As the host Ellen DeGeneres joked at the Academy Awards, there were two outcomes that night: ‘Possibility number one: 12 Years a Slave wins Best Picture. And possibility two: you’re all racists.’ There is little question that 12 Years a Slave is a well-made, powerful and important film which deserves the plaudits it has won. But the sometimes disingenuous ways it was marketed raise questions about the different forms political correctness takes on both sides of the Atlantic.
As someone who grew up in the film industry (my dad was Carl Foreman, screenwriter of films such as High Noon, The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Guns of Navarone), I’m a seasoned if often exasperated Oscar watcher. My first job was as a production assistant to Sidney Poitier, who this year presented Alfonso Cuaron with the award for Best Director, pointedly reminding viewers of the racial barrier that was smashed in 1963 when he won Best Actor for his role in Lilies of the Field. Less comforting is the fact that only three African-American actors have won Best Actor since then (Denzel Washington for Training Day in 2002, Jamie Foxx for Ray in 2005 and Forest Whitaker for The Last King of Scotland in 2007). Halle Berry remains the only African-American to have won Best Actress (Monster’s Ball, 2002). In winning Best Picture (though losing out on Best Director), 12 Years a Slave is the first film directed by a black man ever to have taken the Academy’s highest award in its 83-year history.
Academy voters care very much about the image of their community, and so like to reward conventionally liberal-minded movies which show the film world’s concern about social issues. Its 6,000-plus members (drawn from all the industry’s disciplines) may be politically liberal, but artistically they’re quite conservative. Certain subject matters invariably press their buttons. It was inevitable, for example, that the 1993 Aids film Philadelphia would win at least one major award (in the event it won two — Best Actor for Tom Hanks and Best Song for Bruce Springsteen). Similarly Paul Haggis’s Crash was one of those films that made Academy members feel noble for feeling bad about racism; it won three Oscars, including Best Picture.
An exhaustive 2012 study by the LA Times found that Oscar voters are 94 per cent Caucasian and 77 per cent male. Under-50s comprise only 14 per cent of the membership — arguably this limits the appeal of a film like The Social Network, which lost in 2011 to The King’s Speech. The median age is 62, which can perhaps explain the absence of votes for the brilliant but explicit The Wolf of Wall Street, as well as the total absence of nominations for Steve McQueen’s last film, Shame, a graphic depiction of the life of a sex addict (despite a concerted Oscars campaign by Fox Searchlight).
The publicity strategy for 12 Years a Slave made much of Hollywood’s supposed failures when it comes to race and slavery. Steve McQueen gave the impression in interviews that until he came along, Hollywood had ‘ignored’ or sugarcoated slavery. The slogan ‘It’s time …’ was used, implying not only ‘… to tell this story’ but also ‘… to rectify past Academy failures by making this movie Best Picture’. But is this fair? It’s true that Hollywood has made few films which centre on slavery (especially if you exclude films about the American Civil War like Glory and Lincoln) — but the subject hasn’t been suppressed. Richard Fleischer’s compelling Mandingo (1975) is at least as brutal as 12 Years a Slave in its depiction of slavery. Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997) makes no bones about the murderous brutality of the Middle Passage (the Africa-to-America leg of the triangular trade route). Even before the 1970s, slavery’s sinister afterglow was the context of any number of films: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Defiant Ones, Home of the Brave. And also, of course, In the Heat of the Night, in which Sidney Poitier famously demands to be called ‘Mister Tibbs’.
The idea which floated around the early publicity of 12 Years a Slave — that Hollywood habitually depicts happy slaves on elegant plantations in the manner of Gone with the Wind — is rubbish. The fact is that feature films are primarily designed for entertainment; it is hard to make the spectacle of mass suffering bearable, let alone entertaining. McQueen also alleged that Hollywood preferred to make films about the Holocaust, but this too is questionable. Until relatively recently, the list of Holocaust films was quite short (Life Is Beautiful and The Reader have added to the number). In both good and bad ways, 12 Years a Slave is the Schindler’s List of its time and its subject. It makes the compromises necessary to represent a huge historical horror in a film which people will be willing to watch — such as basing the film on a character who is essentially untypical of that horror’s myriad victims.
Schindler’s List views the Holocaust from the point of view of a German witness turned rescuer, a category that in real life was extremely small and unrepresentative, but one with which audiences can identify more comfortably. Similarly, Solomon Northup is not a typical slave but one of a tiny number of kidnapped free blacks who were rescued from bondage before the Civil War. Both characters are outliers, with stories that end in triumph. This makes it possible for viewers to bear the unbearable.
12 Years a Slave has given a boost to a slavery reparations drive that is largely a scam pushed by greedy lawyers and activists, predicated on a dishonest or ignorantly selective approach to history. Only this month 14 Caribbean countries announced plans to sue Britain. Why aren’t campaigners demanding apologies and money from the descendants of the West African kings and generals who sold their defeated enemies to slave traders? Their calls ignore Britain’s unique and costly efforts to stamp out slavery. Rather than reparations for the past, if 12 Years a Slave can have an impact beyond the confines of the cinema, surely it should be in thinking about slavery today. In fairness to McQueen, he more than made up for his initial marketing strategies when at both the Baftas and the Oscars he made appeals on behalf of the 21 million people trapped in modern-day slavery in the Gulf, in Asia and even in Europe.
Perhaps the real lesson of the success of 12 Years a Slave, and of this year’s Oscars more generally, is that what people call ‘Hollywood’ is more than ever a joint British-Australian-American industry, and is all the better for it. It’s diversification of a sort, if not quite the kind that the film industry still yearns for…
Jonathan Foreman has worked as everything from a production assistant to a foreign correspondent, film critic for the New York Post and chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle.