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Is There An Audience For A Serious Film About Slavery?

Shadow and Act By Sergio | Shadow and Act February 22, 2013 at 2:27PM

Hmmmm…Let me think about this for a minute…NO
26
American Slavery

Hmmmm…Let me think about this for a minute…NO

I've been waiting to get to this since I knew we were going to post the item below about a reader’s take on 12 Years A Slave and the reaction it got from black members of the audience.

I’ve been waiting since I wrote a piece over a year and half ago (I’m always ahead of the curve) about whether a serious, realistic film about slavery could attract a huge audience and be a success at the box office, and how I felt that was basically an impossible task.

The reaction I got from most people agreed with me so I decided to repost that piece but with some major additions Such as, of course,  Django Unchained.

Some of you will say, but look at Django and how phenomenally well that film did, and is still doing, at the box office all over the world, so films about slavery can attract an audience

True, except that Django, which I absolutely loved and does deal with aspects of slavery, one could argue, is not really a film about slavery, but is really a commercial revenge action western.

It’s a fantasy, as are most Hollywood films, of what one wishes could have happened. It is the complete opposite of the reality of slavery. As one S & A commenter in my original slavery film article said about Django: "... blacks would get all over that. Nobody wants to see the hardships, the degradation, the exploitation, the raping, the lynching, the maiming, the beating, the powerlessness, the hopelessness unless there's a huge dose of comeuppance," which is what exactly happens in the film.

And no doubt 12 Years is going to be far from that.

Now, of course, there have been a few serious attempts in the past such as: Beloved (which was a massive box office flop), Charles Burnett's Nightjohn (a truly excellent, but little seen made-for-TV movie), Barbara Allen’s dramatic short Morning Due  and... oh yes, there's my favorite guiltiest of all guilty pleasures, Mandingo, which I’ve been meaning to write about and I will another day, and which was a big b.o. success in its day.

But no doubt the taboo of forbidden, lurid sex between massa' wife with her slave Mead played a lot into the success of that film. And for this piece, I don't include Halle Gerima's Sankofa on the list because it dealt with slavery in the West Indies, and I want to concentrate instead on films about slavery in the USA.

However, the reason why a serious film on the subject is going to have a tough time is because we, even in this day and age, still have way too much psychological and emotional pain and mental baggage, associated with slavery.

The psychic wounds are still too fresh, too raw. Or to put it bluntly, there's simply no way you can get a black audience to watch a film in which black people are dehumanized, degraded and brutalized by white people on the big screen.

And just as well, there's no way you can get white people to watch themselves dehumanizing, degrading and brutalizing black people on the big screen. It's too painful, too disturbing, too many old hidden scars to be dealt with. Best that we ignore it and pretend it was all just a bad nightmare. But perhaps even worse, pretend that slavery really wasn't all that bad as they say it was. And besides, it gave full employment to black people so how could it have been as awful as they say?

It reminds me of years ago when I attended a screening of John Singleton's Rosewood a few days before it opened to zero business at the box office. Watching the film and the grim response of the audience in the theater, which, not surprisingly, included a number of walks-out, I wondered who would want to see a 2 and half hour film about black genocide? (Aside from the fact that it was a badly-made and written film, with a cowardly so-called hero who cuts out on his own people right before the slaughter begins. No Django here).

It's no surprise that practically all films that have dealt with slavery in some aspect, from Birth of a Nation to Gone with the Wind, to Song of the South, to Raintree County, to the TV mini-series Queen, just to name a few, have totally distorted or eliminated completely, the brutal realty of slavery altogether making it instead look rather romantic and quaint. Just a good time with happy devoted slaves.

Like, for example, that scene in Mel Gibson's film The Patriot in which he played a South Carolina plantation owner who somehow had no slaves, but instead a lot of really friendly black neighbors always willing to lend a helping hand.

As one black character said in the film, he worked Gibson's land "willingly" - you know, out of the kindness of his heart, because it's the neighborly thing to do. Boy, those Southern plantations owners really had it good didn't they? All those good, black, friendly neighbors being all neighborly.

Of course I can hear some asking, what about the 1977 TV mini-series Roots, one of the most was watched TV programs ever in the history of television? True, it was a huge success, though, keep in mind that it was broadcast in the midst of a particularly brutal winter that year across the country, when everyone stayed home, and this was before cable TV, computers, and video games. It didn't take a lot to attract a huge audience back then.

And many black historians and scholars attacked the show afterward, pointing out its glaring inaccuracies and criticizing it for being basically just another Horacio Alger story of a poor guy eventually succeeding through hard work and luck, which was basically true.

And of course, the fact that, at the end, the lead character forgives his white master when he's about to take his revenge for what he had done to him and his family (maybe the greatest bullshit climax ever in a film or TV show), was intended to soften any rage and bitter feelings, and especially to the appease the white viewing audience that everything was going to be fine and that black people are so forgiving. Something that Django once again had NO problems with.

So I still stand my belief that there's no way that a serious and honest film on American slavery with all its brutal ugliness can be a success and that’s the bottom line isn’t it?  It always comes down to the box office.

And to all those people who argue for serious films about slavery, I agree with you. But then again, what is the point of demanding something that the mass public is afraid of, and doesn’t want to face? It all goes back to my “castor oil” movie argument that so many black films fall into. Those serious important movies that are good for you but hard to take down. People keep demanding that “we must go and support these films to send Hollywood a message” and of course we NEVER do.

As I always say, people go see a film, because they WANT to, not because they're OBLIGATED to, and that’s not going to change

Who wants to finance a film that's going to bomb at the box office? That’s the main reason why 12 Years hedges its bets by having box office stars like Brad Pitt (whose production company Plan B co-financed and co-produced the film) in the film. Yes Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays in the lead of Solomon Northup in 12 Years, is a fine actor, but he’s not going to pull people into the theater on his name alone.

And I’m also sure that people will bring up movies about the Holocaust, and say they're always making films about that, and some have done well, like Schindler’s List, and that’s true. But keep in mind that the Holocaust took place not here, but over there - 2000 miles away in Europe. People can look at that and say to themselves, that was so horrible and "we could never do anything like that here". Which, of course, is conveniently forgetting about slavery, which goes back to my main point.. It's all too painful and ugly. Better to ignore it and pretend nothing like that happened over here, where we believe in freedom and democracy

Though I will argue that 12 Years will probably do very well overseas, since films that make America look bad, always seem do well overseas, since they give foreigners a sense of superiority (The film opens in Brazil on Sept 6th and in Europe starting in November).

Now, I must say that I want nothing more than to be completely wrong about the success of McQueen’s film. I love both his previous films - Hunger and Shame - and I truly hope that I’m wrong about 12 years. I hope that it’s a hit at the box office and that audiences will come out to see the film and the gain something from it.

But I doubt it.

Then again, if you disagree and I'm sure some of you do and are just itching to cuss me out (like I say I feed on your hate), please, we would like to hear what you say.

The floor is yours.


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