery that we never heard of. Even though the film was not true it was nice to see a slave get revenge on his master. 12 years a slave tells us what we already know. Slavery was awful. The film may be great but less face it. Does it have a nothing new to say that Roots, Amistad or The Middle Passage or even Beloved did not say. Django was great in its own fictional way and this I am pretty sure this movie will be two. Can we just be happy.

CareyCarey

"Suggests Average Black Audience Won't Like It". Hmmmmm, the beat goes on… who is that audience?

I pondered that exact question – 'who is that audience' – while reading the reader-submitted comments. Since I have no way to discern their age (or her age), background, purpose or motive for viewing this film or any film, I have to take their reactions with a grain of salt. I mean, do they represent me… or the average black audience? I have no idea.

However, although some take umbrage at Sergio's more "liberal" comments, I listen to him as if he's E.F. Hutton. He may be old and grumpy, but he's very wise and very passionate about films/movies. Consequently, I am reminded of his past comment – in a podcast – that spoke to blacks not being "ready" for a true depiction of the horrors of slavery.

On a related note, in the Soledad O'Brien post, he said "And since there are about 40 million black people in that country (America) there are about 40 million different experiences." Consequently, I am left to believe we have 40 million different viewpoints. So again, I have no idea who or what constitutes the "average black audience".

Personally, from my perspective, I can find many rewards of viewing Tyler Perry's films, The Help and Django. So I look forward to seeing Steve McQueen's "Twelve Years". I don't know about anyone else, but the history of the director and the actors tells me it's going to be an enjoyable experience.

monkeysuit

I really hate this post. How can this person within the same sentence say "not all black people are alike," BUT then use the few black people in one screening as a projection of pan-Africa's reaction to this film?

That's the type of shit I do not like. If you take the population of the world, filled with all its races, only a small percentage appreciate art house films. That's a fact. To expect the majority of black America to somehow overcome this pervasive prejudice just because slavery is at the center of the plot, is unfair.

Now I LOVE Steve McQueen. I absolutely worship his work, but I do not expect my mother or my sister, who are not cinephiles to accept his films. That is not a flaw on their part. Their palettes just aren't trained for that, which is fine. So to say "black people don't want to see a serious film about slavery," to me is completely off-based. I'm pretty sure if this is a good film, the black people who do appreciate art house films and Mc Queens work will probably be fans. But those who don't are not ignorant or simple or whatever else this unknown commentator is trying to imply. This is reeking in pretention. The old talented tenth, I'm smarter than the rest of these negroes cause I can appreciate high art mess.

It is possible to make an accessible movie about slavery that is politically sound that most of black America can appreciate. However, knowing McQueen's track record unconventional story telling, this ain't gonna be it.

Dee

To flog a dead horse just one… mo… time.

Django Unchained was not the film Black People needed but the film we deserved.

Cary

Sadly with Django being very popular and a huge hit with just about everybody this film will half to live in its shawdow. I am pretty sure The Butler will be the black film of the year that Amps will love. Well atleast the film is good.

getthesenets

the email posted above seems bogus

Was the writer(of the email) attending the screening or there to gauge the reaction of the audience?I've not attended a screening before but unless there is a discussion group afterwards, I'm wondering how the writer is able to figure out how the blacks in the audience reactedt to the film..unless he's referring to the group he attended the screening with.

The email sounds like what a person who is doing research/polls/ focus group would say,AFTER interviewing people in the audience. What does a "regular movie fan" look like?
What dos a film student look like? How about a "cinephile"?

Average person attending a screening would be hard pressed to know the reactions or backgrounds of more than 6-8 people.

Sounds bogus.

Tamu

Seems black folk really need to dive into a few books specifically those involving slave narratives. This idea or expectation that slavery is supposed to be fun and lighthearted is absurd. It was/is a brutal exposition of humanity. We've been so saturated with various versions that do not focus on real nastiness of slavery that many people have come to believe that it wasn't "that" bad. I can't wait to see the film. Judging from this brief write up, it seems to be the closest depiction since Roots.

Kevin

I wonder will people love this as much as Django. I mean Django was a huge hit around the world and got a lot of Oscar nods. I hope this does the same. Lets see how much Spike Lee hates this.

regi

while i respect mcqueen's work heretofore, i definitely do not "love" it. but i am looking forward to this for all the reasons the correspondent suggested: it aspires to a "realistic" depiction of slavery, ie. a brutal, unspeakable horror.
btw, anybody who says DJANGO had "realistic" depictions of violence is waaaay off the mark. people are not bags of blood that explode when shot. at least not usually.

Curtis

Sadly this films comes out after the massive hit Django. Other then a few has been black filmmakers and a few on this site black people loved Django. When they see this movie they will need to remember that this is more Amistad not Django. I don't think this will have the Oscar and Boxoffice success and Django or The Help sadly. Happy to hear that the film is great.

msjjstone

I love Steve McQueen. I am so excited to see this film!

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