Come Sunday night, director Steve McQueen’s critically praised rendering of the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Antebellum South, may win the Academy Award for best picture.
So why isn’t everyone talking about “12 Years a Slave” around the water cooler, on the street, over coffee?
It is arguably the most revered film in recent memory that so few have seen. Those who do watch it often leave theaters in a hush, finding it difficult to explain how they feel about what they’ve witnessed on the screen.
That matters. The cultural conversation that normally swirls around a work like “12 Years a Slave” is one of the main reasons we go to movies in the first place. It is why “word of mouth” is an industry totem, prized if it is good, feared if it is bad, confusing when it is absent.
If anything, McQueen’s film has stopped more conversations than it’s started. And the silence is deafening.
President Obama, who has acknowledged “tearing up” at “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” who hosted a White House screening of “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” remains mum on “12 Years a Slave.” As of this writing, there has been no public confirmation that the president even watched the print of the film the White House requested and the studio provided.
Indeed, many moviegoers, including avid film fans who make a habit each year of seeing all the best picture nominees, are taking a pass on “12 Years.” At the film’s first official screening for voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in October, the 1,000-seat Samuel Goldwyn Theater was a little more than half full, in contrast to “Gravity,” which packed the house a few days earlier and turned late-comers away.
The explanations many give for their reluctance to see the film tend to begin with an apology that goes something like this: “I’m sorry, I know it’s an important film, but it sounds too depressing.” Or, “I know I should go see it, but I don’t think I can sit through it.”
McQueen has given us a reality show we’re reluctant to watch.
“12 Years” unflinchingly takes on one unforgivable truth from our history that runs counter to the American ideal. We are the “home of the brave,” as “The Star-Spangled Banner” so emphatically boasts, but the “land of the free”? Not for nearly 100 years of the country’s formative years. And not until more than half a century after the Battle of Baltimore in 1814 inspired Francis Scott Key to pen those lyrics.
As of last weekend, “12 Years” had sold a respectable $49 million in tickets at North American box offices since it began its theatrical run Nov. 8. While some of its best-picture competitors have made less, others have made substantially more. “American Hustle,” “Captain Phillips” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” all crossed the $100-million mark in the U.S. weeks ago; “Gravity” has made more than $260 million.
A clue to why “12 Years” is simultaneously admired and resisted, praised and passed over, respected yet not embraced came during January’s Golden Globes in a comic riff between hosts Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. After mentioning how much she loved “12 Years a Slave” Poehler added, “I can honestly say after seeing that film, I will never look at slavery the same way again.” To which Fey shot back, “Wait, how were you looking at it?”
It wasn’t just the punch line that reverberated, but the looks they exchanged in the seconds after, slightly ashamed, as if even the queens of snark had reservations about the joke.
The discomfort is not in the idea of slavery as a topic for filmmakers. “Roots,” the 1977 TV miniseries based on Alex Haley’s historical novel, was a ratings hit, much talked about, much acclaimed. Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad” in 1997, about mutiny on a slave ship, didn’t ruffle the collective conscience, or frankly grab it either. “Django Unchained,” Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 scathing slave revenge comedy, was met with waves of opinions pro and con, but little hesitation. Nominated for five Oscars, it took home two, including one for Tarantino’s script. It made more than $162 million in domestic box office.
In a time of challenging cinema, “12 Years a Slave” exists alone, an island in a stream of turbulent issues that filmmakers increasingly ask audiences to contemplate.
As Solomon Northup’s book so incisively exposed, and “12 Years” so artfully and insistently reminds, even a freeman of color was at risk in 1841. A person with black skin could be reduced to a commodity without question, bartered and sold to the highest bidder. No recourse, little chance of escape.
In his slim book and with dispassionate language, Northup related the horrors he experienced as a slave and even more that he witnessed. Screenwriter John Ridley has been faithful in his adaptation, virtually no “Hollywood” flourishes added. There are no real heroes either, no white knights coming to save the day. Just one decent act by one decent man. Even Solomon, in a finely wrought Oscar-nominated portrayal by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is cast as nothing more, or less, than an honorable man enduring terrible times.
That very nod to veracity, the filmmakers’ unwillingness to create artificial martyrs, or hyper-imagined hardships, is part of the agitation.
“12 Years” is not only the story of Solomon Northup, but of a quintessentially un-American institution. We the people may abhor slavery today, yet for so long it infiltrated every sector of life and livelihood in this country. Though the practice was concentrated in the South, certainly in the final years before the Civil War, slavery was not just a Southern problem. Northup’s story begins with his kidnapping in the North.
By using the considerable power of film to make slavery so real, the Oscar-nominated director has unsettled us. “12 Years’” characters define physical and emotional extremes: Lupita Nyong’o brings to excruciating life an abused slave’s pain; Michael Fassbender is equally adept as the sadistic plantation owner dispensing it. Both earned Oscar nominations for their performances.
Harder to bear are the more ordinary exchanges. Benedict Cumberbatch’s William Ford in particular. An everyman, as Northup described him, Ford read Scriptures to his slaves on Sunday, and sometimes sided with them against brutal overseers. But he never freed them, and wasn’t willing to shoulder the cost of keeping two children with their mother. Exhibiting guilt at every turn, he was unwilling to discard — or concede — its reason.
The more relatable the man who owns another man, the thinner the divide between him and the rest of us, the more terrifying to watch.
Yet that is also what “12 Years” demands with every line of dialogue, every slash of the whip, every humiliation: That we not look away. That we remember this horrific institution existed in our country and was kept viable by some of our own family members.
The racial legacy we struggle with today lives inside “12 Years a Slave.” Slavery on our soil is painful to remember, painful to admit, difficult to discuss, almost unbearable to watch — and that is why so many choose not to. It will take more than an Oscar win on Sunday to change that.