Are Americans ready to confront slavery?
POSTED: Friday, January 17, 2014 - 8:38pm
UPDATED: Saturday, January 18, 2014 - 7:01pm
CNN — (CNN) -- The image of Solomon Northup's body hanging from a tree -- noose around his neck, hands tied behind his back -- is uncomfortable to look at.
And Steve McQueen, director of "12 Years a Slave," does not spare the audience with an expedient exit.
There is no overbearing soundtrack to drown out the sound of him gasping for air. For what feels like an eternity, McQueen makes us watch. He makes us listen. He makes us know the truth about slavery in a way no Hollywood film in recent memory has. The beatings are not brief. Christianity is not spared. There are no scenes of white heroes racing against time to save him or undo the injustice that is being done.
The image of Solomon Northup's body hanging from a tree -- noose around his neck, hands tied behind his back, feet barely touching the ground -- is uncomfortable to look at.
We hear the birds singing. We see the sun fading.
We feel the fear coursing through the body of a slave who risks her own life just to bring him a sip of water.
The film shows unflinching moments that shed an unflattering light on something our culture prefers to gloss over, perhaps as a way of healing. Just like calling people who point out racial inequality "race baiters" is supposedly an effective way to move on.
Oh, we're willing to talk about slavery. But we like the stories told like "Lincoln": inspirational, with redeemable characters and very few scenes of actual slavery because, well, that's a downer.
Because of this, McQueen's Oscar nomination for best director is welcomed, Chiwetel Ejiofor's performance as Northup worthy of praise and the best picture nomination for "12 Years" deserving.
And yet, in one important way, something is missing.
For if the Oscars were held today and "12 Years" won best picture -- as some favor it to do -- it would be one of the lowest-grossing winners of the award ever. With proceeds just a hair under $40 million since its October release, it would join "The Hurt Locker," "The English Patient," "Amadeus" and "The Artist" as the only best picture winners not to crack the top five at the box office. To put this in perspective, the latest Tyler Perry in drag movie made more in less than a month.
There is a chance that could change, because historically, there is a surge in interest in movies that are Oscar darlings.
Even "The Hurt Locker" -- the lowest-grossing best picture winner to date -- enjoyed an 11.9% increase in box office receipts after Oscar nominations were announced. When the film won best picture, it jumped 13.6% from the week prior to the win.
Perhaps in anticipation of a similar increase in demand -- and on the heels of a best drama win at the Golden Globes -- Fox Searchlight is reportedly planning to bring the movie to 500 more theaters this upcoming weekend, with the goal of raising the total to 1,000 in the next two weeks. Before the Globes, "12 Years" was in only 114 theaters.
The film will be in position to make more money. The question is: Who will go see it?
Because word on the street is that "12 Years" is an unapologetic portrayal of our ugly past, and Americans prefer our history with some nips and tucks.
Even now, as we are about to celebrate the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., we prefer to talk about the impact of his dream while limiting the mention of the nightmares that gave birth to that dream.
How many of us will pay to see the scathing truth when refuge in fantasies are far more comforting? How many of us are ready for a film whose narrative is not dominated by white protagonists but rather a free black man who, in 1841, was kidnapped, tortured and sold?
To see "12 Years" is to find out that "nigga" as a term of endearment is a misguided delusion. To see "12 Years" is to see the full story of what those who fought under the shadow of the Confederate flag gave their lives to keep. To see "12 Years" is to see that the claim that the black people who picked cotton in the field with the star of "Duck Dynasty" were "happy" is a racist insult.
The movie is an unsanitized portrait of a nation's shameful past. It is two hours of breathing in the antebellum South and then walking out of the theater trying to pretend the stench is all gone.
There is no question that "12 Years a Slave" was the best picture of 2013. But as the box office receipts show, not many of us are ready for that kind of honesty.
Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion
Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion