Hollywood is still Hollywood: 12 Years A Slave ultimately disappoints
One of the speakers at last month’s REEL BLACKNESS event at DS4SI said it precisely when she described the failure of 12 Years A Slave in terms of its depiction of an exceptional story, reducing slavery to a singular, highly individualistic experience fitting neatly into David Sirota’s analysis of North American popular culture’s consistent endorsement of the lone hero myth, “going rogue”. On top of lacking in community empowerment, the film has an underlying sense of class distinction, wherein the audience is made to care more for the downgraded socialite protagonist than the black bodies who have been born into slavery—not to mention the requisite white savior archetype reinforced throughout.
“One of the difficulties when you’re coming out of oppression is that you get a concept of the messiah, you have to get to that point that we are the leaders we’ve been looking for, we are the children of Martin and Malcolm." - Grace Lee Boggs
Champions of the film’s “brutal authenticity” (echoes of Passion of the Christ) seem to be luxuriating (to borrow an oft-used phrase from the film) under the assumption that cinema can be truth, especially one brandishing the moniker: “Based on a true story”—rather than accepting the simple fact that all moving images are constructions and contain user-imprinted biases and prejudices.
Hollywood remains in the hands of the elite, and no film is going to make it through that celluloid assembly line unless it fits into the dominant paradigm of the elite. Films like this are a “bone throw” amidst the festering heap of a deeply racist, white supremacist, colonialist society.
Structurally, Django ends up being a better film, in my opinion. While both are Hollywood constructions, once again celebrating the individual over the collective, Django rejects the “reality” of slavery as we know it. Rather than perpetuating the notion that emancipation (both in North America and the Caribbean) and decolonization came about as a result of benevolent/guilt-ridden white imperial powers, Django touches upon the rich history of violent uprisings that slowly chipped away at the plantation system and its ever-frightened overseers—a history that persists to this day, despite popular culture’s bold attempts to “pacify” and “sanitize” the history of resistance among communities of color—basically “taking the piss out of it” in the hopes of discouraging dissension against the state. Just like in the 17th century, white people/the elite are still terrified that one day they will be made to pay for what they’ve done because they know deep down that it’s wrong. Noam Chomsky believes that this fundamental paranoia may explain our current preoccupation with Zombies and other supernatural apocalypses that quickly and effectively wipe the entire slate clean.
“That woman, deserves her revenge and… we deserve to die.” - Budd
"You never had control! That’s the illusion." - Dr. Sattler
In this way Django operates more in the realm of historical revision, employing revenge, revolution, creative fiction and imagination in a white man’s version of AfroFuturism.
You shouldn’t be going to mainstream cinemas looking for education, you should recognize that its sole purpose is to deliver entertainment as a commodity—if that’s true than sometimes cinematic “fictions” may be more useful than cinematic “realities”.