Tag Archives: 12 Years A Slave

Hollywood and the Shaping of Perceptions of Racism

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It is a known fact that the media we consume shapes our perception of the world: after all, media has economic, political, social and aesthetic purposes. Martin Gilens wrote a book some time ago, for example: Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty, which explores the role of media in the shaping of myth and misconception of welfare policy. And what about the shaping of misconception of racism? We all know Fox News has a nice handle on that, as far as “news” media goes. But what about pop culture? Hollywood? How do the films we flock to theaters to see shape our world? I can think of more than a few examples, as I’m sure any thinking person can. But one in particular comes to mind: films about slavery and the way they shape perceptions of racism in white audiences. Namely the idea that racism is a thing of the past and only existed on Southern plantations a long, long time ago.

Since the release of 12 Years a Slave I’ve had many conversations about films that are about slavery. The conversations that stand out to me the most are the ones where the consensus is, “Why do all the films in Hollywood that feature black people have to be about slavery?” and my own undying question about the underrepresentation of black people in Hollywood, “Why does a film need to be about the subjugation of black people in order for it to have more than a one solitary black character?” And also, “Why did so many more white people go to see 12 Years than Best Man Holiday?”

While films like 12 Years a Slave are extremely important in understanding the past and the effect it has on the present, they have an interesting effect on white audiences whose ideas of racism are of the “post-racial” or “colorblind” variety: the effect is almost one of relief. When I left the theater of 12 Years a Slave, the kind of words I heard from the lips of the other white people leaving were things like, “God, it was just so bad back then.” And even things like, “Those people were horrible. Fuck those slave owners.” So, in a sense, relief. “It was so bad back then” translates as “Things are so much better now,” and “Those people were horrible” translates as “We don’t do that anymore.”

And they’re right. Things are better now. White people don’t own slaves in the United States. But this cousin of relief presents, to me, a sort of cognitive dissonance about the reality of racism in America. When white audiences see movies like The Help and The Butler and 12 Years a Slave—and indeed, when the vast majority of mainstream films featuring black people are movies like The Help and The Butler and 12 Years a Slave—and not films like Best Man Holiday, their perception of racism (and even blackness) is shaped in a way that lacks a wider context and an awareness of present-day racism. This is what racism looks like, white audiences come to believe: chains and lynchings and the American South. And while they’re not wrong, that understanding is stunted.

In a way, films like 12 Years a Slave, even with its horror and brutality, serve as a comfort to white people seeking to feel a distance between the monster that is racism and the life they lead in 2013. “Progress!” we congratulate ourselves, proud that America has overcome its brutishly violent history. “We used to be horrible people that owned other human beings and now we don’t! We’re a post-racial society now! Go America!” But if we’re talking about reality, the reality of racism in 2013, a reality that generally doesn’t make it to the silver screen, we have to talk about things like environmental racism and structural racism in our systems of education, employment, criminal justice, and more. We have to talk about Trayvon Martin and Marissa Alexander and we have to talk about Oscar Grant and Renisha McBride. We have to talk about what racism looks like now and not let ourselves off the hook with the tired mantra of “But we’ve come so far!”

12 Years a Slave was an incredible film. I think everyone should see it. But I encourage people with skin like mine to not watch it with the idea that the work is done. The fact that white people no longer legally own, rape, and murder black bodies is not a sign of progress we should congratulate ourselves on: our standards should be higher. Widen your scope. Racism looks like this. And this. And this. And this. Don’t allow Hollywood’s narrow line of vision to trick you into believing that violent racism is just something that happened in the 1800’s and looks like the horrific lava of lashes on a black human being’s back while everyone stands around wearing corsets and smoking pipes. It looks like Charlotte police shooting Jonathan Ferrell to death after he was in a car accident and asked for help. It looks like Riley Incognito calling Warring Sapp the N-word. It looks like Trayon Christian being arrested for buying a belt at Barney’s because the NYPD didn’t think he could afford it on his own. It looks like celebrities and well-known magazines showcasing blackface in 2013 and every year before that.

In a nation where so many white people have their “one black friend” and little personal contact with people who don’t look like them—yes, segregation is still “a thing:” New York City had the same level of racial segregation in 2012 as it did in 1910.—it is easy for these audiences to consume movies like The Help and 12 Years (especially given the fact that there are so few alternatives when it comes to mainstream movies featuring black people and their lives) and think “This was racism. I don’t know any black people here in 2013, but I do know that slavery isn’t around anymore. So that’s that!” And—slam—close the book. But that’s not all. That’s not the end, fellow white folks. Why did you watch The Help but not Do the Right Thing? Why 12 Years a Slave and not Boyz in the Hood? Is it because one talks about racism in the past where you’re comfortable with it, and the other talks about issues affecting black people right here and right now? Spoiler alert: they’re the same thing. The racism you see in 12 Years has mutated and transformed and grown tentacles and developed camouflage, but it’s right here with us. Right here with you. We’d be foolish to ignore it; foolish to watch the story of Solomon Northup and think that his suffering was not inherited, that the ugliness of the system that enslaved him doesn’t still linger.

I wonder if white America as a whole will ever be able to empathize with present-day struggle. Looking back with sympathy and indignation is easier than looking around, isn’t it? I just wonder what are we looking toward.

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Why The Best Man Holiday Isn’t “Race-Themed”

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I wasn’t even going to blog about The Best Man Holiday. I was going to go in and watch the glorious reunion of Nia Long, Taye Diggs and company and just enjoy it. But after what USAToday tweeted about the film’s success at the box office, I realized I had to. Here’s the tweet in case you missed it:

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Race-themed. When I think of race as a theme in film, I think of it as the way theme is defined. Here’s how Merriam-Webster defines it.

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“The main subject that is being discussed in a piece of writing, a movie, etc.” Themes are what a film is about. If a film is race-themed, then it is about race. So imagine my surprise when I saw USAToday describe The Best Man Holiday as race-themed. Forget “race-themed”: I struggle to see how the film is about race at all.

Like its predecessor, Holiday focuses on the intertwining lives of  a group of men and women: authors, football players, mothers, fathers. It’s about the bond of friendship and the tests of its strength. Financial worry. Parenthood. Marriage. Grief. Forgiveness. But what exactly does race have to do with grief aside from the fact that, in this instance, the people struggling with grief are black?

Well, nothing.

What USAToday’s tweet reveals is that white audiences are unable to see black people as beings separate from their blackness. A movie featuring a black cast surely can’t be about universal themes that any audience can relate to, this line of thinking goes: the subject matter must be about mysterious black things that only black viewers can comprehend; it must be black inside-jokes; black references; black experiences. Black movies are for black people—not for everyone. Black people are defined by their blackness and so are their films, and USAToday’s tweet tells us that explicitly.

Every day we are bombarded with movies and television shows in which white faces, white families, white marriages are plugged as the “default” experience…and no one would say that these films are about race. No one would say, “Oh, that’s an all-white cast. It must be about what it means to be white in America.” No one. Black audiences go see these films, despite their almost entirely white casts, because if black audiences only went to see films in which the cast looked like them, they’d see maybe five movies a year in mainstream theaters. Tops. Why not the same for white folks? Why was I the only white person in the theater for Best Man Holiday today? What is it about a black cast that is off-putting to white audiences? Do we really need to see ourselves reflected endlessly back at us to enjoy a film? Why did white audiences flock to see Django and 12 Years but not Holiday? Why can you relate more to a film about chattel slavery than you can about nine affluent people and their families? These are questions that need answers.

This is not to say that films with black casts are never race-themed. Of course they are. If a film is about race, then it’s about race. But Best Man Holiday is not. A film’s themes do not become about race simply because its cast is not white. Not only does this notion bind black actors to their blackness, it Others non-white experiences, casting white films as default, and everything else as “everything else.” Films with white casts are then provided with the benefit of universality: free to be any genre, take on any subject matter or theme. A film with a black cast, no matter its story, is “race-themed,” tied to the race of its actors simply by virtue of their blackness.

If we describe Best Man Holiday as “race-themed” we must ask ourselves the following questions.

Is football race-themed?

Is pregnancy race-themed?

Is marriage race-themed?

Is trust?

Is cancer?

Is friendship?

Is God?

Because these are the things that Holiday is truly about. Universal lessons of brotherhood and faith, the tests of love and the frailty of the human heart: these things are no more about race than love itself. To say this film is about race tells black actors—and black audiences—that no matter their experiences, their heartbreaks, their vows, their tribulations…at the end of the day, before they are human, they are black. This violent oversimplification of black roles not only dehumanizes black lives, but it perpetuates in white people the idea of their Defaultness and the lie that all experiences are relatable through whiteness.

We’ve all had our hearts broken. We’ve all been in love. We’ve all had a best friend at some point in their lives. How stunted is your imagination, how crippled is your notion of life, if the people on screen with broken hearts, the people in love, the people mending their friendships, have to look like you in order for you to feel a connection with their humanity?

Oh, and by the way…in case you didn’t know…

This blog actually is race-themed.

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While Wearing Their Pretty Dresses, They Ruined Lives: 12 Years A Slave & the Role of White Women in Slavery

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I saw 12 Years A Slave this weekend. Aside from crying uncontrollably for about 80% of the film—not an exaggeration: please take a box of tissue to the theater if you see it—I was struck by many things the film did in its portrayal of the institution of slavery and the people that upheld it. For starters, I think a spectacularly effective job was done in imparting the terrifying helplessness and profound unfairness of the system: long moments of silence juxtaposed with instances of extreme violence emphasized the normalcy of brutality; the environment that black children were raised in and alongside, an environment in which their parents and elders were subject to torture, degradation, and murder. That was life, 12 Years informs us. A life in which a child can play tag alongside a man hanging from his neck by a tree…because there was nothing that could be done. There is much more, but what I want to talk about is something that 12 Years A Slave illustrates that is often glossed over in other depictions of American slavery: the complicity and cruelty of white women in upholding the institution.

Mistress Ford is the first white woman we encounter, the wife of the first slave master Solomon comes into contact with. When Solomon and Eliza, a black woman who, like Solomon, was kidnapped and brought to the South, are brought to the Ford plantation, Eliza is weeping in the back of a wagon. Mistress Ford appears and asks why and is told that Eliza has been separated from her two young children. Mistress Ford looks something like sympathetic, and for a moment I thought we were going to see the traditional representation of white women: the sensitive counter to her emotionless husband, the empathetic Eve in the midst of a savage system in which she lacks control and finds herself as much a prisoner as the black humans being treated as chattel. But 12 Years had other plans, something more along the lines of reality. Mistress Ford’s regard for the humanity of black people is made explicit in her next line: “Some food and some rest,” she says. “Your children will soon be forgotten.” The idea of a black woman as a mother—a human mother and not merely a baby machine whose uterus is a factory more slave labor—is completely foreign to Mistress Ford. Her countenance is emotionless as Eliza is led away sobbing. She eventually has Eliza sold because she “cannot tolerate that sort of depression.”

Later, when he ends up on the wrong side of the insidious overseer Tibeats, Solomon is nearly lynched, saved only by another white man under the employ of Mr. Ford who was concerned about the debt that Solomon’s death would incur. Solomon is left hanging by his neck, his toes barely touching the ground to keep him alive, for an entire day. For a short time, Mistress Ford watches from the porch, doing nothing. Her coldness is tangible. All the supposedly feminine qualities of tenderness and regard for other people is absent.

The coldness of Mistress Ford is minor, however, when we meet Mistress Epps, the wife of Solomon’s next slave owner.

Mr. Epps, her husband, is a brutal—and insane—man known to be a “slave breaker.” He is notorious for his cruelty, which Solomon and the other slaves on the Epps plantation witness firsthand, and often. He is also obsessed with one of the slaves, a woman named Patsy. Mistress Epps is aware of this, and her cruelty toward Patsy knows no bounds. She strikes her in the face with a heavy bottle, scars Patsy’s cheek with her fingernails, denies her soap, and more. She delivers one or two monologues about the animal nature of black people, how they are prone to violence and should be beaten and ground down. She demands that Mr. Epps sell Patsy, but he refuses, partially because Patsy picks more cotton than any other slave on the plantation and partially to let his wife know that he is in control. Patsy endures rape and harassment at the hands of Mr. Epps, and brutality and cruelty at the hands of Mistress Epps. Her life is so tortured, she begs Solomon to kill her as an act of mercy, an act he cannot commit. There is a brutal scene in which Patsy is whipped, and Mistress Epps is there in the midst of it, demanding that Patsy be whipped harder. Mistress Epps cries that she wants to see blood.

By documenting the extreme suffering of black women during slavery—the explicitness and unapologeticness of which I have only previously seen from Toni Morrison—12 Years A Slave shines a light on the experience of millions during American slavery: the lives of black women, the double-edged sword of black femaleness; victim to violence from all sides. And by shining this light on black femaleness, 12 Years also shines a light on white femaleness, which, in my opinion, has previously gone without serious examination in mainstream film, and even in the way that we talk about slavery. I have distinct memories from middle school and high school history classes in which we discussed the role white women played in slavery…lessons in which that role was described as a non-role. White women’s economic inequality translated in my education as a complete lack of power (and responsibility) not only in the plantation household, but in slavery as a whole. When I heard about white women in the teaching of American slavery, it was as abolitionists, friends on the Underground Railroad, spotless conveyors of goodwill and empathy. 12 Years A Slave calls this representation of white women a lie, and I applaud it.

Although lacking in significant legal and economic power, white women generally controlled the household, existing in the domestic sphere as society dictated. The way we talk about white women in this context paints them—indeed, us—as the gentle, docile, humane creatures that a woman is “supposed to be.” White women upheld notions of feminine morality, history tells us; they didn’t uphold the institution of slavery. The Mrs. Epps and the Mrs. Fords are absent in this characterization. The Delphine LaLauries are absent. The cruel, racist women who called for the blood of women like Patsy—out of hatred for their black bodies and also out of jealousy as white husbands raped the black women they owned—aren’t mentioned when we talk about the people who upheld slavery. We talk about men, both rich and poor, but rarely of their wives; women who were as participative in the perpetuation of white supremacy and human bondage as their male counterparts, as eager to dehumanize, debase and brutalize black bodies as their men.

It’s true, white women lacked the agency of their husbands, fathers and brothers, so their hand in slavery did not extend to the buying and selling of human chattel, the laws being made that called black people only a fraction of a human being. But white women whipped black bodies. They burned them. They posed next to the murdered bodies of black people who were lynched. They called people n*ggers. They scratched faces. They separated families. While wearing their pretty dresses, they ruined lives. If we’re going to talk about slavery and the people that upheld it, we should talk about everyone, as 12 Years A Slave does. If we are going to continue to heal this nation that remains torn and disfigured by its brutal past, then we must take accountability and not hide behind the gentle stereotypes that present day feminists struggle against: women are fully capable of committing acts of savagery, fully able to dehumanize other human beings, truths exhibited by the many Mrs. Epps and Mrs. Fords we know existed in the history of this country. The privileges white supremacy afforded were not handed only to men: women accepted (and accept) those benefits that provide them status and wealth. If we’re going to talk about white supremacy and its role in the foundations of American slavery, no one is exempt. No one. Not even me.

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