Ethics Quiz: “12 Years A Slave” Plays The Racial Guilt Card On Oscar Voters

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“It’s time.”

This is the  tag line in the post-Oscar nomination ads being prominently run in New York and California for  “12 Years A Slave,” a strong Academy Award contender (nine nominations, including best film).

Although there is room for disagreement, and the ad has the virtue of all clever advertising that it conveys different messages to different markets—Haven’t seen the film yet? “It’s time!”  Desperate to see the best movie you saw in 2013 finally get its due? “It’s time!”  When will the question of whether the most honored film of the last 12 months will win the biggest honor of them all be answered? “It’s time!”…or almost time, as the Oscar ceremonies are coming up on March 2—the consensus is that “It’s time” is mainly aimed at Oscar voters, and the message it conveys is, as Slate puts it, “it’s time for a movie about slavery, and with a significantly black cast and crew, to be recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.” Film critic Phil Hammond puts it slightly differently:

“The ad not only can be interpreted as shining a light on a very dark period in American history, it also shines a light on the Academy’s fairly dismal record of awarding its top honor to any movie about the black experience. In fact there has been only one Best Picture winner in the 85 years the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been handing out Oscars that even remotely qualifies in this regard. In 1968, In The Heat Of The Night, a murder mystery set against the racial divide in a small Southern town, won Best Picture and four other Oscars just a few days after the assassination of Martin Luther King (the ceremony was even postponed two days out of respect). The votes were in before the King assassination, but it seemed then that “It’s Time” would have been an appropriate way to describe that victory. However, outside of lead actor Sidney Poitier — who also co-starred in another racially themed Best Pic nominee that year, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner —  this movie  featured a largely white cast, white producer, screenwriter and director (Norman Jewison).”

If so many in the industry are interpreting the ad this way, it is fair to assume that this was at least one of the ad’s objectives, and on the assumption that it was an objective, your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz today is this:

“Is appealing to Oscar voters on this basis fair and ethical?”

I can see strong arguments for each position.

Con: No, this kind of appeal is unethical to its core. It attempts to make Academy voters responsible for rectifying perceived past slights that may not be slights at all, with the goal of making “12 Years A Slave” the beneficiary of industry guilt, not just over the relative scarcity of honors to films made by blacks about the black experience, but over the phenomenon of slavery itself. This is unfair to the other nominated films and artists, whose work should not have to suffer because past films were unfairly passed over. The Academy Awards, in theory, are supposed to recognize film-making excellence, not politics, affirmative action, quotas and reparations for slavery. The campaign, in effect, is cheating. It says that the subject matter of the film makes it deserve an award more than the other films, regardless of craft and art. Was “Schindler’s List” honored because it was time for a movie about the Holocaust to be recognized, or because it was, in the judgment of the voters, the best film of the year? If it was not the latter, then the Oscars have no integrity.

Pro: Sure, it’s ethical, because the Oscars have no integrity and never have pretended to have any. Like all such award shows, they are about publicity and commerce, not objective artistic judgment, which is impossible anyway. The judgments on the awards, every one of them, with a rare exception, are subjective calls based on collective biases on which banana is superior to which apple, pear and pomegranate, or not. Awards are given out because the voters feel bad about botching a previous award that was more deserved, or because a performer is dying, or old, or a pretty average actor who finally turned in a powerful performance that is his last shot at winning anything. Awards are won because the Hollywood establishment agrees with it political message, or because the movie made a lot of money—and they lose because Hollywood doesn’t like the message, or the movie tanks because the public was too dumb or shallow to understand it. Nobody ever put out an ad that said “It’s time” that the Academy awarded a non-honorary Oscar to Cecil B. DeMille, Glenn Close, Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, Greta Garbo, Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton, or Alfred Hitchcock, but maybe they should have—the failure of the Academy to single out their performances while giving out honors to inferior artists for inferior work is a disgrace. If it could be said without laughing that the Academy was capable of making an objective assessment of excellence, of course such an appeal would be unethical. But it isn’t. Since the Awards are good at only one thing: pointing at something and saying, “Hey, this is good!”, the argument that’s its time a film about slavery got pointed too is legitimate, and not unfair at all.

By the slightest of margins, I think I fall into the Con camp, not because the approach isn’t justified by the reality of the awards, but because it defies their mythology and the illusion. Hollywood is about fantasy, and the community has agreed to support the fantasy that the Oscars are chosen on the basis of objective excellence, not politics, sentiment, popularity or guilt.

I think Fox’s “It’s time” campaign undermines the Oscars themselves, based on a “It’s for a good cause” rationalization, and thus it is wrong.

106 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: “12 Years A Slave” Plays The Racial Guilt Card On Oscar Voters

  1. I want to see Jennifer Lawrence do a one-up on Kanye’s upstaging of Taylor Swift. I want “12 Years” to win everything it is nominated for, and then, to see Lawrence jump up on stage before one of the acceptance speeches, strip naked while muttering angrily about how “Hustle” got race-hustled, and upon attaining full nakedness, grab the microphone and say (one of her Rosalyn lines): “Sometimes, all you have in life are fucked-up, poisonous choices.”

  2. Tom Hanks’ “Philadelphia” was nominated some years ago at the height of the gay/AIDS discussion. Hanks was great; the topic noteworthy. But was it the best film of the year, or the best POLITICAL film of the year?

    If the Academy Awards have always been this way, then surely years ago “Dr. Zhivago” should have won over “The Sound of Music.” Both dealt with totalitarianism; but “The Sound of Music” was the better movie. A kudo (and there are few) to Hollywood. If today’s standards apply, the egregious “Reds” — a terrible movie — should also have won.

    Now, like the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, art is political. Thanks, Hollywood. I agree with Tex; slavery is slavery; the only difference with the US is that ours was race-based, whereas the Romans enslaved everyone they conquered.

    From the mini-series “Roots” (1970s) to the present, there have been plenty of movies and TV shows about America’s horrific history of slavery. We have beat our (white) breasts repeatedly over this reprehensible part of our history, Civil War analyses abound, and we have “Black History Month” to remind us always of the terrible things we (whites) did.

    Question though: When will we have (or do we have) American Indian History Month, to remind us of the carnage we inflicted on Native Americans? Which was worse? I don’t know, but I do know that it is a political decision, not an artistic one — who has bothered to make movies about “manifest destiny” and what it meant to the Native American and America’s decision to reign “from sea to shining sea”? It’s political, and it stinks.

    • November is Native-American History month.
      March is Irish-American History month.
      October is Italian-American History month.
      April is Confederate History month.
      September is Hispanic Heritage month.

      Compared to the numerous films about the Holocaust that have appeared on the big screen, there have been very, very few films about American slavery, especially that have the focus on slavery itself, and not about other subjects, like the Civil War. I actually have a hard time thinking of *any* big screen popular film about American slavery.

        • Somehow they have manage many, many times with the subject of the Holocaust to turn a movie about a deeply unpleasant topic into award-winning movies. So it has to be more than that.

            • Actually, I will agree with that. I guess there is a reason why 12 Years has a mostly British cast, and a British director. I do think in recent years we have been slowly dipping our toes into the subject of slavery in films (like Django), but the American need for a happy ending and a identifiable hero clashes with the historical record.

        • We could have a movie about the very root of slavery in America.

          I am sure Will Smith will be an excellent choice for Anthony Johnson.

          • Nope. There will never be a movie about the origins of slavery. Hollywood Leftists will never stomach a movie that may portray Muslims (one of the Left’s curiously protected classes) in a truly reprehensible light.

            Maybe they can somehow finagle the story line so the original slavers and sellers are really Republicans from the Bible Belt, then the movie would take off.

              • This time I wasn’t clear. I was referring to the origins of slavery in America. Indentured servitude was rapidly replaced by the African slave trade, monopolized by the north African Islamic nations.

              • Uh, the north African Muslims were the originator and primary supplier for the slave trade. A focus on the origins of American slavery (which you commented on) would start there.

                Anthony Johnson’s religion would be irrelevant to your comment.

        • But the book was handled well, and Mammy is the most admirable character in the story. The political correctness junkies that knock GWTW tick me off. It’s a great film of its time, one of the greatest, incredible movie-making. Denigrating the movie (I’m not saying you have done this) is unfair to the amazing work of the artists… Selznick, Fleming, Leigh, Gable, McDaniel, De Havilland—the sets and costumes. That silly Slate writer said Hollywood had to atone for honoring the film? They would have burned Hollywood down if it hadn’t won the Oscar—it was obviously the film of the year, in the greatest year of films ever.

          Modern critics of GWTW might be the best examples of the insanity of political correctness and hindsight bias that there is. What’s a better one?

          • Can a film be great, and its point of view be so abhorrent? GWtW is obviously a pro-Confederacy propaganda film (and novel). Can one have a pro-Nazi film, have it get an Oscar, because it had really great costumes?

            It isn’t modern-day political correctness, the film was protested even during its time, so the criticisms of the film are not modern day revisionism.

            • ” Can one have a pro-Nazi film, have it get an Oscar, because it had really great costumes?”

              Oh, my stomach hurts and I’m out of breath. Just pictured the female lead descending the Reichtag grand staircase in a black-red-and-white swastika-patterned ballgown made from old flags, bejewelled in totenkopf badges, the Yiddisha nanny leaning over the top bannister bulging out of her skimpy grey one-piece calisthenics outfit wringing her hands as she wails “You vant I shudt make birthen mit der kinder,” and Rhett Hitler standing at the bottom of the stairs in a high-collared tunic and cinch-waisted jodphurs snapping his riding crop against one knee-high polished black boot and squeaking, “Frankly, damn you, read Mein Kampf!”

              Only Carol and Co. could bring it off.

          • When people tell me that they hate GWTW I always ask them to read the book and then watch the movie. Also anyone who can watch that movie and not see that the moral center of the movie, and the best performance in the movie, is Hattie McDaniel is an idiot. Her winning the Academy Award did as much for African Americans in Hollywood , if not more, then Sidney Poitier winning.

            • Mammy was a stereotypical character, portrayed by a great actress. One of the tip-offs is that she doesn’t even get her own name, but instead named after her function in the household, akin to naming a character Butler, or Maid.

              The mammy stereotype was the precursor to the Magical Negro, a black character who lives to serve white people, without seemingly any wishes, family, or interests of her own.

              But many people will balk at appreciating a film that makes apologies for the KKK, portrays slaves as happy children ready and willing to serve, and plantation life as a gauzy-colored dream that people should feel nostalgic about. I can hardly blame people for not liking that particular point of view.

              • 1. In that way all heroes and admirable characters are stereotypical. Mammy was a black heroine and moral center. If she had not been admirable, then her portrayal would be called racist.
                2. Is a character called “grandpa” demeaning? The Mammy argument is a stretch. Prissy was called by her name, which was kind—she wasn’t called “Cretin,” which would have been more descriptive.
                3. The Magic Negro is a modern invention, and it is a perfect, idealized Mr./Ms Fixit with unlimited beneficence, wisdom and power, with the skill to address the problems of everyone, white, black or otherwise. It’s the invention of cultural maven to counter negative stereotypes—naturally, it is seen as demeaning by race-hustlers, who regard any forward progress as threatening.
                4. In any event, Mammy doesn’t qualify. How would she be a Magic Negro? She doesn’t fix anything that a normal person wouldn’t fix. She does her job, is loving, kind, strong. There really are such people, you know.
                5. That version of the KKK was not the same organization that the KKK became—that’s just a factually wrong statement. Nor did the film tell us enough about the organization…which is never called anything at all—to know what it did or didn’t do. What “apologies?”
                6. The film has an ante-bellum Southern point of view. Portrayals of past periods don’t suggest nostalgia in most cases, and certainly not in GWTW—I’ve never heard fans of the film say, “Ah, those were the good old days!” The America of “Last of the Mohicans” is beautiful and has its inspiring moments, but nobody is lobbying for a return of the French and Indian war.
                7. I can blame people for being shallow and silly, and unfairly denigrating impressive artistic achievements. They can like or dislike whatever they want.

                • The KKK after the war and during reconstruction was just as bad as the one that reemerged during the 1920’s . Anyone who tells you different is a liar.

                  In the book GWTW they are not only called the KKK, she says they were needed and justified. The portrayal of slaves and freedmen is patronizing and racist, blacks are seen as either child like or animals. The movie glosses over some of those things. Mammy is a strong competent person in the movie , in the book she cant run the plantation without the help of her owners.

                  • Just as bad perhaps, but not the same, except in name and hood. The original Forrest KKK was a guerrilla effort to undermine carpetbaggers as well as its white power component. In the 20’s there was no reconstruction to oppose. The original Klan died out for a reason. The revival edged into terrorism…a thin line, but the 20’s version crossed it decisively.

                • !. One can have a great actor portray a racist character. The character of Mammy rests on the back on a hundred years of stereotypes about precisely that particular stock character: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/Mammy

                  2. Why is Prissy a cretin? What duty does she owe her enslavers? One of the ways the movie is great propaganda is that it wants very much for us to identify with the slave owners against the people whom they enslaved. It is very difficult to step back and realize that Prissy (besides the child-like portrayal) has probably had all manners of indignities visited against her person besides being owned, but we as the audience are supposed to laugh and be frustrated in turn by her stupidity and laziness.

                  3. Like I said, the Mammy is a precursor to the Magic Negro. Both are faithful servants, who exist to serve white people. They don’t have much of an inner-life and don’t normally serve or help black people (why is Bagger Vance worried about some white guy’s gold game in the 30’s? Shouldn’t he be using his power to stop some lynchings somewhere?). Both are problematic because once again, black people are positioned solely in relation to white people, without much agency or life outside of the “white gaze.”

                  4. See above. Where is Mammy’s family? Where is her own daughter? Why does she care anything about this family or Scarlett? “How bad could slavery be after all, look at Mammy?”, etc.

                  5. I think Bill went into the KKK apologia down below.

                  6. The film was made in the 1930’s, with a southern antebellum point of view, agreed. The movie asks us to identify with that point of view, and have a hard time seeing how anyone could look at that film and 12 Years a Slave, and not point out the huge nostalgia that GWtW has for the slave-holding South. The preamble says it all: There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is, no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind… I have heard some people long for those “good old days”, and given the popularity of antebellum balls and the like, I would say it is not an isolated feeling.

                  7. People can disagree. I don’t like the film because I feel it is an advocacy piece for the a slave owner society. In much the same way I would not like a film, no matter how stunning the cinematography/acting/costumes, that apologized for child molesters, or Nazis, or date rapists. Some people can set all of that aside, I suppose. I’m not one of them.

                  • 1. It’s an advocacy piece for slavery? That interpretation requires a jaundiced eye of brilliant yellow.

                    2. Prissy is, in fact, a cretin, pretty clearly signaled by her casually walking walking along singing to herself when she had been sent on a life and death mission. WHY she is a cretin is irrelevant to the character and the story—and, as we know, cretins come in all colors.

                    3. “Precurser” suggests that the character has any of the qualities that define the so-called “Magic Negro.” I suppose she’s black, that counts. Where is her family? Where is Jean Arthur’s family in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington? Where is Shane’s family in Shane? The movie isn’t “Gone With The Mammy.” Her family isn’t relevant to the story. The families of supporting characters usually aren’t. Where’s the Cowardly Lion’s pride? Who cares? Does their absence mean lions are marginalized in The Wizard of Oz?

                    • 1. It is certainly an advocacy piece for the Confederacy, certainly, with slavery (“Hey, not that bad”) falling under that umbrella.

                      2. Prissy is not a cretin. She has been sent on a life and death mission, by her enslavers. How much, if any, duty do you owe your kidnappers? When looked at it from Prissy’s perspective, it is somewhat ludicrous that she would be expected to care about any of it at all, except to get away with doing as little as she could to avoid being beaten.

                      3. Precursor as in she doesn’t have any magic powers, but barring that, it is pretty much the same stereotype.

                      Magic Negro:
                      In order to show the world that minority characters are not bad people, one will step forward to help a “normal” person, with their pure heart and folksy wisdom. They are usually black and/or poor, but may come from another oppressed minority. They step (often clad in a clean, white suit) into the life of the much more privileged (and, in particular, almost always white) central character and, in some way, enrich that central character’s life…
                      With such deep spiritual wisdom (and sometimes — though not always — actual supernatural powers), you might wonder why the Magical Negro doesn’t step up and save the day himself. This will never happen. So enlightened and selfless is he that he has no desire to gain glory for himself; he only wants to help those who need guidance… which just happens to mean those who are traditionally viewed by Hollywood as better suited for protagonist roles, not, say, his own oppressed people. In fact, the Magical Negro really seems to have no goal in life other than helping white people achieve their fullest potential; he may even be ditched or killed outright once he’s served that purpose. If he does express any selfish desires, it will only be in the context of helping the white protagonists realize their own racism and thereby become better people.
                      This can work somewhat as An Aesop about tolerance and not dismissing individuals from underprivileged groups, and it’s certainly an improvement on earlier tendencies to either never depict minority characters at all or make them all villains. However, ultimately it’s usually a moral and artistic shortcut, replacing a genuine moral message with a well-intentioned but patronizing homage to the special gifts of the meek. Minority characters still all too often aren’t portrayed as the heroes of their own stories, but as helpers of standard white, able-bodied, middle-class heroes, and they aren’t depicted as, you know, actual people with their own desires, flaws and character arcs, but as mystical, Closer to Earth plot devices. If taken far enough, it may send the message that minorities don’t have any problems of own, nor get frustrated in times of trouble.

                      You would think a movie essentially about the fall of a slave-owning society, it would perhaps show the effects a bit more of the actual slaves. However, Mammy seems completely unaffected by the end of slavery, and seems to be still voluntarily helping Scarlet and Rhett out of the goodness of her heart. All of her desires are centered around Scarlett’s wants, wishes, and needs. Her “moral center” is mostly focused on serving her masters better.

                    • This is too funny: 2. Prissy is not a cretin. She has been sent on a life and death mission, by her enslavers. How much, if any, duty do you owe your kidnappers? When looked at it from Prissy’s perspective, it is somewhat ludicrous that she would be expected to care about any of it at all, except to get away with doing as little as she could to avoid being beaten.

                      Talk about a creative analysis! Butterfly McQueen, who played the role, certainly thought Prissy was a cretin. (“You put a knife under the bed to cut the pain….”) I bet she threw the china into the box, breaking it all, to get even with her captors, too. You can be a funny guy.

                    • I’m not going to defend the film but some of this just is wrong. Mammy is highly critical of Scarlett throughout the movie — when Scarlett goes after her second husband (to save the family estate — but stealing her sister’s intended in the process). She’s critical of Scarlett’s vanity. This is just off the top of my head.

                    • Oh sure, Mammy is there to function as Scarlett’s conscience (as Scarlett doesn’t seem to have one of her own), the Jiminy Cricket to Scarlett’s Pinocchio. Doesn’t change the fact that pretty much all of her concerns, wants, and wishes still revolve around Scarlett.

                    • You’re also describing my mother’s relationship to me. Mammy is Scarlet’s proxy mother. So? That’s sinister? What’s sinister is that she isn’t free to do anything else, but her function isn’t any different than a dedicated, modern day nanny.

                    • A dedicated nanny would be paid of course. A dedicated nanny would leave after their charges reached some measure of self-sufficiency. Mammy is not Scarlett’s mother (not that I think a woman who has children sole function should be to revolve solely around her children, especially after they are adults.) And if taken in isolation, and Mammy was the only example of such a character, that would be one thing. But the character builds upon many others exactly like her, and many others also flow from her character as well. It presents an overly idealized portrayal of the relationships between master and slave, and allows to viewer to soothe themselves with the thought that slavery was perhaps not as bad as one might think.

        • I thought about Gone With the Wind, but it wasn’t really about slavery. It had slaves in it, but was mostly a romance story about the romantic choices of a slave owner’s daughter. The backdrop was the Civil War. Slavery itself, was mostly mute, and the little of it that was shown was mostly pro-slavery.

      • More important: where are the movies about the supply side of things, as there are lots of movies about the demand side. Some people seem to think that white people from America sailed to the west coast of Africa and hunted down unfortunate individuals who happened upon their way.
        The Arabs had been kidnapping and trading black Africans for a long time and made the business of a lifetime when England and America became customers…

  3. Couldn’t care less what wins Best Picture, though I agree that this campaign is pretty bad. A movie should win if it’s the best picture out of the nine nominated. The victory would only be meaningful if it won NOT because “it was time” for a serious black picture to win, but if a serious black picture WAS the best picture of that year. (And from what I hear, it has a good chance of winning. We all know Nebraska ain’t gonna win, or Her, or American Hustle, not while Wolf of Wall Street is there, by cracky. Gravity would be like giving it to Avatar instead of the Hurt Locker…)

    Frankly, I don’t care. But if “Let it Go” doesn’t win Best Song, I am done with the Oscars forever.

    …unless Jackass Presents Bad Grandpa actually WINS for Best Makeup.

  4. I read this and immediately thought, “None of this makes sense. Didn’t The Color Purple win a gazillion Oscars?” Then I looked it up as I was a young kid when that movie came out. It was nominated for 11 Oscars and Spielberg did not get nominated for Best Director. It also did not win in a single category — apparently this is considered a big Hollywood “scandal.”

    Re Peter O’Toole, you’re wrong there. After his last nomination, there was huge publicity everywhere saying that “it was time” for him to win — especially since it was perceived that he wouldn’t be with us much longer. Same happened with Eddie Murphy and Annette Benning — everyone was saying “it’s time.” On the small screen, that also was the campaign that finally got Lucci her Emmy.

    • Oh, I do remember those arguments, but they weren’t formalized in ads. When Chill Wills put up ads to make voters feel like they weren’t patriots unless they voted for him and his film “The Alamo,” there was a huge backlash. And those campaigns for actors like Burton and O’Toole that used guilt—in essence “it’s time,’ you’re right—fell flat. As they should have.

      Eddie Murphy and Annette Benning? That was a stretch…

      • There was so much hype about Murphy that everyone was convinced he had to win — including Murphy. He stomped out of the Oscars after losing.

        If I recall correctly, Annette Benning’s losses were doubly awful because she lost to the same person each time.

  5. I think I’d actually be really interested in seeing a movie about American slavery, but I’d insist that it be an objective one. Not “Roots”, not “Song of the South” (Which I must admit, I like.) When I see one that acknowledges the existance of black slave owners, irish/chinese misery, and slave owners with more depth than “Massa’s got a whip!” So, yeah – never 🙂

    • You might get Chinese, but nobody will ever care about Irish suffering. Irish people are White, you see, so they never had discrimination (neither did the Italians, for that matter).

      • People care about Irish suffering. Sometimes it gets confused with the absurd, though – that’s the fault of Godot. And being proud of something named for blarney. The Italians have the Pope; that’s enough discrimination for one country. And Tonto had the Best MakeUp. The Lone Ranger gets Most Misunderstood Film award of the century so far.

  6. With regards to the original question: MAKING Oscar bait is perfectly ethical. Sure, I think the awards should go to movies people actually LIKE more often than to something that some critic thinks is important. It happens all to rarely, but I was ecstatic when Return of the King won (and those films should have taken it all three years).

    The ad is unethical, and not simply because of the race angle. When you enter a judged contest, it’s unethical to try to put pressure on the judges. Whether that takes the form of talking to them about how great you are (rather than letting your submission stand on its merits) or about trying to drum up PR to get OTHER people to pressure them to vote for you, it’s distorting the spirit of the contest to be a judgement of the initial offering.

  7. I have to admit: I always feel a disconnect over the subject “white guilt”.

    You see, I *am* white. But I’ve never owned a slave.
    So I don’t feel guilty over slavery. It’s that simple.

    As for the actual quiz: I’m firmly in the Con camp. The Academy Awards, for good or bad, do get treated by a large majority of people as important; which is not to say that their choices are perfect, or even that the results of (theoretically) perfect choices in a particular year lead to perfect results over the span of film history.

    Given the importance that their choices have to so many people, it is proportionally important for them to strive for excellence and integrity in their voting–with the understanding that it IS undeniably subjective. But the merits of the films themselves should be the only consideration.

    –Dwayne

  8. I don’t know what the box office is on this movie is but I imagine it is quite a bit lower than “Gravity” or “The Wolf of Wall Street”. There have been so many movies done about the period and effects of slavery, i.e. “The Color Purple”, “Mandingo” (admittedly a bad movie), “Django Unchained” that I’m wondering why the movie was ever produced.

    • The Color Purple was not about slavery. It was not even set during the slavery period. I’m puzzled that it keeps coming up.

      How many movies about the Holocaust are there out there? Django was made just last year, and mostly deals with a freed slave, and not the day to day life on a plantation for a slave…not to mention the more fanciful elements of the film. But why should there only be one film that touches on the subject? It was an American institution for hundreds of years, I’m sure there are plenty of stories out there to be told.

      • Well, in the Phil Hammond quote at least, he doesn’t specify “movies about slavery,” he specifies that movies about “the black experience” haven’t got enough attention.

      • Ah, never mind, I see that you were referencing Wayne’s “Period and effects of slavery” line. The color purple falls into the “effects” part of the equation, I think- really any movie about Hammond’s desired “Black Experience” will be, as the only correct way to address it is that the entire Black Experience is white peoples fault for slavery and its aftershocks.

      • If you’d read my post carefully, you’d note that I said “. . . about the effects of slavery”. Anyway, I’d like to see a movie written about the LA Riots including the burning and looting of Korean shops as well as the black heroes that stepped forward to protect victims.

    • Amistad is a good film, and shows the roots of slavery, as well as the Middle Passage, but most of the focus of the film is on the trial.

      • I think the risk you run of doing a “movie about slavery” as such, is that you get into “Passion of the Christ” territory. The people who want that message will love it, but the vast majority of viewers are going to see it as torture porn that takes an obvious concept and belabors it with a sledgehammer, substituting values preaching and message for any entertainment value you could get from an admitted torture and violence movie like Saw.

        Not that there’s no place for movies like that, but you have to have a film company willing to sacrifice mass appeal and profit to put out the realistic message. Just because you do that doesn’t mean you should be entitled to an Oscar.

        • Passion of the Christ was not distributed by any of the major studios. It probably had no chance of being nominated for anything regardless of content.

          • It did get some tech nominations, but that’s beside the point- my main point was that it attempted to be a realistic portrayal of something gruesome from history (torture and crucifixion, even if you don’t believe the religious side) and other than those predisposed to be attracted to the message, a lot of viewers were turned off by that level of non-glossed-over unpleasantness. I think a movie about slavery that attempted the same thing, to not tell some story set in the era or about a side issue, but just to be an unflinching look at the worst of it, would have similar problems with those who don’t specifically want to go see its message.

  9. The Oscars are a unique marketing ploy, meant to boost small-budget movies into blockbusters for the major studios. Nothing else.

    The four or five corporations that provide most of our entertainment make the most money off of huge, international, special-effects events (superhero films, animated family movies, etc.)

    The Academy Awards are a way to make smaller pictures equally profitable. So they diversify, investing a little money each year into “Oscar-bait” pictures, knowing that for each studio, one or two of those cheaper movies will become an Oscar sensation and make 100+ million dollars. With smaller-budget films, this is a windfall.

    The studios themselves choose which of their crop of Oscar-bait films to sell to the Academy voters, based more that we’d like to believe on the question “which of these movies will earn the most money from the bump they’d get from a nomination or award?” Then everyone gets to watch a three-hour commercial (with commercials!) that should be called “The Telethon For All the Movies We Made This Year that Didn’t Have Aliens or Superheros in Them.” There are few exceptions; just enough to keep the illusion of a meritocracy going.

    This is why Warner Bros. hardly bothered even considering a massive hit like “The Dark Knight” for Best Picture. When people complained that it wasn’t nominated, the solution they came up with was to expand the possible nominations for that category. This entirely missed the point; the point was that the Dark Knight should have been in that top 5, not that there weren’t enough nominees. But the Academy showed their hand with that move. They didn’t actually want to have blockbusters intrude on their scheme; blockbusters already, by definition, are profitable. The purpose of the Oscars is to make non-blockbusters profitable. Expanding the number of nominees lets a few outstanding big-budget hits show up at the party, without diminishing the field of Oscar-bait films that get the exposure they need from the Awards.

    All of the Oscar-nominated films this year are distributed by the major studios. The illusion of a non-partisan committee choosing the year’s best films is, well, an illusion; no single person has the time to watch all of a year’s good movies to begin with.

    Notice that the terrible, terrible movie Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was hated by audiences and critics, but still nominated for Best Picture. Because it was MADE to be nominated for Best Picture (Tom Hanks, sad kid, 9/11). They showed their hand again with that one.

    So it’s a win-win; studios get to pretend that they care just as much about art as they do making money; they get a propaganda wing for their occasional pet political/social commentary projects, and they have a mechanism that annually creates profits comparable to those of their big-budget features, but with less risk.

    Yeah, I’m cynical and paranoid.

    • It’s funny you mention aliens and superheroes- a recent bar trivia question that proved a major stumper was “Name 4 of the top 10 movies by non-adjusted domestic gross AFTER eliminating all movies that are animated or feature superheroes or aliens.” Damn, that… that eliminates a lot of movies.

      • I like games!

        Keep:
        Titanic
        Harry Potter Deathly Hallows Pt 1&2
        Jurassic Park
        Lord of the Rings: RotK, Two Towers, Fellowship (in that order)

        Eliminate:
        Avatar (Aliens
        Dark Knight (Superhero)
        Avengers (Aliens and Superheroes)
        ET (Aliens)
        Star Wars (Aliens)

        Hmm…. pretty hard. Off to check my answers!

        • Top 10 in order, eliminating Aliens, Superheroes, and Fully Animated Movies:

          Titanic
          Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
          Hunger Games: Catching Fire*
          The Hunger Games
          Jurassic Park
          HP: Deathly Hallows Pt 2
          LOTR: RotK
          Passion of the Christ
          LOTR: Two Towers
          Alice in Wonderland (2010)

          • This question was a while ago, so it was before Catching Fire and Harry Potter. There was very nearly a riot over the official answer eliminating LOTR and Alice from the list (too much CG I guess? Or maybe they thought Legolas was a superhero), as well as a big debate over whether Batman is a SUPER hero- a poorly thought out trivia question, but anyone who likes movies always goes “hmmmmm” if you spring it on them.

  10. Movies that made my BEST OF list for 2013: (Top 10)

    About Time
    The Company You Keep
    Dallas Buyers Club
    Lone Survivor
    Nebraska
    Olympus Has Fallen
    Pacific Rim
    Prisoners
    Saving Mr Banks
    The Wolf of Wall Street

    Still need to see:

    The Grandmaster
    Philomena
    Inside Llewyn Davis

  11. “No”. 12 Years IS a race card in itself. Off the top of the deck. The very ace of … oh, never mind. It’s one of 18 or 20 films that could be argued as eligible, in Academy terms, for Best Picture. And sceptic as I am — and agreeing with Isaac that the Academy does shove blockbusters aside in favor of smaller films, (where they outght to have their own category- o no what am I saying?) — this year’s crop of Oscar contenders are, I think, the largest group ever of Independents, several just this side of art-house fodder … and that cannot by any stretch of the imagination be called a profitable situation for the industry. But it does bring these indy films closer to more people — and at a price differential of three indies to one IMAX — more power to them!

    But then again (returning to the slave years which won’t be over til they’re Over): “Yes”. Though it can — and has — been said that ALL Oscar nomination ads are meant to appeal more to the voters’ emotions (and personal loyalties and finances, as has been pointed out) than to their technical or artistic expertise, 12 Years’ push is unvarnished, in-your-face emotional blackmail. It wouldn’t get my vote; but that’s becauseI don’t do bests, only favorites (an unlimited, constantly revised, uncategorized, alphabetized, unrated and annotated list).

    Dallas Buyers Club, on the other hand, has so many embedded content flaws and obviously deliberate misrepresentations that I can’t see around them. The ads enrage me almost as much as the film itself. If Scott hadn’t used up all the necessary vocabulary, I would have more to say about it.

    Last comment, for people complaining about not enough about this or that (i.e., “real” slavery days) on the big screen. Try your local library.

  12. Am I the only commenter here that enjoyed the movie about the Tuskegee Airmen, “Red Tails?” To me, it was a lot like a military, Air Force-y version of Driving Miss Daisy. Based on true stories.

        • Perhaps, I was really taking a jab at the Air Force, whose most valuable and strategic services to the nation are (in order):

          1: Actually delivering small packages of autonomous and mobile surgical devices of death and destruction to our enemies under the gently descending canopies of parachutes — more colloquially known as the Airborne.

          2: Being ever prepared, but not actually having done so, to deliver huge packages of indiscriminate nuclear devastation to our enemies.

          • Tex, you’re unfair to the Air Force. You can’t seriously be calling our aerial (and silo-occupying, and remote “video-gaming”) warriors and their seconds mere Miss Daisy drivers for other troops, since about…the 1960s. Want the Army to do the whole job on the ground without the interdiction missions? Without the close air support? Without airlift? Without anything in the air to seize and hold dominance in the aerial battle space? Maybe you think the one DOD branch should never have become two. That’s fair for debate, anytime. Now, I am not a fan of “shock and awe” – I think it’s perilously arrogant to expect that much of air power alone. But in any case, you don’t seem to appreciate what the Air Force can, and does, deliver in advance of the paratroopers, to their lessened mortality.

          • It was made in 1995, and stared (amongst others) Laurence Fishburne, Allen Payne, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, Courtney B. Vance, Andre Braugher…

            It really is very good. It is one of the few films that, unless I absolutely cannot do so, I will stop and watch any time I find it on, and will watch it whenever it is possible.

  13. Halfway through “12 Years A Slave”. As a white person, am I supposed to feel bad or remorseful?

    Because I don’t.

    I haven’t nor do I now slight black people. I’m appalled that people in past and some people currently do so (including those you wouldn’t expect — like liberal elites and pretty much all of Leftist Hollywood (in ways we are told not to consider “slighting”)). I’m also appalled that it happens the other direction.

    But am *I* supposed to feel remorseful?

    I don’t (because the biggest crime I’m guilty of is a speeding ticket).

          • The thing is, is other than the actual slave OWNERS, I find it hard to condemn anyone in that system. The poor dumb whites and the poor dumb white whip crackers were just as brainwashed into the system and enslaved by the system as the blacks themselves. Albeit, the poor dumb whites weren’t gruesomely enslaved, they were just as convinced since birth that that is the way of the world.

            I think the slave owning South’s best analogy is to Ancient Sparta and Helots, a system so stuck on itself that it was forced to maintain itself because force is all it knew….

            That of course doesn’t excuse wrong doing.

            • I think the fact that a simple, straightforward book changed the game almost immediately shows who else was at fault–a passive population that was staring an evil institution in the face and not really seeing it.

    • We finished it the next day and I forgot to comment.

      In short a movie about evil white people (but I repeat myself), victimized black people, and Brad Pitt, we get a short summation of the southern society. Act I consists of a paddle wheel and an inexplicable stabbing, Act II consists of lots of vacant staring and brutality, spiced up with really great dialogue, Act III consists of a happy reunion.

      Overall I enjoyed the movie. I especially liked Solomon’s indomitable belief in goodness and personal integrity despite circumstances, such as manifest in his conversation with the slave-girl who wanted him to kill her. But award worthy? I’m not sure it was slam-dunk.

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