Photo above by Alatele fr via Flickr
African American slavery has been shown to us in a plethora of cinematic portrayals. The capture and kidnapping ingrained in Roots. The shipping and handling entrenched in Amistad. The grueling fight for freedom deep-rooted in Glory. And the adjustment period portrayed in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.
However none of these films showed quite the perspective of a slave experience, as was seen in the 2013 release of 12 Years a Slave.
True, all the same – as the films that came before it – 12 Years a Slave is exceptionally more relevant in its portrayal. Reason being its point of view. You see, the difference between a film like Amistad, or Glory and 12 Years a Slave is not in its setting or its overall tale of bondage, but in its presentation.
Films that have embarked on 19th century captivity have done so from a foreign perspective. Presenting the story through the eyes of a slave, the journey of an African, the voyage to an unknown freedom – into an unforeseen second class existence. Every single one of these scenarios has presented Africans and African Americans of that time, as second class citizens. Separate from their white counterparts. Distanced from the understanding of humanity. Marked, from the opening scene to the closing credits as the “others,” whose experience was not only beyond believable, but far from relatable.
(NOT TO SAY ANY OF THESE PORTRAYALS WERE WRONG! I LOVE ALL OF THESE FILMS/SHOWS – but to iron out the differences, this is what I have gathered…)
How can one truly experience a situation if one has not been in any part of that situation? How can a person feel the shock and disbelief of a culture they were never actually a part of? This is what 12 Years a Slave brings to the table. This is why the original memoir was so captivating to the non=black community.
An understanding, from an American freeman’s perspective, of what it means to have your freedom, family and faith ripped away from you in one sweeping moment – that could lasts until the end of your days.
I don’t need to go over this film in detail. There are those who have read the book, seen the film and analyzed the critics. But I do need to say this.
We, black, brown and yellow extensions of our-ancestry-selves have been overlooked many times when it comes to cinematic recognition.
What is proclaimed to be the highest honor awarded to films of any genre are the Academy Awards; the Oscars. Hollywood is seen as a progressive art form, however taking a look at the films that have been supported, selected and awarded to the black community; there’s been an unsettling consistency in their choices:
Sidney Poitier’s 1963 win for Lilies of the Field, in which he played a handyman helping to build a new church for Catholic nuns. As opposed to his gripping appearance in the The Defiant Ones of 1958, where he brought to light the convictions of an imprisoned black man. Particularly when chained to a white man reflecting the very oppression black people dealt with daily.
Denzel Washington’s 2001 win for Training Day. His first nominated film for which he did not play the hero of his people or situation, but the villainous cop defiling a system built to keep order. The win that left his previous performances as Malcolm X in 1992 or The Hurricane in 1999 (both of struggle, success and perseverance) floating in the midst of Oscar nominees worthy enough to be mentioned, but not significant enough to be remembered.
Then there was Jamie Foxx’s memorable win in 2004 for Ray. Though Foxx’s performance was extraordinary, as were all of these black-led films that clawed their ways onto the Oscar stage, it sort of fell short to the heroism expressed in its contender of that year.
Ray Charles was a musical activist and talent like no other. Breaking boundaries and crossing lines with the impeccable use of his chosen craft. The film reflected Charles in all of his pain and glory; and showed his resilience in refusing to perform on segregated stages. However, what it garnered in entertainment, it lacked a bit in education and global reach. Now Don Cheadle’s performance as Paul Rusesabagina in Hotel Rwanda? A film exposing the realities of a nation in need of ANY assistance from the outside world. The moment on screen where we were able to see atrocities taking place. Families being tortured and murdered. And a people split up by the very “selection process” enforced on black people in bondage.
One of the most prevalent strategies of African and American slavery that has followed our ancestry to this day. The separation of house negro from field nigger, light from dark, and in Hotel Rwanda’s case, Tutsi from Hutu. The Caucasian notion of the better form of “black,” is that of one who looks more “white.” Or who possesses features that typically are associated with Caucasian genetic code. Thinner noses, lighter skin, eyes and hair that vary in color as opposed to brown/black. And let’s not even discuss hair texture.
These films, both nominated within the same year, showed two different forms of the black experience from two different angles. One of the main differences being Ray showed the journey of one man, while Hotel Rwanda represented the journey of many – in no sugarcoated form to please the masses. Just the raw truth.
Now I know the Academy is not a human rights group or an ally of black culture. In fact the only reason I’m comparing the two films is because the Academy chose to. But when I see these two films side by side, as the Academy did that year, the choice felt a little bit clearer than what was given an Oscar that night.
The same with black lead actresses, and their significantly shorter lists of victorious Oscar nominations. From my opinion, Oscar hit and misses occurred with Dorothy Dandridge’s 1954 portrayal in the first all black casts, musical feature, Carmen Jones. Cicely Tyson’s role as a struggling mother of the Depression-era south in Sounder. And Diana Ross’s portrayal of a talented black female singer in a white man’s world; Billie Holiday’s Lady Sings the Blues. And Lady Sings the Blues shared the 1972 Oscar stage with Sounder. Both song and sound dropped the mic that year!
Then there was one of my favorite performances, and Oscar snubs, done by Ms. Whoopi Goldberg in the 1985 portrayal of Celie Johnson. You know of the film I speak. The Color Purple. One of the most accurate portrayals and adapted screenplays, as it told the lives of so many black women of that time. Trapped to either the households of their fathers, or the bedrooms of their husbands. Dedicating their lives (whether by choice or force) to the service of those around them. Silently, and humbly waiting for something to come, or someone to come and tell the story they never intended to tell.
Or Angela Bassett’s performance on the ultimate stage of 1993’s What’s Love Got to Do With It as Tina Turner. Now you ALL know that woman deserved a damn Oscar!
But a last, the golden man was awarded to Halle Berry in 2001’s Monster’s Ball. Personally, I felt this film could have stayed home for Oscar season. And although Berry acted as well as is expected, her true Oscar worthy performance FOR ME was in the 1999 film Introducing Dorothy Dandridge. And how great that would have been! A full-circle recognition of Dorothy Dandridge winning her much deserved Oscar, not for her role as Carmen Jones, but for the most ultimate role of her life.
Moving on, nominations continued to grace but not salute Gabourey Sidibe in Precious of 2009. A depressingly beautiful film about the unsung struggles of women we never see or dare to consider. The dropouts, the teen pregnancies, the welfare survivors who are labled as statistics to society.
Then there was Viola Davis’s heartbreaking portrayal of Aibileen Clark in 2011’s The Help. A film of genuine reflection upon the women we should not be ashamed of but amazed of. Servants only to their God, their families and their beliefs, The Help exposed the lives of the women commonly dismissed and underestimated for the roles they played on a daily. These women not only cleaned up the lives of their employers, but raised the nation of black and white we see today. (And don’t think I forgot about Ms. Hattie McDaniel for her role in Gone with the Wind. Her win for best supporting actress was a milestone for black actors, but I’m focusing on the big ticket, lead roles, and Gone with the Wind is another damn article only further proving my point).
Now, last but not feminine-ly least, Quvenzhane Wallis was nominated for her Hushpuppy performance in 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. A little brown girl living in a bathtub with her daddy. A wonderful tale of innocence, strength and survival gave the Academy just a little something more to consider.
I won’t go into supporting roles, screenplays, music and so on, because I can go on forever. But I say all of this to say that the Academy has consistently chosen to overlook the harsh truth bearing films of their nominated past. Films that exude leadership, struggle, and the harsh realities of the Diaspora. Harsh realities initiated by the forefathers of those holding the ballot.
And no, I don’t feel that the films I’ve mentioned above should or could have won because they are led by black faces. I feel they should have won because they were amazing films, played by amazing actors and actresses who gave a different perspective. Who showed a different view on the world. Who exposed a different side of America or Africa that some may not have been willing to see. The films, like many accepted into the Academy, shared a different story; and told it beautifully.
Also, I am not attempting to undermine any of the Oscar winners of the past, black, red or white. Many performances warrant a win, and frankly this post is NOT ABOUT YOU.
But to my brothers and sisters that have been ignored, cheated or overlooked by the Academy’s willingness to not look into the mirror; a film is here and a milestone has been made.
The year of 2013 was an amazing year for black film as Lee Daniel’s The Butler casts acting moguls from Oprah Winfrey to Forest Whitaker. All to tell the story of a White House butler witnessing some of America’s most historical moments from within. All whi;e dealing with family, honor and the development of black culture through politics.
Fruitvale Station’s haunting portrayal of Oscar Grant, played by Newark’s own Michael B. Jordan. A true story of horror in the justice system, as an innocent black man of circumstance was shot dead by an idiot with a badge. This film made its audience a witness to how racism plays a vital part in police justification. How a prison sentence can impact the future of a man trying to feed his family. And how ONE DAY can expose the worth of an individual – contradicting all stereotypical nonsense thrown into play once a black man is shot down by a suspecting gun wielder. Fruitvale honors all the Oscar Grants, Sean Bells and Trayvon Martins of this nation, and I am grateful for the reminder.
But the film that made it to the stage was one that claimed yet another form of this country. And like that iconic night when Denzel and Halle became the first African Americans to win Oscars in MY lifetime; I screamed with joy as the winners claimed their gold. There are three categories that 12 Years a Slave take with them this season, and they are not only worth it but VALID.
Although Lupita Nyong’o was awarded in a supporting actress role (and I know this isn’t a lead role, but this is my exception, dammit!), Lord knows she won every BLACK-female-character-driven nomination that night. Her performance was breathtaking and unexpected from the very first moment she appeared onscreen. I went into the theater to experience Solomon Northup’s struggle for freedom, and came out with Patsey’s scars of endurance. I loved Patsey. I cried for Patsey. I hurt for Patsey. And I shall never forget Patsey.
Patsey helped Solomon realize that his life as a slave was hard, but a woman’s life as a slave could be harder. Having to deal with the same lashes, beatings, separations and hardships. An enslaved woman had a yet another virtue that could be defiled on a daily. The very virtue that women now give away freely to the highest bidder. But that’s another story.
12 Years a Slave also won best adapted screenplay for John Ridley’s excellent transformation of Northup’s written accounts into a feature film we all can connect with.
And finally, for best picture, the award goes to 12 Years a Slave. This moment is so extraordinary because a black led film has never won the best picture award. And for what I believe is the first time, the Academy has chosen a black representation that is true to our people, is true to this country, and a nod to our predecessors. Also, well-deserved are the key players involved in this a rich and endearing story.
And for those who do not yet understand the importance of this award, wake up and smell the reparations. This Oscar may not be a public apology or an end to all racism, but it is one of the most ultimate (artistic) forms of recognition that the world is seeing this film and accrediting it for the reflection it shows on “America the Free.”
Our grandmothers and grandfathers, and mothers and fathers went through hell in this country. Bled, worked and died in this country by no choice of their own. Our families were ripped apart for the same price of the shoes on your feet! Raped for not having the very rights we take for granted today. Killed for the color of our skin, now justified for the color of our flags. Beaten and destroyed for choosing to survive. Blood that runs through our veins have been shed on our sidewalks. We are a people who have been scorned, and this film has made the world regret it. And I thank you.
Since that moment, back in 2001 when Training Day and Monster’s Ball took the stage – bringing the black community to their feet – a many black films have come and gone.
But come 2013, a film about slaves from the account of a slave opened its theater doors.
The Academy (probably grudgingly) nodded in its direction.
And the awards ran-neth over.
Well, I say was 12 twelve years too late but not a moment too soon.
Because out of all the black led films that have been pushed aside by the award ceremony, the Academy needed a reminder of where black America stemmed from before they were able to recognize where we’ve been since.
The first step was to introduce this country to their less than favorable past, and now we can return their gaze to the present (ahem; insert President Obama). There needed to be a reminder that this country was built on the back of enslaved people, and that atrocities did not only happen across the border, but here at home as well. And with this win, no one can ignore that fact any longer.
So I say again, 12 years too late, but then again, not a moment too soon. And bravo to the makers of this film from behind the scenes, to the front of the lens. I’ll end on one of the best speeches I’ve heard in my lifetime by Lupita Nyong’o at the 2014 SAG Awards:
“Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, Steve McQueen. Thank you for taking a flashlight, and shining it under the floorboards of this nation, and reminding us what it is we stand on.”