Samuel L. Jackson Says '12 Years A Slave' Limits Racism to the History Books
A lot of people have a lot of opinions about race in Hollywood. I'm one of those people. If you clicked on this article it's likely that you're one of those people. Your second cousin once removed's probably one of those people if her facebook's any indication, etc. But when it comes to race in Hollywood, there's one group of people we really really should pay attention to when they pipe in with their thoughts on the Issues: People of color actually working in Hollywood. Which is why Samuel L. Jackson's comments on 12 Years A Slave are so interesting.
Here's what he said in an interview with International Business Times recently:
I would think that if an African-American director went into a studio and pitched that particular film, they would be like: 'No, no, no.' It is a film about African-Americans — a dark period of history that they don't like to explore in that particular way.
Look, I'm glad 12 Years got made and it's wonderful that people are seeing it and there is another view of what happened in America. But I'm not real sure why Steve McQueen wanted to tackle that particular sort of thing.
This is an aspect to the 12 Years thing that is definitely present and meaningful, but that I haven't seen discussed all that much. But it does bring up some questions, and I love that Jackson's talking about it. British publication The Guardian wondered aloud about the ways in which American racism had been tackled by the British director, writing:
In America many people have asked why it has taken so long for a film to do justice to the appalling plight of African America's slave ancestors and why no US film-makers have succeeded before in confronting their country's shameful past with such unflinching power and historical accuracy. Variety said it was a "disgrace" that, after so long, it has taken "a British director to stare the issue in its face".
What seems apparent, though, isn't so much the idea that it took a British director to tackle the true essence of slavery's horrors — I have no doubt that countless black American directors over the years have had takes that would have worked beautifully — but rather Jackson's sentiment: That it was American Hollywood's studio system's fear over allowing a film like that to lie in the hands of one of people who'd actually grown up in the country whose horrors were being depicted.
Jackson also brings up something that's been on my mind since seeing 12 Years (which, for the record, I loved, and which had the necessary emotionally shattering affect on me), which is that the film should evoke in people more anger and emotion about the present state of race relations in America. It's here that he brings up Fruitvale Station as what he refers to as a "braver" film about race this year:
It explains things like the shooting of Trayvon Martin, the problems with stop and search, and is just more poignant. America is much more willing to acknowledge what happened in the past: 'We freed the slaves! It's all good!' But to say: 'We are still unnecessarily killing black men' – let's have a conversation about that.
Part of what made 12 Years a Slave such a potent experience to me was that tie to the ways in which the legacies of slavery are still battering people down even today — but Jackson's got a point in his argument that perhaps not everyone was as rearing to read that into the film as I was. Because films like 12 Years A Slave can't just be about the horrifics of the past; even when they take place centuries ago, all you have to do is pay attention to the news to see how it still matters.