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Despite Success Of ’12 Years A Slave,’ Many Stories Set During The Period Still To Be Told

Despite Success Of '12 Years A Slave,' Many Stories Set During The Period Still To Be Told

Praise for Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave has been near-deafening, with critics and audiences alike, who’ve seen the film ahead of its October release, appreciative of its attempts to capture, honestly, the realism and brutality of slavery in this country. And while I found it a certainly well-made, frank film, I’ll also say that there’s still an even more brutal film about slavery to be made. 

In fact, I’ll add that there are still countless stories about that grave period in American history to be told on screen, and we all should be curious and interested in seeing them realized. This is after all not just black history, but American history.

I don’t think it’s hyperbole for me to say that slavery is the foundation upon which this country, these United States of America, was built. And yet, in the 100 year history of the cinema, it’s only now that a film of this scale and caliber, made for the big screen, that honestly captures the cruelty and inhumanity of slavery without any sensationalism, is finally a reality. 

I’m sure I’m in the minority when I say that, after seeing the film myself a couple of weeks ago, I think praise for it is excessive. The problem here as I see it, is that, unlike the volume of films made about the Jewish Holocaust (a comparison some might not like, but is the most immediate other historical human tragedy that most of us are familiar with, and one that often draws comparison) on an annual basis, films that tackle slavery in the USA in any capacity (especially at such a high profile level, given the names involved in front of and behind the camera) are still very few and far between. And so praise for 12 Years A Slave, while I won’t say is completely undeserved, could also be influenced by the fact that there just isn’t anything else to compare it to, because, once again, films that tell stories about that period in our history, and that do so frankly, aren’t exactly in abundance. So when a film like 12 Years A Slave comes around, it’s of course going to attract a lot of attention, and all it really needs to do is be competent. If we saw a similar volume of slave narratives on screen as we’ve seen Holocaust-set tales over the decades, 12 Years A Slave wouldn’t necessarily be this seemingly momentous, groundbreaking occurrence, which, if you’ve been paying attention, the praise for it seems to suggest. Alas, it really ought not be. 

Some of us (black audiences specifically) groan when we hear of new productions of slave-themed films. But to be clear, for those perplexed by these objections, these are laments that are rooted more in the fact that there has been very little variety in terms of the representation of black lives in mainstream American cinema throughout the years, than a genuine aversion to slave narratives – a long-standing matter that’s been discussed ad naseam on this site and others. There has to be a realization among all of us that slavery-set stories don’t necessarily have to make slavery absolutely central to the narrative, nor do they have to always cause distress. Even though black people weren’t considered human beings at the time, we of course, were. Amongst the many tales of incomprehensible inhumanity and savagery our predecessors experienced during the period, there were also stories of courage, of bravery, conviction, insurrection, and even genuine joy, happiness, laughter and love, no matter how fleeting the moments. 

There are still those stories to be told about that period in our history, whether looking at slavery broadly as an institution, and the economics of it, or putting a magnifying glass over one person’s very specific tale, taking place over a day or an entire life, or examining a single moment in time. And they don’t all have to be wholly agonizing. Although, even if they were, we shouldn’t turn our backs on them. They were still someone’s story, whether it’s a story we all want to see told on film or not.

An important understanding that Hollywood studio executives, production companies, film financiers, etc apparently don’t seem to grasp, or maybe they do, but choose to ignore, is that black audiences long to see films in which black characters take complete control of their own destinies, absent of any, shall we say, *outsider* influence, no matter what period in our history the films are set. Although maybe that’s a reflection of a reality that suggests whites consider themselves superior (whether consciously or not), and thus responsible for the progress of others they consider pitiable, meaning that they can’t even envision a work of fiction in which blacks, and blacks only, are in charge of their very own lives.

Would the production companies and financiers behind 12 Years A Slave, consider Nat Turner’s revolt as the basis for a film, if director Steve McQueen had brought that idea to them?

Also worth considering are those narratives that aren’t necessarily based on historical fact. One can certainly set a story within that period, creating a fictionalized account of a life, or many lives, getting as creative and imaginative as one wants to be. Take Octavia Butler’s Kindred for example. It’s certainly not what we’d call a typical slave narrative, but she smartly incorporates slavery into this time travel tale that gives readers something of a history lesson, without the didacticism, all wrapped up in a thrilling adventure story.

And while I found Django Unchained problematic, it’s also very much a fictional slave narrative, whose main purpose is to entertain, and not necessarily edify. 

Another recent example is the well-made though not-very-well-known indie drama titled The Retrieval, previously highlighted on this blog, which centers on a young black boy who, along with his uncle, works for a gang of bounty hunters, in slavery-era USA, recapturing runaway slaves and tracking down wanted criminals. Any similarities to Django Unchained are superficial and coincidental. Directed by Chris Eska, the film premiered at the SXSW Film Festival this year, and continues to travel the film festival circuit.

My point here is that the possibilities are near-endless, and can be of any genre – drama, science fiction, thriller, horror, action, even comedy. The slave narrative doesn’t necessarily have to be capitalized. There’s a rich history here (of black history – in this case; of the Transatlantic Slave Trade), full of a myriad of tales of all kinds, mostly untapped, which could be fodder for countless films to last many lifetimes. If only there were more brave souls willing to see even a fraction of them realized.

So when you do eventually go see 12 years A Slave, about a month from now, don’t walk into the theater with the weight of history (not only of slave history, but of cinema history as well), the near-deafening praise, the pressure, the expectation, etc, on your shoulders. Just remember, you’re going to watch one single movie about this specific period in our history. Because I certainly hope that this won’t be the final word on slavery movies in America, but instead the one that encourages a much closer look at those many momentous years in American (actually, global) history, where numerous untold tales are currently buried – tales of the inhumanity endured, for sure, but also of the triumphs, the loves, traditions and mythologies rooted in the cultures from which our ancestors were removed, and everything else between all the extremes, whether historical fact, or creative fiction.

Maybe one of them will inspire your next film…

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Comments

Lee

"And while I found Django Unchained problematic, it's also very much a fictional slave narrative, whose main purpose is to entertain, and not necessarily edify. "

So what? Since when does a movie about a slave narrative have to be based upon an actual person? Is that supposed to be written in the Hollywood film law?

Rosie

["And while I found Django Unchained problematic, it's also very much a fictional slave narrative, whose main purpose is to entertain, and not necessarily edify. "]

I'm getting a little sick and tired of "DJANGO UNCHAINED" being unfavorably compared to this movie. I'm sick of it. Both are pretty damn good movies. And both have their flaws. People bitch about how unrealistic Tarantino's movie is, yet failed to notice some of the historical inaccuracies of "12 YEARS A SLAVE". I'm not talking about the liberties McQueen took with Northup's personal story. I'm talking about his sometimes inaccurate portrayal of the antebellum South.

[" Slavery still happens in Africa today, while before when this movie is set, a lot of European and South American countries had claimed to have banned slavery."]

Dear . . . slavery still exists here in the United States and in Europe. It's just illegal. Or in the case of prison inmates . . . legal. And most of these inmates who have found themselves in prison and forced to do manual labor are minorities.

greg w. locke

wow. who wrote that head? yikes.

Hofa Bang

"Roots" and "Goodbye Uncle Tom" will still be the most graphic movies of slavery ever made….. And they still are water down compared to the real seriousness of what crimes were actually committed…. Molestation genital multilation, being eaten and burned alive, hung, sex farms etc.

Hofa Bang

"Roots" and "Goodbye Uncle Tom" will still be the most graphic movies of slavery ever made….. And they still are water down compared to the real seriousness of what crimes were actually committed…. Molestation genital multilation, being eaten and burned alive, hung, sex farms etc.

regi

two quibbles:
1) i don't understand the title of this article: "DESPITE the success of 12 Years…" huh? The word suggests a certain dubiousness about that success, as if it would HURT the likelihood of other films about the subject. i don't understand how that could be. if "12 years" makes money (which seems likely) isn't it MORE likely that other films on slavery will be forthcoming?
2) i HOPE that "denzel w." below is a pseudonym because the author is surely joking. he can stick his concerns about "victim mentality" where the sun don't shine.

Visual Pragmatist

To Denzel Washington: So, slavery was a means of convenient labor because, as you put it, AFRICANS were tall and muscular" and could do the job that fleshy EUROS could not do; for all of those who are 'afflicted' with the negroid manifestation should all be too proud and forgetful of the time when they so willingly (under the cat-0-nine and musket) contributed to the development of this great U.S. of A. colony as well as other 'SAXON enriched' lands. You are the prodigy of Meritorious Manumission DW and no doubt a beneficiary.

Denzel Washington

Personally, I thought this movie was well made and will directed with Steve McQueen. I must praise the acting as well, however why is it that every time a movie is made with a black protagonist, why must they always be a civil rights activist, Nelson Mandela, a slave of the Confederate States, or just in general a victim of a white society.
For all those African-Americans who blame slavery on white people, sure this may have happened but this was the way that Europeans operated a few centuries ago. Slavery still happens in Africa today, while before when this movie is set, a lot of European and South American countries had claimed to have banned slavery. The slave issue was a problem central to the U.S, not that of every white person in existence that black people base their racial slurs upon. These practices of taking African slaves though was central to imperial doctrines who without heavy machinery before industrialization, used physical forces like Africans. Not because they were too lazy for the job, but because the job needed to be done and there are tall, muscly Africans who live in a harsh climate with lots of predators and have been hardened by their environment. Europeans would have thought that they would have been good for plowing the fields.
So I ask fellow African-American, can we create a positive figurehead and just in general stop with the victim mentality.

spirit equality

12 Years A Slave is a well-made film that is well worth the price of admission. Full stop.

Sydney Levine

Good article. I don't understand why some might not like the comparison to films made about the Jewish Holocaust. And btw, only Schindler's List received studio support as far as I recall, the rest are small indies or foreign. I just saw 12 Years a Slave last night and left feeling so oppressed and depressed. The night before I saw Luis Bunuel's 1960 film La Joven about a Northern jazz musician fleeing a false rape accusation in North Carolina. Amazing film.

The point I want to make is that 12 Years a Slave made us aware that in fact U.S. was no better than Nazi Germany and yet U.S. has never felt the shame that should induce. This film brings home that point without ever saying so. That has never been so blatant.

JayMcgee06

This article, i feel, is slightly on the fence about a number of things. First the writer is saying that praise for the film is a bit much, then on the other hand praises. Yes i did get that one of the main reasons this film is gaining so much attention is because of simply it, the film, being in a league of its own. In saying this, the author is saying that if if their were more period pieces depicting the horrific and inhumane practices during this time, then people wouldn't be so blown away when films like these show up. Now i have not personally seen this film yet, but i do plan on seeing this opening day. The sad thing is that films like these aren't made because, lets be honest, it dose not sell that well; who wants to be reminded of something that happened so long ago (sarcasm for those that have trouble reading in between the lines). We live in a country that tries to shove all the shit done under a rug that is simply inadequate.

Iris

The history for the black can't be denied, but we do have different angles to make comment on this matter. It is not east to be "without any sensationalism". Nevertheless, it is really important to show people what the real turth is. In my point of view, the success of ''12 Years A Slave" is based on its authenticity. When we critize on Hollywood which made a lot of moving fake movies, we need to restore the real history , no matter the period is good or bad. This is ver important.

Milton

People keep saying 'another slave movie' like it's been a ton of them. It hasn't. But I'm happy that directors are finally exploring our history in film. Yes, there needs to be a Harriet Tubman film, a Nat Turner film, a Frederick Douglass film and the list goes on. I would also like to see a film about the Reconstruction Era, when black senators and representatives served in Congress. But hopefully that's down the road.

Rai

I love this article. I 100% agree with the fact that more films need to be made that deal with the humanistic side of slavery times. It is often depicted as what the time was meant to be. Black people as 3/5 human, who simply endure and endure and endure, but with no truly emotional, human pain being encounter. I haven't seen 12 Years A Slave yet, so I don't know where it stands on that line. The need for this is absolutely necessary, and I believe (Or hope) that people are starting to realize and that it is coming to a boiling point. SOMEONE is going to have to start making these movies. It is more than needed. It is an emergency at this point.

Doesn't Matter

After seeing the trailer to this movie I thought two things: it looks good but really another "slave movie." Don't know how many of you know this because I didn't but the director is black (British) so as much as this shouldn't matter it does sway my decision towards wanting to go see the film. On a side note why hasn't there ever been a major film made about Harriet Tubman? This is appalling and someone needed to have done something about this yesterday.

kittenhasawhip

I agree with this author. I definitely do think that 12 yr a slave is a little overrated on the basis that it follows the "Authentic Real Black Experience Back Then" formula: Blackness + systematic injustice + personal growth (sometimes) = blockbuster. Yeah, it's entertaining in a way, but in a way that is utterly predictable. But it's difficult to notice that predictability because we so rarely see anything else depicting black experiences. It's kinda like that eddie murphy bit about not eating in 3 months and then suddenly getting a saltine. You're freaking hungry, so that saltine will taste like the best food ever. Similarly with films depicting this era.

Don't get me wrong – These stories have to be told. They must be told again and again and again. And as the author mentions, they are so rarely told. But could we at least tell them in these stories in a different way? Remind ourselves that while slavery is a big part of our history, we were/are not wholly victim to that system? As the author mentions, there are plenty of true stories we could tell to that end. And no, that doesn't mean that movies with black people has to be "everything" to "all people."Asking for a change in narrative isn't asking for much at all. Dare we suggest a change of pace?

I agree with some people here that this view is slightly patronizing. After all, the audience knows what it wants. If an audience member thinks something is good, who am I to claim otherwise? But to those people I would say that it's worthwhile to examine why we might like a certain thing, why movies are trending toward the slave narrative. We won't be able to move beyond this narrative without answering the "why." I guess you could argue that we *shouldn't* move beyond this particular type of slave narrative. In that case, I'd like to hear the reasons why we should restrict representations of black people to that of the beaten down slave.

Dede

I'm with you Cinemalover

Cinemalover

If you think 12 Years a Slave is over rated because there aren't many other slave narratives to compare it too why do you think Steve McQueen's other movies were also highly rated? The man is brilliant bringing a unique view into filmmaking. Stop trying to tear him down for being given much deserved praise. Maybe you have a problem with him not being American and you just don't want to say it.

stefan verna

If you are a serious film critic and tell me that after seeing watching Django Unchained all you see is pure entertainment then you don't derserve to be read. Come'on man, quit being so literal. Cinema works on several levels. Dig a bit deeper when you watch a film.

Khali Maasi

Why don't folks just relax and let the man tell the story he wants to tell? Sheesh!

IGBO

Of course, 12 YEARS A SLAVE is overrated, but what awards contender isn't? INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, which I saw at Cannes, is arguably the most overrated film of the year. That being said, 12 YEARS A SLAVE is still a powerful and very moving film and despite being overrated, is undeniably one of the best films of the year.

The real issue here is that studios are very reluctant to release black films slowly and thoughtfully. If it's an action film or the Tyler Perry/David Talbert variety, they know with a wide release and aggressive marketing, black people will come. But for black films that are more complex, black people can't be counted on to support the film in significant numbers, even with significant critical acclaim.

Tonya

Why is every movie about the African American experience expected be all things to all people? What movie – regardless of it's quality – can possibly live up to that?

Despite the near universal acclaim, I don't expect this film to say everything there is to say about American slavery. Why should it?

Solid E

I cannot tell you how many times I've seen a dog take a crap. Easily I've seen this over 100 times in my life. Each and every time I've seen a dog take a crap I have never once viewed it as entertaining. Black filmmakers hear me when I say just because something is real does not mean it is entertaining. When I spend my hard earned money on a movie I do not want
didacticism. If the objective of your film is to show the brutality of slavery you are going to bore one half of your audience and alienate the other. Reality should inspire your art not justify . . . .

Africiate!

I believe it is unfair to say people are overrating the movie. Why can't a good movie just be one. Why must there be hidden agendas, why must we say people are not deserving of all the good things that happen to them. I think that's not a good way to view things and this kind of thinking still destroys the black community as we are always bringing each other down. Of course you have a right to your opinions, but I don't see a valid point in saying the movie isn't up to part because there are none to compare it to. I haven't seen the movie but I believe it is a big step towards the portrayal of the reality of slavery rather than the always happy, comfortable stories that have been depicted for years. Instead of seeing the appraisal for the movie as excessive, why not see it as well-deserved because of the courage to take a stab at reality, which would only lead to inspiring other movies that deal with varying subject matters as it relates to slavery. I do plan on watching the movie though :)

Barbara

I saw a documentary/movie years ago on Solomon Northup's "12 Years A Slave." I believe it was on PBS. I'll never forget the scene of the anguish of the Black woman who cried to Solomon that they would never get out of Slavery. That scene hurt me to my heart.

I will not be going to see Mr. McQueen's movie, but I will recommend it to all of my friends who don't know about this particular story.

Yes, our Slave history needs to be told, however painful it may be. Jim Crow was just as painful. I use to listen to the stories my grand and great grands told of living in the South during Jim Crow; and I often wondered if it were worst that Slave times. Just horrible!

kelly

They aint ready for Nat Turner.

JTC

I have to share this and distinct and intensely as I feel it, so I hope no one takes offense.

Many years ago, I read the story of a couple in love. It just so happened that they were slaves. They lived over 10 miles away from each other so they would take turns walking to each other's plantations, usually only able to spend an hour or two of intimacy before the long walk home.

They continued like this for more than 20 years and finally found a way to be together. I have thought about this story periodically ever since. I think about it when we talk about the issues of love and intimacy between black men and black women. I think about when it seems that we are ashamed of our ancestors who lived through slavery, when it seems that we say things which appear to be rooted in the idea that we are somehow more evolved than them.

I am certain that slavery did not in any way dull their senses when they embraced each other. In fact, I remember that they wrote of how that fraction of day when they could spend that moment together strengthened them through the hours of painful bondage.

Sometimes, I can see that brother clearly in my mind's eye. Grinding it out in the field, pain in his joints, people around frustrated and complaining about the heat of the day; and he starts grinning ear to ear, as he holds the image in his head, the pain lessens the anticipation of being with his lady replaces it.

Slavery was present, but to some degree it was a backdrop to a love as deep and passionate as any story any people have ever told (it could be argued even more so.) The beauty of this story is only deepened by the realization it blossomed in the depths of subjugation.

That slavery was a terrible institution goes without saying. But our humanity and the power of our human experience was NOT somehow put on hold. To think of a slave story as nothing more than beatings, rapes, and shredding apart of families is to commit a crime against our ancestors; it is to shrink them to level of cliches that we rally against to this day. Although I will always carry a certain rage for what happened, I think about them and feeling nothing but inspiration.

One day, I hope that I am blessed to bring their story to the big screen…

Richard Purcell

What? A movie directed by a dead actor! Weird Man! (Expect great media confusion if this guy (zombie?!) wins an Oscar folks!
Seriously though I do find the exploitation that this director is making of a great screen icon to be rather offensive.Could he not at least call himself "Stephen"?

Accidental Visitor

The one thing I take exception to, tambay, is your suggestion that people will overrate the movie because there haven't been any other slavery films to compare it to. I think that's a bit unfair. People are intelligent enough (well, some people are) to determine what is truly moving to them without having the benefit of numerous other examples of art to contrast it too. I could hear my firt bluegrass song, pay attention to its lyrics and the sophistication/cleverness of its arrangements, and determine on my own that it is a great piece of music without having other bluesgrass songs to match it up against. My lack of bluesgrass knowledge may limit my overall understanding of the range and scope of that particular genre, but I can still be capable of being right in my judgment that the song I did hear was a masterpeice. And isn't it all subjective anyway?

No offense but your "explanation" of why there is love for this movie by many folks comes across as a defensive reaction to being, as you pointed out, in the minority in terms of the level of appreciation for the work. If you are in the minority on this front and remain so as the upcoming months pass by then take pride in your view and hold to it. Just don't dismiss other people's opinions as being the result of them not having anything else to judge it by. That would be like people saying you judged it unfairly because it didn't live up to the impossible task of addressing all the issues of slavery that you felt were of major importance. And with your understandable call for more slavery films I'm guessing that indeed you want other slave movies to cover a wider range of issues and perspectives.

QBN

No more slave films unless they end like Django Unchained did..with brutal payback. But why the focus on slavery? Why not stories set in pre-colonial Africa before slavery?

CareyCarey

Wait a minute… hold up… STOP! I don't know what others have read, but Tambay DID NOT imply nor say he desired MORE slave films steeped in brutality. So folks, please re-read his insightful and well-written post one more time before making false accusations.

But, if you're on a mission and/or an agenda all your own, please note that others have read the following words:

"There has to be a realization among all of us that slavery-set stories don't necessarily have to make slavery absolutely central to the narrative, nor do they have to always cause distress. Even though black people weren't considered human beings at the time, we of course, were. Amongst the many tales of incomprehensible inhumanity and savagery our predecessors experienced during the period, there were also stories of courage, of bravery, conviction, insurrection, and even genuine joy, happiness, laughter and love, no matter how fleeting the moments"

AND… " they don't all have to be wholly agonizing"

Mohammed

Whenever you feel like writing "we've had enough films about slavery", compare it to the hundreds of stories on film about Holocaust. Then STFU.

Simone

We need this type of film to figure how it was on this era, we can just look at movie and go. Happy not happy but it Mc Queen point of view, we need to respect that. Millions blacks was hurts in this era, it's will be wrong if someone not show that, i understand that people dislike this part of slavery, but thing existed, we can say it a lie.

Our history need to be protect, people just remember what they understand they are not open a history book, how much people open a history book? May be child be they are still going to school. Slavery was brutal, In France we fought for say Slavery was recognized crime against humanity, people suffered agonies, we can't forget that, and 12 Years A Slave must show that, it based on a truth story. Nina Simone say no can ignore history i say the same, in France we can saw on January and i can wait.

I thank director Steve Mc Queen for this movie, i can't be shocked by a movie that show how the thing happen. History can be ignore.

D.A.

I think the brutality in slavery has been broadcast enough as it is. When can I see a film about those slaves that journeyed with Harriett Tubman and made a life outside that institution. When can we see more intelligent film about the complexities of the institution itself. Seeing slaves get beaten to death makes you sound sadistic when there are so many stories that could be told. My ancestors have a history of making these quilts that aided those that wanted to plan out an escape.

Crissy Snow

that's very interesting that you want more brutal films about slavery. Really? Why? I think 12 Years A Slave went there enough. I would like to see more films about the Civil Rights movement and how racism exist here today. How our black men and women were brain washed by TV in the 90's into thinking the lighter the better. How black rap artists glorify white women and any woman who isn't black. THAT is a much bigger issue. Slavery was brutal and horrific and I think we all know it and seen it. But the after effects is what I want to see now. What about right now?

And people for the love of God, Django was not a documentary! It wasn't based on a true story. It was an art film mad by a man who came up with a concept that he thought would be great to make. Quentin T. is a filmmaker. An artist. Not anything else. You can always tell which part of the brain some of us work from. Some of us are mostly left and some of us are mostly right. The mostly left brain thinkers don't get art and what it really means to be an artist.

Joe

Done right, Kindred would be nice to see on the big screen!

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