I had no plans to see 12 Years a Slave; I had decided against it. I really thought that the plan was to see some romantic comedy about awkward white people. The name of that film, now, escapes me. But when I got to the theater, by no decision of my own, I ended up with a ticket to see it. I sat through it, and my only coherent response was: I never need to see this film again.
I have had very little conversation about the film and have stayed away from most of the film’s pre- and post-Oscar coverage. The buzz around Django Unchained, which I have successfully avoided seeing, taught me a thing or two about Hollywood films that take up the institution of slavery in some way and the buzz around it: do your best not to get sucked in. And I did, for the most part. I saw 12YAS. It was the most brutal and violent filmic rendering of slavery I had ever seen. And even then, I wasn’t convinced that the actual brutality of the institution had been accurately rendered. And you know what? I didn’t even want Hollywood to try to “get it right.” After all, what would be the point, the lesson of trying to ingest such violence?
As time went on and the Oscar buzz grew, a couple of friends (special h/t to my genius homie Ashon) and I began exchanging emails that sometimes included mentions of the film. At the heart of these comments were two rather disturbing “facts” about the two men in charge of the film, director Steve McQueen and writer John Ridley. First, McQueen has said, on more than one occasion that Patsey, played by Lupita Nyong’o was “simple.” That’s right. Simple. Yeah. Simple. Let that sink in. Think about it for a moment. I’ll wait. […] Second, before Ridley was tabbed to pen the screenplay for 12YAS, he wrote a little ditty in Esquire, featuring the following quote that sort of captures the essence of the piece:
So I say this: It’s time for ascended blacks to wish niggers good luck. Just as whites may be concerned with the good of all citizens but don’t travel their days worrying specifically about the well-being of hillbillies from Appalachia, we need to send niggers on their way. We need to start extolling the most virtuous of ourselves. It is time to celebrate the New Black Americans—those who have sealed the Deal, who aren’t beholden to liberal indulgence any more than they are to the disdain of the hard Right. It is time to praise blacks who are merely undeniable in their individuality and exemplary in their levels of achievement.
This, apparently, is not satire.
As much as I want to argue for a space between the art and the artist, where the art may (not) convey that artist’s intent and much more, thus allowing the viewer to gather some meaning from the art beyond the artist’s intention, I’m beginning to suspect that no such space exists for this film. So, even though my initial response to this film was: Wow, they really did manage to convey some modicum of the brutality, I’m starting to agree with Ashon: the film was just brutal.
Part of what has convinced me is thinking about the intent of the men in charge and what they had/have to think about the folks they were attempting to portray. If these quotes and essays are any indication, these men, though black, are no “friend” to black folks, and thus should never have been in charge with such subject matter. Any dude who can say Patsey was “simple” just doesn’t get it. And neither does a dude who tells Esquire readers how much he hates niggers. If that wasn’t enough to persuade me, perhaps last night was. Color me pessimist, but there’s just no way Hollywood, or any other institution that upholds and conveys white supremacy, would award a piece of art that renders black folks and blackness as it should be. And as much as we want to show love to Lupita, the fact remains that she is the latest in a cohort of black women who have been awarded for playing a role that Hollywood can interpret as stereotypical and thus comforting (see: Davis, Viola). It’s a sad truth that further compels me to think that 12YAS just ain’t that movie.
That movie would scare Hollywood. That movie would never be school curriculum. That movie could never be simple. That movie doesn’t feature stars to be dubbed as pop culture’s favorite racialized fetish. That movie is not the vehicle which carries away white guilt. That movie isn’t written by someone who hates black people. That movie would never get made. So, 12YAS, I’ma let you finish, but I ain’t happy for you.