On Choosing Not to See “12 Years a Slave”

Rev. Meg Riley wrote a thoughtful piece about why white folks need to see this tough-to-take movie, even though we cringe at the horrors so well communicated. All her points ring true, but this sensitive white person still plans to pass it by. Bear in mind, as a full time caregiver, I haven’t seen any other movies in theater, either. But this will not be the one and only for this yearning cinephile when we finally organize the respite care schedule better. (Neither will “Gravity:” my finalists are “American Hustle,” “Frozen, and, at the top of the list, “Philomena.”

But Rev. Meg made me think pretty hard about our white duty right now. She also jogged a memory of someone in my on-line universe (who are you? Please step forward and take credit!) who commented on the Academy’s complete abandonment of “Fruitvale Station.” That commentator pondered that we still have “only one” syndrome. “Only one” film about African American historical injustices. “Only one” nominee from your-category-here-if-you’re-not-Euro-American-identified. “Only one” film that speaks more to the conscience than to the industry. Indeed, Rev. Meg herself uses the lingering revulsion from this movie to tweak her already-well-stoked conscience about unjust imprisonment and/or deportation.

Remembering that “only one” analysis dims the joy I felt last night over “Twelve Years’ ” victory. And why? Because as horrible as it is, slavery is, in our country, as depicted in this movie, not happening anymore. The killing depicted in “Fruitvale Station,” however, continues to stalk our landscape. If you are more worried about the Russians in Ukraine than about the police in your rear-view mirror at night, you, my friend, just passed your “white is all right” test. And you are probably more comfortable with “Twelve Years a Slave” than with “Fruitvale Station,” because basically, the latter film pushes something horrible into your face in the midst of a familiar and safe-to-you landscape. I lived in San Francisco when BART opened. I have friends who still ride it all the time. “Fruitvale Station” will be history someday, but right now it’s part of the world in which I pretend to stewardship. Social contract.

Forty-eight hours from now, those of us who take part in such observances will take down our last Christmas greenery, answer the last holiday cards, go to church to get smudged, to repent, to vow that we will do better, at least for forty days. Again we will enter Lent. Perhaps as you reread Rev. Riley and commit to seeing “Twelve Years a Slave,” you’ll contemplate the injustice that stalks the descendants of Solomon Nothrup by seeing “Fruitvale Station.”

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2 thoughts on “On Choosing Not to See “12 Years a Slave”

  1. I think I might have been one of the ones who brought up the “only one” phenomenon when it comes to ‘black’ films. Not only did it affect “Fruitvale”, it also affected “The Butler”.

    “12 Years” had a few things going for it that “Fruitvale” didn’t; it is a British film, even though the subject matter is US slavery (and not slavery in the Caribbean); the younger set of Hollywood really likes Steve McQueen; it had a really big name friend in Brad Pitt, who many members of the Academy like.

    “Fruitvale”, on the other hand, was a decidedly American film about a really contemporary story of race; had a lesser known director; and had no big name “white savior” to get it to come to the fore. Plus, the Academy looks askance at movies that make a real splash at Sundance, which “Fruitvale” did.
    In many ways on the surface, “The Butler” doesn’t have the same problems, but fundamentally, it shares the same problems as “Fruitvale”; it is a decidedly American movie about Jim Crow and after Jim Crow; Lee Daniels is known as a director of ‘black’ films, which makes him less “accessible” to many Academy members; and, even though it had many big names in the movie (Oprah, Forest Whitaker, Terrance Howard), Jane Fonda was the biggest “white” name and she doesn’t play a savior.

    What’s really interesting is that there were only 9 films nominated, but they had space for 10. There is no guarantee that “Fruitvale” would have gotten that 10th spot had another film made the cut, but at least it would have had a fighting chance.

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