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12 Years a Slave: The Reinforcement of Black Subservience in Today's Hollywood

Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong'o

Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong'o

Last week, I had a chance to attend a private screening of what has to be one of the most disturbing movies I’ve seen in years. Now, generally I don’t put too much stock in movies—as film can be perceived as just art imitating reality. But in many instances, art shapes reality by predicating subliminal ideas that seep into culture. Yet, there are times when reality dictates art to re-introduce, or reinforce, cultural sentiment. America’s historical race caste system is one such reality that seems to be reinforced nearly every decade since it was introduced in 1619.

So, when I get this call, from a friend of a friend, to come preview this movie, I already understand the construct of the art I’m about to ingest. I declined two previous invitations to view this movie due to scheduling conflicts. I should’ve known what I was about to see was disturbing. They wanted me to see this movie too bad.

Well, I saw it, and I have absolutely nothing good to say about it. I’m disturbed by it.

The movie is 12 Years A Slave, which is coming to theaters very soon. Probably in wide distribution. Seems to me, they’re still trying to test this movie.

Well, I can tell you—it didn’t test well with me at all. Nor the people sitting next to me. Nor the people in front of me. It was quite disturbing. Who green-lighted this? More importantly, why was it green-lighted. Some stories need to be told…so don’t. But who decides which of our cultural narratives be told—or how they’re told. This is the question.

I’m not going to review the movie. I’m not going to encourage anybody to go see it, nor comment any further on it…other to say that it is a deeply disturbing movie of no significant social value—than the now all too constant reminder of the cruelty of black subservience in America’s slavery and segregation periods during this “era of Obama”. I thought after The Help and Django, we’d had our share of artistic subservience for the rest of the decade. But they made money…and you know what happens when a genre makes money in Hollywood? You can expect to see some more of the same…except Django (I don’t think you gonna see another Django). Then comes The Butler and now this 12 years A Slave. More disturbing than this movie is this trend of black subservience movies that subjugate black humanity and reinforce culturalAmericana by reminding us whatAmerica was, and in many ways, still is.

There was a time when the only work black actors and actresses could get inHollywood, was if they played a slave or a servant. Seems like we back to that…only the stars are bigger—to ensure box office success. How many of these slave, nanny, butler movies do we have to see to understand what’s going on here? Black social esteem takes a hit every time one of these movies comes out. There are a thousand stories of the black experience, lost to history, that have a greater redeeming value than the experience of free black men stolen into slavery.

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There are hundreds of stories of black landowners, black inventors, black legislators, black authors and story tellers—my point is, there is no shortage of black stories to tell, of the 400-year African American experience. Why re-tell the same stories and increase the brutality inflicted upon African Americans, when no people’s other stories are told like this with the same veracity and frequency. Hollywood can tell and promote stories of black oppression and subjugation, but they can’t tell and promote stories about black resistance, or even white oppression. Where is the balance in telling these stories of cultural significance? At whose expense are these stories being told? Nobody is forced to have their subjugation recounted like black people. But what about their victories. Is the only victory to endure (survive) racial abuse?

Case in point; I recently went to see Jennifer Hudson’s portrayal of Winnie Mandela in the movie, Winnie. It was showing nowhere in Los Angeles. I had to go see it in Monterey Park. I might as well as saw it on a bootleg in my home. Nobody (five other people) was in the theatre.

I also went to see Isaiah Washington’s new movie, Blue Caprice. I had a helleva time finding it. It was playing in one theatre in all of Los Angeles. Why? Because the dominant culture doesn’t want to be reminded of the power of black resistance (in the face of Apartheid) on one hand, and the fear that paralyzed the nation’s capital by the Beltway sniper on the other.

Nobody wants to be reminded of times when they were terrorized and subjugated. But black Americahas to relive this experience forever, even as 21st Century realities in the politics of exclusion play out in the larger society, where blacks are being squeezed out of the middle class and being relegated to service jobs, the only jobs many can find in this economy.

There is a reinforcement of black subservience which is taking place that’s bigger that a movie. The cruelty is just not in the script line. It’s in having to sit through these “creative” indignities every six months and watch people applaud this as art.


It’s culture seeking to reinforce certain cultural realities, past and present, and it’s quite disturbing.

Anthony Samad

Tuesday, 8 October 2013