Hattie McDaniel, the first Black person to win an Oscar, did so for her role in Gone With the Wind as Mammy in 1939. McDaniel was a formidable actress but, for better or worse, roles that found her playing a maid dominate her résumé because, in her time, domestic servitude was the primary way popular culture could conceive of Black women. In 2012, Octavia Spencer won an Oscar for her performance as maid Minny Jackson in the popular but deeply problematic The Help. While there’s a lot of shallow rhetoric about post-racial America, when it comes to the Oscars, Hollywood has very specific notions about how they want to see Black people on the silver screen. There are certainly exceptions but all too often, critical acclaim for Black films is built upon the altar of Black suffering or subjugation.
This year, we’ve seen quite the cinematic parade of both of these kinds of depictions. In the excellent Fruitvale Station, writer-director Ryan Coogler deftly tells the story of the last day of Oscar Grant’s life before Grant was murdered by a BART officer on New Year’s Day in 2009. Lee Daniels’s The Butler chronicles the life of Cecil Gaines, a Black butler in the White House for 34 years. Through the story of Gaines’s life, we also learn the story of Black America, the challenges of desegregation, and how with dignity, one man persevered. The pinnacle of Black suffering, though, comes by way of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. Since the movie’s debut on the festival circuit, it has enjoyed massive critical acclaim. It’s the movie everyone must see, the definitive accounting of America’s brutal legacy of slavery. While it's worth noting that having three movies about the Black experience in the Oscar race is disproportionately high, their themes fit into a very narrow box. And that's especially true when you compare them to a few of the movies being discussed as possible Best Picture nominees that focus primarily on White people — the one set in space, the one about a dysfunctional family, the one about a cat-loving folk singer.
But the overwhelming acclaim surrounding 12 Years a Slave is especially curious, because slavery has been well accounted since the early 1800s. What more could possibly be said about slavery? Who has belabored under the impression that slavery was anything but an abject horror? 12 Years a Slave offers a relatively original conceit — the true story of Solomon Northrup, a free Black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. As Michelle Dean notes for Flavorwire, “if on no other grounds, 12 Years a Slave is remarkable because it is the only film to date that is based on a slave’s own account of his experience.” The movie is also the first major studio backed slavery film helmed by a Black director. These milestones are not insignificant. Despite the director and the source material however, 12 Years a Slave does not offer any new insight into the slavery narrative.