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Is '12 Years a Slave' Too Safe to Transform its Audiences?

By Roya Rastegar | Indiewire October 29, 2013 at 11:22AM

Richard Wright described problems of violence and inequity in the U.S. along these lines: "There isn't any Negro problem; there is only a white problem." Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave" is a narrative of this "white problem." Beyond debates of whether the film is historically accurate, overly sensational, too brutal, or tame, an expanded reading of "12 Years" reveals a historical phenomenon rarely portrayed so explicitly on the silver screen: the pathology of white racism.
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12 Years A Slave

"12 Years" must be read in the context of McQueen's work as a director. His forte is keenly observing pathology without letting viewers distance themselves with easy moral judgments, as evidenced by "Shame" (2011). Feeling bad about the suffering of others is not enough - particularly when this suffering is depicted in an aesthetically pleasing film set against a lush landscape.

How do we contend with the legacies of slavery in our daily life? Where do we locate ourselves in relation to images of racial injustice and violence? Is the pathology of white racism invisible to those infected?

These questions have troubled me since I saw "12 Years" at the opening night of the 24th New Orleans Film Festival. The historic theater housed an audience that was more racially diverse than at most festivals, but still primarily composed of white people. I was there as a juror for the feature film competition. On the special occasion of the film's premier in the city it was both set and filmed in, the festival director quieted the audience for a surprise performance. Eight members of the OperaCréole, dressed in ball gowns and tuxedos, took the stage. They began to sing compositions written by Edmond Dédé‎, a freeman of color violin prodigy creating music in the mid-1800s. A few minutes into the performance, the audience began to chatter, quietly at first, and then progressively louder with each number. I could see the intensity and emotion of the singers, but I could not hear their song. There was just too much noise. The following night, three days after his release from nearly 42 years of solitary confinement, Angola 3 member and political prisoner Herman Wallacepassed away.

Guilt is not an appropriate response to a film when white racism endures.

12 Years A Slave

"Movies are an empathy machine," Rogert Ebert said. "Good films enlarge us, and are a civilizing medium." To be earnestly enlarged - and civilized - by "12 Years" would mean to recognize the slavers' pathological racism as tied to one's own, even as it repels, and hold that difficult, internal confrontation long enough to cause a crisis within one's sense of self and place in the world. Empathy compels us to see ourselves reflected in the very things we judge as evil in others, to implicate ourselves in society's ills, and to rearrange our desires towards the building of a better life, for all of us.

In Toni Cade Bambara's ground-breaking novel, "The Salt Eaters," a healer asks the protagonist: "Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?... Just so's you're sure, sweetheart, and ready to be healed, cause wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you're well."

None of us are safe from the pathology of white racism. The most intimate corners of our lives and eyes have been occupied. But are we ready to see it, and be well?

Roya Rastegar has a Ph.D. in the History of Consciousness, from the University of California. She was a Programmer at the Tribeca Film Festival, and has been part of programming teams at the Sundance Film Festival, the L.A. Film Festival, and the Arab Film Festival. She was a Curatorial Fellow at the Whitney Museum of American Art from 2008-9, and a Co-Director of the Santa Cruz Women of Color Film & Video Festival from 2004-5. She is currently writing a book on the history of American film festivals and contemporary film programming practices.  For more about Rastergar go here.

This article is related to: 12 Years a Slave, 12 Years a Slave, Fox Searchlight, Fox Searchlight, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Steve McQueen, Awards