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Can Any Good Come of "12 Years a Slave?"

The Existential Fears of the “Exceptional Nigger”

by BERNARD NICOLAS

“You’re an exceptional nigger Platt, but I fear no good will come from it.”

Master Ford, in 12 Years a Slave

There is no doubt that as an artist, Steve McQueen is exceptional.  This writer is grateful to him and the rest of the 12 Years a Slave team for inspiring so much discussion about slavery and the filmmaking process.  But if we are not willing to be deeply critical and examine the real politics and psychology of Hollywood (read multi-national capitalist filmmaking) – then like Master Ford, “I fear no good will come from it.”

Most of what has been written about 12 Years a Slave  so far has failed to consider the impact of the politics of some of the key individuals involved in the creative team.  Two notable exceptions are the work of Willie Osterweil and Armond White.

In his recent piece entitled “The good white folks of the Academy,” Willie Osterweil observes that we have had several significant “Black” films lately that are written and directed by people of African descent – but for most of these films the producers are still White.  Osterweil suggests that “…itʼs the movie’s producers — who have more power over a film’s content than most recognize and if a movie wants that precious Oscar bump, it would do well to reproduce the worldview of the rich old white men who run the industry.”   With respect to the much-heralded 12 Years a Slave, Osterweil clearly feels the makers of that film (Black & White) were in sync with the “rich old white men of the academy”. Osterweil further suggests that the personal politics of the screenwriter of that film are worth considering with respect to their potential alignment with the message in 12 Years a Slave. Osterweil ridicules Ridley’s assertion in a 2006 Esquire article that institutional racism is over with and that privileged Black folks should separate themselves from “niggers”.

Another critic of Ridley’s disturbing manifesto (Molly Secours, Black Commentator, March 1, 2007) suggests that from Ridley’s point of view the masses of Black people should take full responsibility for their high unemployment, high school drop out, and  high childbirth-out-of-wedlock rates.  Yet another, more recent critic of Ridley (Navid Farnia, 1/27/14, Over the Colorline) wonders what impact Ridley’s politics may have had on the message of his script, 12 Years a Slave.  We therefore have to ask ourselves,  “what then are the politics of  12 Years a Slave? African-American critic Armond White implies that it is porn-like opportunism.  White asserts that, “the too-knowing race-hustlers behind 12 Years a Slave, screenwriter John Ridley and historical advisor Henry Louis Gates, are not above profiting from the misfortunes of African-American history as part of their own career advancement”.   White further posits, “12 Years a Slave belongs to the torture porn genre with Hostel, The Human Centipede and the Saw franchise but it is being sold (and mistaken) as part of the recent spate of movies that pretend ‘a conversation about race.”’The only conversation this film inspires would contain howls of discomfort.”

White has been expelled from the New York Film Critics Circle (allegedly for heckling McQueen at an awards show).  His criticism of the film has been pushed aside as the ranting of an extremist.  He dares to suggest Ridley and Gates are opportunists.  But when anyone similarly dares to examine the underlying psychology of most “players” in “Hollywood”, opportunism is so common place, that one might reasonably argue it is the lifeblood of that industry.  This writer happened to take another look recently at Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard.  In the making-of documentary that is attached to the Special Collectors Edition, actress Nancy Olson points out that the entire theme of the film is opportunism and that all of its significant characters are opportunists.  Opportunism in itself then is not necessarily a bad thing.  It only becomes dangerous when it crosses certain boundaries.

One fine example of an individual who has flagrantly crossed internationally-agreed-upon boundaries happens to be prominently listed as one of the producers of 12 Years a Slave.  This individual is very rich and very powerful.  Rare are those who ever speak of him too critically.  Yet this individual admitted calmly and arrogantly in a CBS 60 Minutes interview (3/5/2000) that he had supported the Apartheid South African government when the rest of the world was boycotting it.  This same individual facilitated a military arrangement between Israel and apartheid South Africa that involved selling arms to the South African Government and helping that racist government buy off politicians and media critics of its policies.  In return Israel received materials to help it secretly develop the only nuclear weapons program currently active in the Middle East. In his acceptance speech for Best Film at the BAFTA awards, McQueen included “Arnon” in the select few that he chose to thank out loud.

If it is true, as Osterweil suggested above, that producers impact the content of films, this writer cannot help but wonder what (besides just making more money) exactly attracted someone like Arnon Milchan to 12 Years a Slave?  More importantly, since Milchan has never apologized for his support of apartheid South Africa (in fact in November 2013, he was boasting about his role again to an Israeli TV station) then what might be the link between his politics in the 1980’s and his politics today?   One might also ask, what is the link between Milchan’s “the end justifies the means” approach and Ridley’s elitist politics?  For this writer, the link is simply a broad definition of the “exceptional nigger.”  In Django Unchained the exceptional nigger is justified (by the abuse he and his family have endured) to shoot up as many people as necessary.  Yet, no matter how powerful a particular exceptional nigger might be, there is always a white man who is more powerful and is able to rescue the exceptional nigger in the end.

Just to thoroughly abuse the metaphor of the exceptional nigger, it could be argued that the State of Israel was once an exceptional nigger among sovereign nations, while the USA was its more powerful white man. Lately however, thanks to the work of many bold (to put it nicely) individuals such as Arnon Milchan, Israel has been acting as if it no longer wants to rely on the USA.  It has shed the identity of the exceptional nigger  and adopted its own powerful colonialist identity.  The existential dilemma of the exceptional nigger seems then to offer 3 options: a) seek to become as much as possible like the oppressor by finding someone else to abuse, b) risk self-reliance and ignore the preferences of the “rich old white men”, or c) suffer, scheme, pray and hope that an “opportunity” will come to be rescued by the force that in the old “Blaxploitation” days we used to call “the Man.”

Bernard Nicolas is originally from Haiti.  He became a political activist in the 70’s and obtained a Master of Fine Arts in film production at UCLA during the recently celebrated “L.A. Black Rebellion” era.  He is now a well-traveled photographer, writer, digital artist and a mental health therapist.