It’s been exactly a month and a half since I saw 12 Years a Slave. Weeks later, as I sit here writing this article, I still vividly remember the tears in the eyes of the men and women around me at the film’s close, the intense tug in my own chest and the first tear to blur my vision after years of not shedding one. 12 Years was painful and poignant, slightly heartwarming and incredibly heartbreaking. 12 Years resonated in a way only a film about race can. But therein seems to lie the problem.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Catching Fire: the second Hunger Games movie left me satiated. Still, using box office numbers as a measure of a film’s success, there is a massive gap between Catching Fire and 12 Years a Slave that is less than heartening: over the course of its 45 day run, 12 Years a Slave grossed slightly more than thirty three million dollars, a smidge more than what Catching Fire made in a single day. Keeping in mind the massive critical acclaim for everything from the film’s cinematography to the acting, not to mention the harrowing true story itself, we may be tempted to ask: why hasn’t 12 Years a Slave been a runaway success?
Some would counter that it is. To be fair to Hollywood, America, and Brad Pitt, the parallel between Catching Fire’s box office performance and that of a film like 12 Years a Slave is slightly unfair: the former is an action film based on a critically acclaimed book series published within the past decade while the latter is a serious drama based on Solomon Northup’s first person account of his experience published more than a century prior. Still, that’s not to say the same phenomena isn’t present in the box office performance of other contemporary films. Captain Phillips, Gravity, Blue Jasmine, and Prisoners, comparable films that have come out around the same time period, have done markedly better than 12 Years. Even compared to the reception of other historical films of recent memory—Lincoln, JFK, Schindler’s list, and (even) Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, 12 Years’ numbers simply don’t compare.
It is incredibly unusual for a movie about slavery to be produced, much less received with critical open arms. Django Unchained, a recent exception to the unspoken moratorium on slave films, was less a serious drama and more a quintessential Quentin shoot-em-up film that just happened to focus on black folk during the time of slavery. The last time any work of this magnitude was created was in 1976, when Roots first aired on television. This large time gap in cinema about black slavery, coupled with the fact that this sort of film tends to do better abroad than in the United States, begs the question: is America simply not yet willing to confront the memory of slavery?
Race has long been, and continues to be, a sensitive subject in the hearts and minds of the American public. Discussion of race in our political discourse is confined to the outskirts of mainstream media (read: the wonderful folks over at MSNBC) and Americans are so obsessed with being “color-blind” that liberals and conservatives alike can be known to reject frank discussions of the issue. The GOP seems to think that racism is dead, and to address issues affecting minorities is to “play the race card.” We are so squeamish about race that 12 Years, a film set in the United States about American Slavery, was created in Britain. It’s plain to see that we—both American film viewers and film producers—aren’t ready for an honest discussion of our most painful memory as a society. The question is, when will we be?
Part of the problem is that the effects of slavery in America, one of the last industrialized nations to abolish the institution, are still felt strongly today. For Americans—black, white, and in between—the memory of the institution is made worse by the persistence of its racist legacies. One only needs to look at political discourse in certain circles (read: the (far) right) to realize that issues of racial animosity and the perceived inferiority of African Americans, a result of hundreds of years of societal subjugation, are as pertinent today as they have been in the past. There is a reason why the GOP has a large demographics problem, why Mitt Romney lost 83 percent of the “non-white” vote in 2012. There is a reason why efforts at preventing voting fraud seem to disproportionately affect minorities, why stop and frisk programs have delved into little more than thinly veiled racial profiling. There is a reason why the Trayvon Martin case was so incredibly divisive. There is a reason why the Voting Rights Act passed one hundred years after the abolition of slavery remains necessary to ensure the enfranchisement of minorities, especially in the Deep South, the setting of 12 Years. There is a reason why immediately following the overturning of this landmark law Republican legislatures took divisive actions to show the Supreme Court that its determination was dead wrong.
To be fair, while we haven’t seen a frank movie about slavery in recent decades we have seen a few great films about race in recent years, including The Butler, Fruitvale Station, and 42. Still, we haven’t gotten to a comfortable point in our discourse, and achieving that goal takes more than a film from Steve McQueen or a rousing speech from Hilary Clinton about the memory of Trayvon Martin. To truly move past race in this country, we need more than the great image a black president gives us; we need more than an elected black senator from New Jersey. We need to be able to talk frankly without pretense or offense. We need to be able to discuss the effects of race in the present as much as in our collective past. We’ve got a long way to go. Although 12 Years’ box office performance is a sign we aren’t there yet, the existence of the film suggests we might be on our way.