Why 12 Years a Slave was nominated for Best Picture

Last Thursday, the nominations for the 86th Academy Awards were released and an entire demographic of movies was missing from the list.

2013 was a huge year for films that depict the lives and struggles of black people. The films released last year cover multiple facets of black life and identity that are often left unacknowledged by Hollywood. Yet out of the nine films contending for Best Picture, 12 Years a Slave, a black historical drama, is the only film that qualifies as being a part of Black Cinema.

While Mandela managed to obtain a nod for best original song, Fruitvale Station, 42: The Jackie Robinson Story, and Lee Daniels’ The Butler were all snubbed by the Academy. Not only were the films themselves omitted, but the casts — all of which are predominantly black — found themselves and their acting disregarded as well.

So why was 12 Years a Slave and its cast decidedly good enough to be nominated while other equally as good — maybe even better — films were not?

I believe the answer is quite simple: 12 Years is a film with which mainstream America is more comfortable.

Black actors are typically expected to fit into five stereotypical roles in film: the tom, the coon, the mulatto, the mammy and the buck. These five types, while vastly different, maintain the singular purpose of depicting blacks as inferior (Bogle 4).

Solomon Northup, played by British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, loosely falls into the category of tom which automatically makes his character easier to accept and acknowledge than Michael B. Jordan’s Oscar Grant, Idris Elba’s Nelson Mandela or Forrest Whitaker’s Cecil Gaines.

“Tom” — derived from the phrase “Uncle Tom” — is a negative moniker ascribed to blacks who are “overeager to win the approval of whites (as by obsequious behavior or uncritical acceptance of white values and goals).” The term is also used to describe blacks who are willingly and happily subservient to whites or a person who is perceived as actively participating in the oppression of their own group (an example here would be Samuel Jackson in Django).

Basically, a Tom is a “socially acceptable Good Negro” (Bogle 4), much like the Solomon Northup character in 12 Years. The Tom-esque qualities of Solomon, as well as other factors such as the role of the white savior and the demographic makeup of the committee that chooses the nominees, are what caused the film to be chosen as the representative for 2013’s black films.

Solomon Northup for the majority of the film was a “Good Negro.” Master Ford even tells Solomon he is so phenomenal that no other slave owners outside of Edwin Epps, a man who “prides himself on being a ‘nigger breaker,’” will have him.

“You’ve made a reputation of yourself. Whatever your circumstances, you are an exceptional nigger, Platt. I fear no good will come of it.” – Master Ford

And for the majority of the film, Solomon is just that — an “exceptional nigger.” He’s a man who is more concerned with surviving and gaining back his freedom than he is with picking more pound of cotton per day than Patsey. Solomon’s status as a “Good Negro” is also the reason why the audience hears predominantly from him as opposed to other slaves present in the film. He speaks impeccable English and he is highly skilled as opposed to other slaves. This creates a hierarchy between Solomon and the other slaves as well as playing into the idea that in order for a black person to make strides, they must be exceptional. He was also faithfully obedient.

Outside of the incident with Tibeats, Solomon never once turned against Master Ford, Master Epps, or any other white person in the film. And when he was rebellious, he could be easily corrected such as when Epps placed a gun to his head and commanded Solomon to whip Patsey. Of course, you could see the pain in his face. Solomon didn’t want to beat her, but he did it for survival. Just as he played the role of Tom for survival. He appeased his white masters in order to stay alive and reach his ultimate goal: freedom.

These aspects made Solomon Northup “enduring to white audiences” and he, as many Toms do, emerged from the film as a hero of sorts (Hardiman). He may have been enslaved wrongfully — just like all slaves but that’s not the point of the article — but he kept his faith, despite his mistreatment, that one day he would be freed. He pulled through. He survived. And he did it without turning against his white masters or white people in general. . He maintained a deep appreciation for white people which can be attributed to the white saviors that came to his rescue on multiple occasions. The function of the white savior within the film is another aspect that makes 12 Years more acceptable.

Though it was clear Solomon did not agree with the conditions of slavery, he never criminalized white people and he never fostered a feeling of disdain for them. He never outright blamed the perpetrators of slavery.

Traditionally, black people were utilized “to reaffirm a socially chaotic age, a belief in life, and the American way of living” (Hardiman). Solomon Northup, as a slave, embodied the American ideal that “even during the worst of times, everything could be straightened out as long as people kept their chins up” (Hardiman). As long as you keep pushing, you will gain your blessings and what you deserve. You will defeat a bad situation.

And, when you juxtapose Solomon Northup’s Tom-like qualities with the attributes of, let’s say Idris Elba’s Nelson Mandela — who loosely fits into the category of buck — you can see why Northup was a more obvious choice for the Academy.

Bucks are dashing and daring black men who also operate as symbols of violence and power (Hardiman). Bucks, in film, are “big, baadddd niggers” (Bogle 13). They are physically imposing and fervently outspoken.

Idris Elba is 6 foot 3 and roughly 215 lbs. And, as Mandela (who himself was 6 foot), “he was a black man who could shove back to whitey that whitey had originally dealt out” (Hardiman).

That sentiment is what makes Mandela less appealing to the elderly, well-to-do white men who choose the nominees than 12 Years a Slave. Solomon Northup was more docile. He wasn’t interested in fighting back. He wasn’t interested in revolting. He just wanted to survive. Mandela’s character strength worked against the dominant white culture instead of finding a way to operate within it like Northup.

Here’s a sentiment about the Jim Brown, a prime example of a buck character that was readily accepted by the dominant white audience of his time:

Jim Brown’s brute force, if not properly guided, would be blind and indiscriminate and too much of a threat to white males in the audience; thus he could never be cast as a politically militant black man (Hardiman).

The Mandela character did not garner approval because although he was buckish, Mandela was a threat since he was operating against the white-dominated culture of South Africa. He was a physical threat to a withstanding political system, unlike Solomon Northup.

Michael B. Jordan’s Oscar Grant did not acquire approval because any facets of his character that were stereotypical could easily be explained away, rationalized, and, most importantly, humanized. Grant had a temper, but it wasn’t because he was an angry black person. He was upset about losing his job. Yes, he lost his job because he was often late but he wasn’t late because he was lazy.

Grant also was not an absent black father — he doted upon his little girl. He sold drugs but not because he was an evil thug as most black male drug dealers are depicted. Grant had a family to support. He was presented as a flawed human being…kind of like white males who play similar roles.

In summation, 12 Years — while a phenomenal film — makes audiences more comfortable because the black male within the story is operating in a manner that is expected.  And that’s why it was chosen.

Other sources:

Bogle, Donald. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretative History of Blacks in American Films. New York: Continuum, 2001. Print.

Hardiman, Dominique M., “An Interactive Study Guide to Toms, Coons, Mulattos, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Film By Donald Bogle” (2011). Research Papers.Paper 66. <http://opensiuc.lib.siu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1144&context=gs_rp&gt;


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