Social media and the op-ed circuit are abuzz about this year’s Academy Award nominations. Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” received a remarkable nine nominations –- including nods for awards in three of the four acting categories, along with writing, directing, and the holy grail of the Academy, “Best Picture.” The film has already earned best picture credits at this year’s Golden Globes, Producer’s Guild and British Academy Film Awards ceremonies. If the awards trajectory and buzz hold, it would appear McQueen’s film will walk away a big winner next Sunday night.
(Note: This piece contains *spoilers* for both films.)
Based on his memoir, 12 Years a Slave, the film of the same name details the incredible story of Solomon Northup, a black man born free in New York, but drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery in the antebellum Louisiana south. Critical analyses aside, I think “12 Years a Slave” is an extraordinary film. Here, I want instead to read the reception of “12 Years” against the backdrop of another movie made during what has been proclaimed the “Year of the Black Film.”
Directed by Ryan Coogler, and also based on a true story of an ostensibly free black man, “Fruitvale Station” chronicles the life of Oscar Grant. The film’s climax arrives at Grant’s fatal shooting in 2009, at the hands of a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officer. Tragic real-life videos taken at the scene suggest what happened that morning was (as Jessie commented in 2009) nothing short of “an execution.” Unarmed and handcuffed, Grant was shot dead by the white officer in the wee hours of the morning, taking his last breath on what should have been the first day of a new year.
I saw both “12 Years a Slave” and “Fruitvale Station” in movie theaters with predominantly white audiences. I was struck by what I witnessed in those movie theaters in the wake of the Oscar nominations -– nominations that marked the “worth” of 12 Years with the Academy’s stamp of acknowledgement, companion to an apparently failed love for Fruitvale Station. Until that moment I had not considered these separate movie-going experiences in relationship to one another.
I literally cannot recall an audience reaction anything like the one I observed after viewing “Fruitvale Station” . There was absolute, deafening silence. I remember being completely chilled by just how “loud” the silence seemed to me. Even after the lights came up and the credits finished rolling many moviegoers sat motionless in their seats for many moments. So striking, I talked about this audience reaction – and the movie – for days.
Reflecting back I put those memories in conversation with the also unusual experience I had at the conclusion of “12 Years a Slave” . The climax of this movie occurs when Solomon Northup is finally reunited with his wife, children and family at the end of his extended nightmare living in slavery for twelve long misery-inducing years. This moment was met by thunderous applause in the theater I attended. This white audience sat there, clapping their hands, many with tear-streaked faces. When the lights came up, there were audible conversations around how powerful and amazing the film was – and though not without concerns at some of the film’s interpretations, in many respects I could hardly argue against the point.
Months ago I discussed these, what seemed to me, bipolar audience reactions with a black female friend. She recalled how difficult the experience of watching “12 Years a Slave” had been for her – not simply because of the painful personal substance of the movie, but because she sat next to a white woman who was sobbing profusely during the movie. As my friend shared, “It took everything I had to restrain myself from asking her, ‘where are your tears for contemporary racism?’”
As white people we might ask ourselves that question, too. Do we have tears for not just the horrors of the past, but those playing out in our midst? It is quite literally a profound coincidence that Fruitvale Station was released not even a month before George Zimmerman would be acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin. Where are tears for Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin? For Renisha McBride and Jordan Davis, much less the everyday costs and burdens of systemic racism that may be less immediately fatal but no less destructive of human life? If the tears fail us, perhaps we should ask why.
Following Fruitvale’s arguably shocking Oscar shutout, Willie Osterweil astutely observes:
The real problem for Fruitvale Station is that it’s a film about racism without a happy ending. It’s about a tragedy that cannot be redeemed. Not that it’s even a particularly radical film — it just can’t pretend that time has solved the problems it portrays, as 12 Years a Slave does. . . . [I]t connects into a current struggle, evoking the trauma and horror that racist violence and overpolicing produce in minority communities across the country.
In some ways this is an ironic conclusion. I remember thinking at the end of 12 Years how bizarre it was that the audience should cheer Northup’s release (which occurred in 1853) knowing that most enslaved blacks left behind on plantations across the south would not see their own freedom for another twelve long years. The audience elation felt so premature following a movie that painstakingly captured the horrors suffered not just by Northup, but by those with whom he shared physical and psychic indignities so severe that one character literally begs Northup to kill her and release her to a freedom she could only imagine death might bring.
These paradoxes aside, “Fruitvale Station” leaves us no fantasies – real or imagined –to cheer. Judging by the reaction of my fellow viewers, what it does leave us with is the horror of a tragedy and injustice so immense, so immediate, so unresolved and, perhaps for most white viewers, so unimaginable that we are rendered speechless, quite literally.
I imagine the tears (and cheers) of my white brothers and sisters are “sincere performances” in the terms made famous by Erving Goffman in 1959. Perhaps the reaction to “12 Years” can be read as evidence that we’re finally ready to do collective “public penance” for slavery – while it feels at such safe distance. Tears for the horrors of a long-ago time and place; cheers for the symbolic reconciliation contained in Northup’s return to freedom, justice restored. And maybe, just maybe “Oscar Gold” a century and a half later.
Yet this, too, is a premature reaction I’m afraid. Because, there is the other Oscar. The one living in a society still contoured in every way by the marks of systemic racism everywhere all around – evidenced in infant mortality rates, and wealth gaps, and educational disparities, and unemployment figures, and mass incarceration. The one living in a society where, so deep is the white fear projected onto blackness, a young man lying vulnerable, incapacitated, handcuffed, and begging for reason can be gunned down on his back in the early hours of a brand new year in a time and place we all share, right here and now. No tears. No tidy resolutions to cheer. Just silence.
~ Guest blogger Jennifer Mueller is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Skidmore College.