The national victimhood game has addicted many — and that helps us understand how the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated the brutal and shallow “12 Years a Slave” for nine awards, effectively declaring it to be, in the eyes of Hollywood, one of the year’s important films.
No matter how beautifully painted the shell of a spoiled egg might be, it will smell rough enough when peeled to choke a maggot. Hollywood needed to let out the emotional pus that had welled up under racial wounds inflicted over decades. It needed to declare to itself that there will be no more screens filled with grinning, shuffling and dancing.
No more new minstrelsy — now is the time for the new guilt, interwoven with the gilt of box-office profit. Suffer through the violence, and you shall be purified.
This cheap vision has been seen before. In the ’70s, the short-lived horror show of blaxploitation was supposed to have liberated black men and women to be more authentic and less traditionally buffoonish. Well-documented in “Baadasssss Cinema,” the hustling light, like an inexpensive red bulb, shows how serious a stand the film takes against the genre while showing how many filmmakers and performers took pride in a blighted set of images.
What had begun with D.W. Griffith’s tainted 1915 masterwork, “The Birth of a Nation,” was stepped away from with fiercely meretricious pride. Here, finally, was a chance to stick it to the man, the satanic force no longer hidden behind the cotton curtain and the white walls of the plantation big house.
Finally seeing advantage in their color, black Americans were ready for the hip strut. Cheap films, with them moving in garish clothes, spewing corny slang, saved a destitute Hollywood that had fallen on the sword of overly expensive spectacles, with casts of thousands, many costumes and ancient settings calling for big sets.
A gaggle of black actors was much cheaper, and brought in profits big enough to rebuild Hollywood. The second-rate actors and visually impressive, untrained athletes or Playboy bunnies became the stars of blaxploitation; too many complaints from civil-rights organizations doomed the trend, troubling the waters. Those quickly successful performers became shooting stars and were then ignored and kicked to the curb.
Since then, the cult of the victim has been pushed in higher education as well as the Hollywood academy. Victimhood has been dressed up in militant theories that do not usually touch the black community very deeply. While it is no more immune to being duped than any other ethnic group — the Tawana Brawley fraud proved that — black American culture has always been the result of cosmopolitan bloodlines: part African, part European, part so-called Native American and part Asian.
That complexity underlay the civil-rights movement, a fully formed example of what has held black Americans up and kept them largely free of narcissism, decadence or foolhardiness.
An inner something I now call “heroic optimism,” an all-American but universal quality of great charisma, helped ward off the ever-present sentimentality that can lead not only to overstatement but chaotic behavior. Facing the bittersweet reality of life allowed black Americans to fight for their education and discipline themselves along the lines of their dreams. Thomas Brothers points out in his magisterial “Louis Armstrong, Master of Modernism” that the great homespun artists not only absorbed all of the powerful culture rooted in the black response to slavery — a full plate of bittersweet feeling — but changed the sensibility of the American feeling for blacks and whites. Not bad for a country boy from New Orleans.
As a Chinese immigrant living in Brooklyn, N.Y., for about 15 years recently said to me, the totalitarian government of the mainland he visits every couple of years is having serious trouble. In order to compete in the world market, the Chinese bureaucracy has to educate its young people. Facing the question of quality, it realizes that the best education is in Europe and America. When returning home, those students have been exposed to Western dreams. This is most troubling for the bureaucracy. That growing number of young people learn abroad that no form of political power can control their dreams. That is the sensibility that changed the American technique of jazz improvisation and the American sensibility.
It is now an international force that helps us understand many things we could not otherwise understand as completely. For instance, the Chinese immigrant’s teenage son wears a New York Yankees cap and hopes to someday become good enough for the team. In the silent hearts of all, agency remains an indestructible freedom, and it is part of what American social movement and momentum has inspired the world over.
“12 Years a Slave” is almost totally devoid of the force that inspired the abolition movement and finally our great Civil War, dripping with gore and inspiration. It is now thought that about a million people went to their deaths in that conflict, soaking the ground with blood and leaving many tales of glorious action, premeditated or a sparkling moment of reacting to total threat in the moment.
The film loved so much by Hollywood now has little understanding of slavery, showing slaves so dehumanized by brutality that they seem to be talking livestock.
Carole Boyce Davies, writing in The Guardian, recognized the film’s strong cinematography, but charged screenwriter John Ridley and director Steve McQueen with removing complex, humanizing parts from the 1853 slave narrative they narrowed to a cruel cartoon. For them, slavery is meat and potatoes, easy to consume.
Any actual complexity would not have achieved what Ridley and McQueen were seeking — a callow melodrama made dramatic by extreme cruelty, bloodletting and sexual abuse.
Above all else, the white actors — especially the astounding Michael Fassbender — are directed in a way that allows them to act circles around the sweating, smoke-black chattel — figures in vast need of the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Stanley Crouch can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.