Golden Globe, Critics' Choice Wins for <i>12 Years a Slave</i> Suggest New Freedom for Authentic Black Storytelling

The validation ofcould () set the stage for more offerings of serious black subject matter in film. Honest stories that challenge us to face difficult (even disturbing) social and legal issues head on.narratives. Narratives that complicate our social awareness.
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FILE - This file image released by Fox Searchlight shows Chiwetel Ejiofor, center, in a scene from "12 Years A Slave." (AP Photo/Fox Searchlight, Jaap Buitendijk)
FILE - This file image released by Fox Searchlight shows Chiwetel Ejiofor, center, in a scene from "12 Years A Slave." (AP Photo/Fox Searchlight, Jaap Buitendijk)

And the award goes to...

With the expected Best Picture Oscar nomination for 12 Years a Slave crowning a week that started with a Golden Globe for Best Drama, a week that included a Critics' Choice Best Picture Award for the film, the street buzz now is about whether 12 Years will beat out American Hustle, its closest challenger in the nine-way competition for the top Academy honors. But that "best of" buzz draws our attention away from a more important, more significant, more consequential point related to this picture's success, even while underscoring in a way just why success would mean so much more than a trophy.

No question that 12 Years a Slave (based on the true story, the autobiography, of a free black man kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841) deserves the recognition in all nine of its Oscar-nominated categories (and then some). But we have to look beyond the technical strengths of the film and how it measures up to the competition. We have to look at what it all means. What it will mean.

The validation of 12 Years a Slave, with the strong public support for the film -- as well as the critical acclaim and, according to IMDb, the 99 (count them!) 99 awards so far out of 151 nominations -- all of that could (maybe, possibly, hopefully) set the stage for more offerings of serious black subject matter in film. Honest stories that challenge us to face difficult (even disturbing) social and legal issues head on. Confrontational narratives. Or, even stories that simply present a rich, multilayered, fully developed portrayal of African American life. Counter narratives. Narratives that complicate our social awareness. Narratives that force us to consider and to reconsider long-held assumptions. Narratives that elevate us, helping us reach a new level of consciousness, a new level of civic responsibility that flows from higher consciousness.

And that could make winners of us all.

If it's hard to imagine how film presentation really can matter all that much and in such a broad sense (after all, it's only entertainment, right?), then try to look at it a little differently. Imagine an outsider, a visitor from, say, a distant galaxy far, far away, exploring a local multiplex here on earth and catching a screening of Big Momma, or Norbert, or any (pick one) of the Madea films. What would such an outsider come to understand about African American women?

Extreme cases? Well... yeah. But in so many subtle and too many blatant ways, whether inadvertent or intentional, whether merely through oversimplified, overgeneralized depictions or the heavy-handed group stereotypes that have existed in film arguably since film came into existence, and certainly since it was revolutionized by D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, in ways that are obvious and in ways that are subliminal, motion pictures have provided the text for cultural values, ideological messages and (yes, this, too), our introduction to those people we never have met. Film identifies. It frames. It contextualizes. All according to how the filmmaker chooses to identify, to frame, to contextualize.

The impact of all this was made clear to me some years ago in a chat with a journalism colleague (a non-black colleague), a talented writer with a master's degree from a top J-school. At one point in our talk about media images, I mentioned the demeaning historical film characterizations of black people -- the mammies and coons -- of the 1930s and 1940s.

"Yeah," he said thoughtfully. "It's good that we've moved beyond that."

I agreed. That is, until he kept talking.

"It's good that black people aren't like that anymore."

Wait. What? No. Dude. The point is that we never were like that. Someone chose to portray us that way. And because of that portrayal, people like my colleague walked away believing in that reality. Believing that film captured that reality. It was the reality of the 1930s and 1940s, a reality that had changed half a century later. That is what he believed. That is, until I kept talking. Setting him straight (thankfully, well in advance of his rise to a seat on the editorial board of one of the top city newspapers in the country).

Couldn't help but wonder, though, about so many others -- journalists, police, prosecutors, political officials -- whose critical decisions about how to tell a story, or whether to arrest, or charge or effect public policy might be affected in some way by similar misperceptions about others they only know through media. And only then through media stereotypes.

Research has shown that, when it comes to multicultural connections -- even in this post-civil rights moment -- many of us might as well be from another planet. Despite the fact that we have an equal opportunity now to interact personally with people who are socially and culturally different, our connections still are made mostly through the media. At least, initially, when enduring impressions can be made. In other words, our reality -- so much of what we have come to understand, what we have come to know about each other -- is mediated, filtered by entertainment, as well as news. The media.

Somewhere along the line, decisions are being made not only about the stories that will be told, but also about how these stories will be told. What will be included? What will be excluded? How will people be characterized? What meaning do we get from all this -- the messages that are sent by what is included, what is excluded, how people are characterized?

In a film like The Help, we get the sense that while the African American maids in the story (the spiritual center of the film) are noble and, for the most part, dignified in their long-suffering service to an oppressive society, the white protagonist (the intellectual center of the film) is, in fact, "the help." She helps them overcome. She helps them organize, and helps them articulate their moving stories in a best-seller, which, of course, she writes. Because, well, because...

Even in history based stories on film, we see this play out. With no foundation, no historical information, regarding civil rights era murders, for example, what do people really understand about this topic if their only source is the feature film treatment -- the "take" -- in pictures like Mississippi Burning or Ghosts of Mississippi, stories that are told from the perspective of white investigators of murder? The heroes. What do we see, not only about the personal sacrifice of people of color, but also of their sense of dedication to fundamental American ideals, as well as their self-determination, their intellectual gifts in strategizing and organizing a massive effort that ultimately would move the entire nation forward in fulfilling the promise of those ideals?

And the award goes to...

If the dominant presentation of blackness is in the form of stereotypes (as with the cross-dressing comedies), or as helpless victims in need of white heroes to work through the intellectual solutions to their problems and save the day (as with The Help or the Mississippi stories), then the meaning that is made for mass audiences is that there is a basis, a justification for disparate treatment, for the marginalization of certain people. See? "They" really are not as good as the rest of us.

In the simple three-act structure of film, the mass audience is led to identify with the white hero, the hero's point of view, and the hero's journey to redemption, even if that journey is characterized by help to black people (Leonardo DiCaprio in Blood Diamond or Matthew Broderick in Glory). And, in history based pieces like the Mississippi films, we come to see the white hero as something of a counterbalance to the other white characters -- the bad ones -- who are responsible for all the injustices and the brutality suffered by the Black characters.

In other words, structural, institutionalized racism -- once articulated and enforced by law in the off-screen historical reality of America -- gets reduced in feature films to the simple bad behavior of certain individuals. (An exception to the American way, rather than an example of it.)

Everything in such a film is tied up in establishing the conflict, developing it, resolving it. The bad guys get punished for their bad acts and we don't see it -- any of it -- as part of the serious societal issue it really has been. We also fail to see the consequences of this systemic problem that continue.

So, the film 12 Years a Slave reminds us of the institutionalization of difference. Black people were demeaned, degraded and destroyed under a social and legal structure that was only operationalized by individuals -- bit players in a larger epic. But, while 12 Years is set in a period that is central to the American experience, it also is a period that is remote from our personal experience. The here and now of our experience. So, as difficult as it might be to watch this film, it also is easy in a sense. Easy because we're let off the hook. We can avoid any sense of personal responsibility for what causes the pain of watching.

Besides, slavery was abolished. We can feel good about that, right? About the self-corrective process of American democracy, right? About that and about having the courage to experience the pain of watching this story unfold, right? But it would be a mistake to see the personal experience of viewing this film as an act of atonement. It is only the beginning of a process. We must deal with the unfinished business that still makes stories like Fruitvale Station and Trayvon Martin possible. In real life. To understand the social forces that still are at work in the here and now, that still need correcting.

That is why we need to see more. For starters, more stories where people of color are not seen as sidekicks, where women are not seen as objects, where gays are not seen as comic relief, where Asian Americans and Latino and Latina Americans are not seen as perpetual foreigners. We need to see people included in films the way we all will be included in a society that is less White, less than a couple of generations away. This is not about non-traditional casting so much as it is about breaking the tradition of caste.

The acclaim and the honors for 12 Years a Slave no doubt will add more box office life to that film, and more life to the discussion about it, and the discussion about doing other Hollywood projects on serious subject matter -- even the most disturbing projects. So, that is the collateral value of 12 Years a Slave. Arguably, it is as meaningful as the subject matter, if we ever are to get beyond the legacy of that subject matter. It shows that a film need not tread lightly on controversy in deference to delicate sensibilities in order to draw an audience. It can confront, agitate, provoke, as any good art should.

If we can continue to support this kind of effort, we will continue to see films that are worthy of us. Films that elevate us. Films that honor us.

Sadly, we don't have the privilege yet of being colorblind. The challenge now is to be color conscious. In a good way. Using color to get beyond color. Using compelling stories about social difference to provoke discussion about difference, to attract attention, and -- oh yeah -- to attract an audience in the process. Now that is color consciousness. The kind Hollywood certainly can recognize. The color of money.

And maybe, just maybe, if given half a chance, producers can do good and do well. They will find that black is the new green.

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