12 Years a Slave.
Ever since the advent of the medium, movie-making and the portrayal of universal human suffering has been a natural pair.
Before films like Amistad, Munich and The Pianist even debuted; they were deemed instant Oscar bait. And with good reason – the pathos extracted from displaying the gross injustice and inhumanity inherent in slavery and the Holocaust is limitless.
But this weary film viewer has one request to Hollywood: Can we have a bit of a break? This year, 12 Years a Slave is up for nine nominations.
The film is beautifully shot – the mesmerizing hues of orange and red sunsets illuminating the riverbanks of the American South effectively underscore the irony that such a beautiful country embodied such ugliness and evil. The costumes are top notch. And, most importantly, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance as a freeman from New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery is excruciatingly heartbreaking.
It’s unfortunate then, that the film is unbearably boring.
I was flummoxed by my reaction for awhile afterwards.
How could I possibly find a film about one of the most profound human tragedies boring? I realized that the film itself is not to blame. 12 Years a Slave added to the plethora of images from other slavery films that came before it. Amistad, Glory, Beloved have all blended into one interminably long film with the same message.
This desensitized reaction is not limited to films about slavery, though.
Holocaust movies, too, have largely followed the same formulaic path. As a result, they often dull our senses to the significance of this important genre.
And they absolutely shouldn’t.
Films depicting the unspeakable evil people do unto others should be riveting and hit the viewer to the core. When the TV mini-series Roots aired in 1977, it did just that. The brutally realistic portrayal of one family’s multi-generational enslavement was something American audiences had never seen before. Viewers watched in record-breaking numbers and it became a template for what movies about slavery should look and sound like.
As for the Holocaust, Schindler’s List continues to be the defining film of that genre. In a Barbara Walters interview with Steven Spielberg shortly after the movie’s release in 1994, Walters said of the film, “When word got out in Hollywood that he was making a black and white movie about the Holocaust, you could almost feel the cynicism.
The man who spent his career making us forget reality was making us remember.”
It became a commercial and critical hit that garnered 12 nominations. It was new; it was innovative and no other mainstream Hollywood Holocaust movie since then has never quite been able to touch it.
Which is exactly the problem: Virtually every movie since has been predictably formulaic. In a sincere attempt to ensure that the memory of slavery and the Holocaust not fade from memory, we have actually begun to do dilute the significance by releasing film after film that are carbon copies of each other.
Inundation of images of malnourished Jews and beaten slaves serves only to provide an audience with torture porn, instead of compelling them to honor the memory of those who actually suffered through these strategies.
A call to end production of these movies is not necessary, but it’s time for Hollywood to devise new ways for retelling these touching and critical stories.
Quentin Tarintino – a man who built his movie empire by subverting popular genres and providing his own interpretation – has succeeded in reinventing both genres. His ahistorical and over-the-top take on both the Holocaust (Inglorious Basterds) and slavery (Django Unchained) is exactly what Hollywood needs.
Those movies were unique because they empowered the victim. He transformed traditional tales of sorrow and tragedy to stories of vengeance and justice.
While verisimilitude and historical accuracy is important, Tarintino proves that it doesn’t have to be a prerequisite for creating an emotionally powerful take on historical tragedy.
After all, this is Hollywood. Any recreation of history will be tweaked and altered for dramatic affect.
I say, leave the blow by blow of what actually happened to the history books and let Hollywood do what it does best – let its imagination run wild.
Even when it comes to the horrors and injustice of slavery and the Holocaust.
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