Why the black backlash against '12 Years a Slave'?

OPINION - Avoiding films such as '12 Years a Slave' would only silence the voices of our ancestors when many of us are finally willing to listen...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

There are many African-Americans today saying they do not want to see 12 Years a Slave, or in a similar vein, The Butler. They say — some of them prominent writers — that they do not want to see more films showing the downtrodden parts of black history.

As a new class of black filmmakers plant their flags into the shifting sands of Hollywood, some critics feel compelled to silence the voices of millions of enslaved and oppressed Africans upon whose backs this country was built as their stories are finally being told.

This is telling for several reasons. These critics want distance from a past of victimization. They want distance from being considered subhuman. They want distance from plantation rapes, brutal lynchings and vicious lashings. They want distance from a history not of their own making.

While I am empathetic to this psychic turmoil, it is also cowardly when placed in the context of willful forgetting described by The Guardian writer Orville Lloyd Douglas.

A misplaced desire for historic amnesia

Many would agree with his piece, Why I Won’t Be Watching The Butler and 12 Years a Slave.

Douglas claims to be “exhausted and bored with dramatic race films.” He is convinced that race hustlers are just trying to make white liberals feel guilty – of their continued and pervasive privilege? – and that the “narrow range of films about the black life experience being produced by Hollywood is actually dangerous because it limits the imagination.”

There is danger in limiting the scope of black history to one-dimensional depictions of butlers and slaves; however, a deeper read suggests that Douglas’ entire article is a study in black insecurity and a quest for white validation.

Douglas never explicitly states that white acceptance is his motivation. Yet, silencing slavery is a pathway to assimilation, because there is nothing powerful about forgetting the victimization of our ancestors. We should feel empowered by slave narratives, not “exhausted and bored” by them.

Douglas spends an entire essay stating that a lack of narrative diversity is his main concern, but his subtextual message becomes apparent close to the end of the piece.

“I might have to turn in my black card,” he wrote, “because I don’t care much about slavery. I’ve already watched the television series Roots, which I feel covered the subject matter extremely well. Of course, I understand slavery is an important part of any black person’s history, but dwelling on slavery is pathetic. It ended in North America over 100 years ago, yet since Django Unchained made over $400m last year, more slavery movies emerge”

What is “pathetic” is the assertion that slavery and its effects ended in North America over 100 years ago, as if a director screamed “Cut!” and white masters and black slaves strolled off set, hand-in-hand, for cocktails and hors d’oeuvres.

Needing the past to understand today’s issues

We still see the remnants of slavery in the school-to-prison pipelines from Los Angeles, California to Meridian, Mississippi. We see it in the freeing of Officer Richard Haste after the killing of unarmed 18-year-old Ramarley Graham. We see it in the tragic killings of Wendell AllenRekia BoydKimani GrayTarika WilsonSean BellTyisha MillerAmadou Diallo and so many others.

We see it in the execution of Troy Davis.

We see it in the fact that black men, perceived as threats by virtue of their very existence, can’t run to police officers for help (Jonathan Farrell), can’t run away from them in fear (Marlon Brown), and can’t even be handcuffed on the ground (Oscar Grant) without being shot in the back.

From disparities in healthcare, to persistently higher black unemployment, the remnants of slavery not only haunt us, but order our steps as we navigate the facsimile of a united nation left in its wake.

There is much more important work to be done as we continue to tackle diversity, inclusion, colorism and racial stereotypes in film on all levels; however seeking narrative diversity and historic erasure are two very different things.

Recognizing the variety of today’s black movies

Plus, along with these historic films an innovative brilliance of black cinema is budding all around us.

As previously reported by theGrio.com, there are close to a dozen black films that are currently either in theaters or forthcoming. From light fare such as Baggage Claim, to Ryan Coogler’s celebrated Fruitvale Station, not to mention Spike Lee’s Old Boy and the crowd pleaser Black Nativity, the nuances and complexity of the black experience in this country are being laid bare as never before.

When asked about the explosion of black cinema, filmmaker Lee Daniels (The Butler, Precious) confessed that he was just as surprised as everyone else. “I’m working in my own little bubble, I come up for air, and there they are,” he told The New York Times.

Trailblazing filmmaker Ava Duvernay (Middle of Nowhere, I Will Follow) once said: “Black people loving and losing is something we don’t see enough of. We’re always in these heightened situations like something big is happening, something funny or something violent. And you know what? Sometimes we die of breast cancer or a broken heart. Things happen that are just not being explored cinematically. It’s time we reinvigorated that type of film.”

And that is exactly what has happened.

“Slavery as entertainment” as problematic

Yet, I will be the first to admit: I experience cognitive dissonance at the thought of film studios profiting from the pain of slavery and subsequent generations of what Dr. Joy DeGruy calls Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome (PTSS). She describes PTSS as resulting from a series of traumas defined under her acronym M.A.P. Namely,

  • Multigenerational trauma together with continued oppression; combined with,
  • Absence of opportunity, to heal, or access the benefits available in the society; leading to
  • Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome.

In some ways, films about black subjugation and oppression from which mainly white people profit amount to a revictimization. That is extremely problematic.

These movies also suggest that African-Americans will never be viewed as anything other than slaves, maids and butlers struggling for acceptance in the popular imagination.

Similar to writing strongly on a stack of carbon paper, we can flip through generation after generation, and the lines may grow faint, but these stereotypes and social barriers are still clearly visible today.

And they are made more visible by films such as 12 Years a Slave.

Opportunity wrought by remembering

Some may disagree, but I believe this is a good thing, particularly because those barriers of the past created rigid boundaries that we must challenge today. It is one thing to advocate for diversity in black film plot lines; it is quite another to insist that the narratives of our ancestors are no longer integral to understanding contemporary society.

Looking at the list of challenges African-Americans and society at large are facing today due to the aftermath of slavery and its spawn, Jim Crow law, movies about these historic facts are already sparking vital discussions and creating empathy around these issues.

As we progress deeper into that conversation, our ancestors’ voices, their pain and their dreams for us, must always have a place at the table to speak with honesty and authenticity.

Avoiding films such as 12 Years a Slave would only silence their voices when many of us are finally willing to listen.

Follow Kirsten West Savali on Twitter at @KWestSavali.