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How 12 Years A Slave Won Best Picture: Cruel Reality Meets Clever Marketing

Excuse me if I don’t join the rest of y’all in celebrating this year’s Best Picture Oscar movie, 12 years A Slave. I’m already on record as this being a continuum of subservience movies that is trying to revive a cruel social reality through art and sentiment, so my conclusion shouldn’t be a surprise. But this race was a foregone conclusion. Hollywood made this movie with the intent of it securing its place in movie history. That couldn’t be done without the Oscar.


I believe, with all my heart, that this is one of the cruelest jokes—if not the cruelest joke—Hollywood has ever played on black people. And there’s been a lot of them.

Without Hollywood, African Americans may not have had such a difficult time overcoming negative imagery that framed a people that had made phenomenal progress just 50 years out of slavery, an imagery that has been seared in the psyche of the American public for the past 100 years. Because of Hollywood, black intelligentsia became an anomaly and anti-intellectualism (mumbling, bumbling, cowardice and racial deference) became epidemic to the social existence of blacks in America. African Americans became what Hollywood said they were, at least in film and television, and blacks spent decades running from these negative images. Images like, “Butlers, maids, slaves and hoes,” as Big Daddy Kane once lyriced in Public Enemy’s famous song, “Burn Hollywood Burn.” And don’t forget pimps, criminals and effeminate androgyny—yep, that’s Hollywood too. Black stigmatization has Hollywood’s name written all over it. Art imitates life—but in the case of African Americans, the realities of a cruel social existence (life) became art and art framed these images as a cruel, false dominant reality.

Anything anti-social, civilly deviant, sexually ambiguous and counter cultural has been stuck on black America to keep them outside the societal norms and keep them crossing the equality bridge in an effort to mainstream themselves into American society.

It took four wars, a civil rights movement and a black President to demonstrate some semblance of equality and emphasize the fact that black achievement was not just episodic, but epidemic and contrary to the images that Hollywood was (and is) bent on portraying.

Hattie McDaniel, the first African American to win an Oscar, played a maid because she had to—and when asked about it, she shared a cruel reality, “I’d rather play a maid than be one.”

Those were the options then for blacks. That was the work then—a cruel social reality.

Now African Americans are running back to these roles, because that’s where the work is—but it’s not their only options. There are other roles to play and choices to accept or decline. Granted, the work is limited for black actors, actresses, directors, writers, producers. I get that—but there’s still a choice whether effect is engagement. People want to be famous—but what is the price of fame? The roles that we once ran from have returned as “stories that need to be told” regardless of negative imagery. Yet the work is more stigmatizing than it was 100 years ago.

That’s brings us to Hollywood’s latest (and they want to be) greatest false cruel reality, 12 Years A Slave. In fairness to black Hollywood professionals, many probably did pass on this.

They had to go to Canada to get this cat, Steve McQueen—someone that would be absent of native born sensibilities of America’s historical race politic within Hollywood and without.

First of all, there were three movies better than 12 Years A Slave this year and each won multiple Oscars. What 12 Years had, that they didn’t have, was a monster marketing budget and public relations strategy to deal with the backlash that they knew was coming. Messaging was just as important as the movie. Remember, the early messaging even included some fabricated (if not straight out false) advertising, with nonsense like, “The Greatest Movie of All-Time.”

Really!!?? Of all-time???



Then there were the dozens of private screening for the press and industry insiders.

This was strategic because the movie was so brutal, the backlash could have hurt the whole industry—so they wanted to manage the sensitivity of the subject—brutality of slavery.

People came out of those private screenings quite not knowing what to say.

Myself included.

It was shocking—and I couldn’t hold my shock. The publicist who invited me—called me a dozen times. I had no real interest in seeing a slave movie the year after they left Frederick Douglass out of the last “Greatest Movie Ever, last year’s Best Actor Oscar winner (and most hyped movie), LincolnHow do you leave Frederick Douglass out of a Lincoln movie when he defined the dominant discourse that surrounded Lincoln’s presidency? It was just part of a perpetual 120-year effort to write Douglass out of American history—or deflect his impact on the fall of slavery. It was absolute nonsense. These “slave movies” are serving another purpose.

Plus, read my previous four columns on the resurrection of subservience movies (The Help, Django, The Butler) since the election of Barack Obama as President. This is more than coincidence. So, here we are—a fourth subservience movie. Yet another coincidence?

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I wasn’t feeling it…

Finally, I relented. But I would have to have absolutely nothing to do to go see it.

Four times…something came up. Finally, on the fifth scheduling, damn—nothing to do.

I made a screening.

I immediately understood why they wanted me, just a freelance columnist/blogger (with a huge readership), to see this movie before it got in theatres. They wanted to “preview” all possible reviews (and critiques). Most certainly, they wanted to out-review all negative reviews.

And they did that.

Then they had a scripted response to the brutality. The line was --

“Well, this was the reality of slavery. It’s a story that needs to be told,” like it hadn’t been told before. This movie was made 30 years ago, in 1984, but it was marketed as a story that hadnever been told…Solomon Northrop’s “lost story,” but it was never lost, and was never marketed as a re-make—a total distortion to avert the question as to “why” this movie was being made.

And why now?

12 Years A Slave was shrewdly marketed to avert the negative buzz that cost Denzel Washington a Oscar for his best role in the movie, Hurricane. Remember, accuracy and writing credits became the issue at the last minute. 12 Years A Slave had writing credit issues too.

But it was kept a secret, because this movie had to win. And it did…for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture. And of course, Best Supporting Actress.

Lupita Nyong’o played a hellva part, and she was most deserving to win (for the degradation she took on in the movie). She is to be congratulated. But, at the end of the day…

She still played a slave. One of the few roles Hollywood actually rewards in this day.

Lupita’s recognition is not enough to make one forget about the cruel reality this movie represents—no, not of slavery—but of Hollywood continuing to stigmatize a race of people in reinforcing negative images and reminding them of their worse and lowest social conditions.

The same stories told over, and over, and over again.

And they will keep telling them, as long as they can keep convincing the public that the same stories merit recognition, and will ensure that by keep giving them Oscar awards.


And that’s how (and why) 12Years A Slave won Best Picture.

So, amidst all the “pom poms,” excuse me if I don’t join the celebration.

Sorry…I just can’t cosign my people’s continuing compromise in image and film.

Antony Samad