Hollywood and the New Racism
If you believe press reports, Twelve Years a Slave is undeniably one of the greatest -- perhaps the greatest -- film of 2013. Not due to any skill in filmmaking, which remains to be seen, or audience response -- the film was only released last weekend. But solely because Slave (directed by Steve McQueen, not the dead one with the motorcycle, I'm pretty sure), is this year's PC film, one made for the single purpose of preaching a very contemporary and meticulously constructed racial message.
In this it joins a number of other recent pictures such as The Help and The Butler, and even, in a twisted way, Django. These films are all examples of a generally unrecognized subgenre of the propaganda film. They are racial films designed to raise an admonishing finger toward the white audience regarding its "legacy" as slaveholders while bolstering the blacks in their conviction of victimhood.
This type of film started with the "Roots" miniseries in 1977 and continued with The Color Purple (1985), Glory (989), and Amistad (1997). As can be seen from that list, such films generally appeared once or twice a decade. Now we have three in a little over a year's time. (Not counting Django, which is a demented reversal of the basic formula.)
These films are generally of the "historical" genre, set in either the slavery period or the segregation era that followed. The storylines are cursory, and manipulated for political impact throughout. Characterization is on a cartoon level, with whites either evil racists or weak, vacillating types who simply go along. Blacks are uniformly noble and long-suffering. Abolitionists, where they appear, as in Amistad, are creepy religious types with their own agenda. Racial relations are the sole topic of interest, overcoming even the events of the Civil War, and leaving the impression that race, and race alone, is the crucial hinge of American history, one that swings only one way. The United States is a façade, its promise of freedom a lie, its idealism an exercise in hypocrisy. The only emotional responses allowed in this universe are outrage from blacks and guilt from whites. In a very real sense, they are the reverse image of D.W. Griffith's racist epic Birth of a Nation, which depicted blacks as vicious animals and the Klan as knights restoring an unsettled world. (It also acted as an inspiration to Woodrow Wilson in his policy toward blacks.)
Why are these films made? To maintain the current racial status quo in all its hypocrisy, misery, and dishonesty. Such films are produced for the sole purpose of shaming whites and encouraging blacks to wallow in self-pity -- and this is exactly what we find in the responses to the first promotional campaign for Twelve Years a Slave:
Although I'm quite sure this movie will be very good, I cannot watch it. As Black man these movies stirs a [sic] anger in me that I rather not experience... I look at White people differently I know that is wrong, I should not do it but I cannot help myself. After going to the SLAVERY IN NEW YORK exhibit and having to be comforted like a child because I broke down in tears... (This poster repeated his comment twice while claiming censorship.)
The problem is, with my family and probably other Black families, is this type of movie is very hard for us to watch, and I don't think I could sit in a movie theater and watch it from beginning to end without literally becoming ill.
You go see it and tell me about it. I was crying when I saw the trailer. Seeing that movie would upset any Black.
Completely understandable! I am white and this stirs such a rage in me, I can only imagine what you experience watching something like this. It has to be deep pain and I am sorry, truly!
After wading through this overemotional, self-referential gush, it's a relief to come across this:
This film will bomb
These films comprise Hollywood's contribution to the liberal effort to maintain the "freeze" in black-white relations that has existed since the end of the civil rights era. At that time -- the late 60s and early 70s -- the vision of the early civil rights crusaders became corrupted by opportunism and a thirst for retribution. Equality became affirmative action, hope became cynicism, understanding was transformed into the bitter myths of the Black Studies covens. The result has been a decades-long ice age in racial relations in which, even as blacks have entered the middle class in growing numbers, the psychic distance between the races has grown to monstrous proportions.
All this was supposed to end -- or at least be ameliorated -- by the election of Barack Obama. A black president could not help but lead the country out of the gloom of past racial conflicts. His very presence would soothe old wounds and lessen current anxieties. With any other black that might well have been the case. But not with this one. With every step -- his hiring of the racist Eric Holder, who has deliberately and maliciously aggravated racial tensions, his response to the Gates misunderstanding, and his interference in the Trayvon Martin case -- Obama has turned the racial vise tighter. Today, the racial situation in this country is more fraught that it has been in forty years.
One unforeseen result is that the racial stasis -- blacks/aggrieved-whites/guilty -- has been blown apart. Young blacks are growing more violent while whites are, slowly but surely, beginning to shed the sackcloth. Where this will end is anyone's guess. It's a compliment to the character of both whites and blacks in this country that an explosion hasn't yet occurred. All that we can say for sure is that Obama will have no effect on the outcome one way or another.
So here comes Hollywood, with a slew of films designed to... Soothe the issue? Solve the problem? Ease racial tensions? No... to reiterate the fact Obama has changed nothing, and to remind us of how we're supposed to behave.
That's why these films are appearing now in such numbers. They're a confession that the agenda is not working. An attempt to press the reset button to return the status quo to where it was before Obama was elected. Obama wrecked the consensus on race in this country, as he has wrecked everything else he's touched and Hollywood is attempting, in its limited way, to put it back together again.
Of course, it shouldn't be put back together again. It was an unhealthy system in the first place, cynically constructed in order to exploit race for progressive purposes. What we need to do is simply move on, get out of the zone of vicious stasis into whatever comes next -- because whatever comes next, good or evil, is likely to embody some form of dynamism and not the deep freeze of the past half-century. In the end, breaking that stasis will probably amount to Obama's greatest contribution, though he will certainly deserve no credit for it.
The film industry needs to move on as well. There are plenty of complex human stories dealing with race (a few have already been made in which characters confront race in an adult fashion -- A Soldier's Story, Men of Honor, and Training Day.) Some of them even involve slavery.
Beginning in the 1890s and stretching for many years into the 20th century, elderly blacks would appear in towns across the South, some of them ragged, some decently dressed. They were the ex-slaves, who had left after the Emancipation or the final defeat of the Southern cause, to make their own way through the world. But when their time came, they returned to spend their last few weeks and months amid the scenes of their childhoods. They went back to the places where they had been slaves. They went home.
If you can understand that, you will have understood a lot of the complexity that characterizes the human heart. And if you take next step and grasp that in many, perhaps most cases, they were welcomed back, welcomed back by their former masters, by the whites they had left years before, because they belonged, because they were family -- in way that would strike most of us as grotesque to the point of incomprehension, but family all the same -- well, if you understand that, then you have a grasp on something the world needs to know.
Eventually, an artist will appear who can encompass this, and will set it down in such a way as to be undeniable. It will fit no agenda, and will serve nobody's political platform. It will be derided, and attacked, and snubbed and dismissed, but in the end it will serve as the final word on its subject.
And all the Amistads and Butlers will fade away and be forgotten. And that will unquestionably be a good thing.