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'12 Years a Slave' - An Oscar Win That's Not Necessarily Good News

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I was pleased, like most people, with the Best Picture win for 12 Years a Slave.

It has started a much-needed conversation about slavery, past and present, and, in doing that, it is a worthy winner. But I wasn't impressed with it as a movie.

I saw it with my husband, whose ancestors are largely what is called "indigenous" to this country. Since I've been yelled at from "indigenous Brits" before about their not having been immigrants ever: a link to a piece about the people who came here 15,000 to 7,000 years ago from Iberia and who became "indigenous" Brits.

Anyway, my husband turned to me in the middle of the picture and said: "But, it's so bland!" Which is the word I had been trying to find for what I was feeling...

Maybe I felt that way because I had read all of the crits and reports of women fainting and grown men fleeing from the theatre. I'd also read the social media posts about people sitting stunned for a long time, holding hands, weeping, wailing etc.

I really didn't want to go because I'm a bit squeamish as far as movies are concerned. I don't like paying (or watching for free) extreme violence, cruelty etc. and I sure didn't want to see people being flogged.

But I went because this is a story about my long past, about my ancestors. And it didn't matter to me at the time what was being said in parts of black America that 12 Years is actually "a European film" and the real deal - the American pic - hasn't arrived yet. I wanted to see it anyway.

But black America has a point.

There are always two things to keep in mind about the movie business. One, Hollywood is, above all, about money. Period. Two, the Academy members are on average 65, white, and male. Oscar nominee and French actor/writer/director Julie Delpy lashed out at this, but people have been saying this for decades. The word was that most of these guys hadn't even seen 12 Years, and preferred American Hustle, a film that took place in their early maturity, and Gravity, which has effectively changed the way films will be made. And maybe above all, before the Best Picture win, 12 Years had made most of its cash outside of the US.

But there was no way that they weren't going to select 12 Years. The Academy is liberal (which being one myself, I don't object to). When the record is read, they don't want to have been the ones to have passed on a picture with this subject matter and this amount of gravity.

No, 12 Years is not a great picture. But there are two great performances: Lupita Nyong'o, who rightly won Best Supporting Actress, and Michael Fassbender, who wiped everyone else, with the exception of her, off the screen. If the picture had been about the relationship between them: the sadistic/masochistic/economically orientated/Christianity-drenched nature of it, then McQueen would have created a masterpiece.

Instead he's made just a good picture, one a bit too long and repetitive but maybe will launch more and better ones as well as giving Brad Pitt a new curve to his producing career - it's said that he's next producing a Martin Luther King pic to star another British actor-relocated-to-the -States David Oyewolo, as Dr. King.

This is why 12 Years may be a turning point - it marks the arrival, on the Hollywood scene in a major way, of non-American black people telling American stories. To say, as some critics here have, that 12 Years is the film that the States should have made is to be ignorant of how difficult it is to get any picture made, let alone a black subject by a black director. I will stick my neck out here and say that if a black American director had tried to get this project off the ground, well, let's say, it would be challenging. Black American directors are ghettoized like the majority of black Americans are in every other aspect of American life. They don't get the traction in liberal Hollywood. But a foreigner... ah, that's another thing. Because you can still tick the box.

The truth is that whatever nationality you are in the West, if you are black in the arts, you are corralled, parcelled out, mediated. For example, if you are black American here, you're not seen as "black" i.e. not black British, so doors can open. If you are black British in America, the same thing holds.

12 Years a Slave may make it even harder for black American filmmakers to be financed, to have a shot at clutching that Oscar, too.

I really hope I'm wrong. Because right now, in the land of our birth, as far as those old white guys who run Hollywood are concerned, black Americans are not the blacks of choice right now. We're all - Brits and Americans - still down on the old plantation.

Around the Web

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Michael Wood reviews '12 Years a Slave' · LRB 6 February 2014

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