I recently read an essay by Frank Rich (in my opinion, a brilliant observer of America’s sociopolitical scene) about the highly lauded and much awarded film, 12 Years a Slave. Rich admits to being very much emotionally affected when he saw it, but on reflection believes that it accomplishes little if anything regarding today’s racial bias in America. Admittedly, the film is not about the current prejudice African Americans continue to face but clearly, if it is to have any social value, the highly graphic depiction of the violence and degradation of slavery shortly before the Civil War ought to leave its audience with at least a lingering sense of injustice of not outrage enough to produce some sort of response against modern day racial discrimination. Mr. Rich’s point is that beyond the predictable feelings of guilt and the compensatory commensurate acclaim engendered by the film, it will have virtually no effect on our society.
Having read the essay before seeing the film, perhaps I was (ironically) biased toward this belief, but I left the theater convinced that 12 Years a Slave did not deserve all its talk show accolades attendant to winning the Oscar, the Golden Globe or the best picture award from the British Academy of Film. While it is certainly an excellent film production — well written, acted, directed, filmed, edited, and no doubt far better than many previous winners of such awards — and while Solomon Northup’s horrendous experience as a free black man kidnapped and sold into slavery is well worth the telling,
It teaches nothing new about the inhumanity, brutality, and depravity of American slavery. Nor should any of the specifically horrific treatment of slaves (I suspect purposefully hyped in the film’s promotion to no doubt encourage attendance) come as a shock much less a surprise to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of slavery’s evil. It teaches nothing new and it changes no minds. Those who believe that slavery and its continuing aftermath of racial discrimination are a disgrace to America leave the theater with their guilt reconfirmed but not much more. Those who think African Americans, if not inferior, then at least undeserving of whatever social or economic policies benefit them will, if they actually see the film, nonetheless continue to cheer the U.S. Supreme Court’s current campaign to undo any legislative recognition of the prejudice still inflicted on the descendants of those whom our Founding Fathers and Constitution defined as property, not people.
It changes no minds and creates no new support for anti-discriminatory legislation, programs or beliefs. Perhaps some people cringed or even cried at the sight of flesh being sadistically whipped open or a lynching in which the victim is left with his toes barely able to reach the ground, keeping him agonizingly alive for hours. But these scenes and the film as a whole never deal with the larger issues of societal causes or consequences and produce no more lasting or purposeful reaction than the torrent of violence and bloodshed to which American moviegoers have become accustomed, if not addicted. (I doubt the NAACP has seen a spike in contributions or membership.)
At the end of the day, 12 Years a Slave is a well-crafted film and should have a place in every grade school’s American history curriculum, where in fact it might both teach and affect. But overall, it comes up short in opting for easy emotionalism over meaningful social commentary and lacks the artistry of providing an innovative and provocative experience. Its awards result far less from its creativity than from the predictable “kvelling” of Hollywood’s occasional liberals among the Academy members, who incidentally have never awarded an Oscar to a black director and have nominated only three in its 85year history.