'12 Years a Slave': Black audiences need more than slave narratives
I’ve been greeting the hype around the movie 12 Years a Slave with a lack of appropriate enthusiasm. Given the overwhelmingly rave reviews by critics, the film is supposed to be the best thing that’s happened to film this year, possibly this millennium.
12 Years a Slave receives accolades
Every fellow writer I know (or have read) that has been to a screening has gushed about how wonderful 12 Years a Slave is. After the film garnered the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, the popular Vulture blog stated in praise, “Suspend the betting, close the books, and notify the engraver: I’ve just seen what will surely be this year’s Best Picture winner, and it’s 12 Years a Slave.” Other reviews fall into a similar vein.
I saw the trailer in the theater while I was waiting for The Butler to show, and 12 Years a Slave looked riveting. I have since seen the film, and it is all the great things that people say. I’m even a fan of the lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Still, I greeted the film with the same trepidation I had for The Butler. I left it wondering why so many recent black films are about slaves and servants (or fall into the realm of slapstick comedy, but that’s another essay).
Too many narratives of servitude?
I am not the only one wondering. The Guardian recently published an essay, Why I won’t be watching The Butler and 12 Years a Slave. Like me, writer Orville Lloyd Douglas is “exhausted” and “bored” with these types of movies. Douglas wonders, “Can a black film be created about black people not focusing on race? Is race the only central conflict the lives of people of colour?”
He does not stop there.
“I don’t know about other black people,” Douglas writes, “but I don’t sit around all day thinking only about the fact I am black. I think about the problems in my life: the struggles, the joys, the happiness, most of which don’t involve the issue of race. As a black person, I can honestly say I am exhausted and bored with these kinds of ‘dramatic race’ films.”
That sums up my sentiments. I am proud of my great-great grandfather and all the relatives before him who were born into slavery. I have nothing but respect for the women and men who were leaders in the church on Sunday, and to provide for their families scrubbed white folks’ floors and their silver on Mondays. These men and women have fascinating stories that deserve to be told, and often. But their tales aren’t the only ones worth telling. And they shouldn’t be the only ones coming out of Hollywood.
Diversity of black life needs reflecting
Maybe I should just be happy that black actors are working and that a black story, any story, is being told with care. And maybe I’m just too demanding and never satisfied, because I (and Douglas) want more options than watching blacks suffering in servitude with stoic dignity.
If Hollywood insists on giving me slave narratives, can I least get a Nat Turner movie where a black man goes H.A.M. at the injustice of it all? If I must watch servants, can I get more maids, like the character Minnie from The Help, who exact revenge? Must black people always be calm and righteous in the face of social abuses?
Even if I can have that, give me something modern in addition that’s just about black folk living while black. As much as race factors into my life as a black woman, it’s not the only conflict I face in the world. I have modern pleasures and pains — my career, planning a wedding, relationship issues, unresolved family issues, conflicts with friends, traveling with my mother — and I shouldn’t have to pull out my DVDs of ’90s films such as Boomerang, Love jones, and She’s Gotta Have It (or suffer through Tyler Perry’s poorly written films) to get slices of life that I relate to.
And I shouldn’t have to resort to watching the stories of people who don’t look like me just to entertained by events that occurred after the turn of the century.
Black viewers deserve more
For sure, these films exist on the independent circuit, and I cling to them when I find them. I loved Pariah, Medicine for Melancholy and Mooz-lum. I live in New York City where these films are widely publicized, and always shown. I take advantage of that.
I look forward to perusing the line-ups of the Urbanworld Film Festival and the American Black Film Festival to see what new African-American films exist. I don’t mind waiting for the festival to hit my city, or even purchasing films to download when they become available. I am happy to support independent films.
But I’d also like to do what every white person who goes to the movie on a Friday night does: take for granted the array of options. There’s always a comedy, a drama, a historical picture, an action flick, or a romantic comedy featuring people that look them.
Are the same options for black folk really too much to ask?
Demetria L. Lucas is the author of “A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life” (Atria). Follow her on Twitter @abelleinbk.