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…