12 Years a Slave
Check out all of the posts for our Black Families Theme Week here.
When Solomon, Eliza, and her two children are both sold, she is sold away from her children. Their new slave owner, William Ford, (Benedict Cumberbatch), feeling guilty when he hears Eliza’s sobs of protests, tries to buy the children, but the auctioneer refuses to sell the them. William Ford takes Solomon and a devastated Eliza to his plantation, where she continues to cry on the journey to the plantation. When Ford’s wife, Mistress Ford, hears of new slave Eliza’s plight she callously responds, “Oh poor thing, well she’ll get over it in a day or two.”
Some questions to consider: What constitutes a Black family in film or on television? Are representations of these families realistic or true to life? What are audiences who consume this media intended to understand about Blackness or the Black experience? What kinds of stories are allowed to be told and which are still suppressed?
However, I want to challenge that particular narrative: that nothing has changed. If we juxtapose McDaniel’s Mammy alongside Nyong’o’s Patsey, we might realize that, apart from being slaves, their characters are nothing alike. Indeed, from a historical and cinematic context, something significant has changed. Mammy is the mask that pro-slavery apologists used to erase the existence of the Patseys in slavery. It is remarkable that it took 75 years to remove that mask from depictions of cinematic slavery.
The 86th annual Academy Awards ceremony aired last night, and a billion viewers around the world struggled to stay awake. The show had a notably slow pace, with more time for introduction clips and acceptance speeches and less “Isn’t Hollywood Grand?” foofaraw (which, to be fair, a lot of people say they want. I happen to really like the foofaraw). Ellen DeGeneres’s hosting was more laid back than I am hosting an Oscar-watching party, and when I take a break to hand out pizza there’s still stuff to watch on screen. And ‘Gravity’ swept the technical awards, giving the overstuffed middle of the show a certain monotony.
If you fell asleep, never fear! I’ll recap for you the bullet points a feminist movie fan needs to know:
What is telling is the presence of so many films that either elide or sexualize female bodies in the category that presumably represents the best of the best. The Academy clearly has a critical preference for movies about men, with women present primarily as wives and sex objects.
The hunters write history. The hunters glorify themselves. The hunters’ history infiltrates itself into the very fabric of our cultural narrative, so we’re only comfortable with seeing the complexities of the hunters, and the simplicity of the lions.
It is what we’ve been trained for since birth.
Patsey can be the only the source of her violent hatred; and while Mistress Epps turns her spite on her husband occasionally, she is quickly reminded by her husband of her place in a patriarchal American Southern society–if he tires of her, she is gone. McQueen handles these situations with a frankness and humanity that is not overdone and he brings the best perfomances out of all his actors. The film got a standing ovation at Telluride, several times over, which is rare to happen at the festival.
Spirituals and folk songs were essential in African American history–they allowed slaves to communicate and to collaborate. They were a subtle way to resist slavery and develop community (which was exactly what chattel slavery sought to demolish). White people–as the aforementioned overseer demonstrates–often co-opt these important black cultural pastimes, which is something to keep in mind as we seek to hear and see–but not take–African American stories.
The feminism of Working Girl, “respectability politics” in 12 Years a Slave, female filmmakers on Twitter, comedy and reproductive rights, female sexuality on primetime, “Black Actress” on YouTube, and a comic about abortion laws… check out what we’ve been reading this week, and let us know what you’ve been reading and writing in the comments!
This week, we’ve been reading about Amy and Tina hosting the Golden Globes, the new films Carrie and 12 Years a Slave, the body positivity of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, media representation of African American women, and more. Tell us what you’ve been reading/writing in the comments!
This week we’ve been reading about how an actress prepares for violence in a film, women directors, the common flaw of TV’s strong women, and more. Tell us what you’ve been reading and writing this week in the comments!