12 Years a Slave: Yet Another Oscar-Nominated 'White Savior' Story

The Academy, like the movie industry overall, tends to gravitate toward stories about slavery when they feature a merciful white man bringing freedom.
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Fox Searchlight Pictures; Walt Disney Studios; Weinstein Company

A few weeks back, I noted that there are not many movies about slavery. Given that, though, the list of slavery films that have been real contenders come Academy Award season has been surprisingly large. Besides 12 Years a Slave, which won a Golden Globe for Best Picture of the Year (Drama) on Sunday night and yesterday received nine Oscar nominations including one for Best Picture, films recognized in major categories on Oscar night over the past 30 years include Glory, (1989, Best Supporting Actor award), Amistad (1998, Best Supporting Actor nomination), Lincoln (2012, Best Actor award), and Django Unchained (2012, Best Supporting Actor award, Best Original Screenplay award).

Despite the number of films, though, there's a relative paucity of thematic range. All of these critically acclaimed films use variations on a single narrative: Black people are oppressed by bad white people. They achieve freedom through the offices of good white people. Happy ending.

The stridency of the “white savior” narrative varies a good deal from film to film. Lincoln treats black people mostly as props who provide significant glances and strategic reminders of What This Is All For while strings swell and Daniel Day-Lewis (Best Actor!) flexes his cheeks in an excess of folksy, canny, oleaginous self-regard as Lincoln. Django and Glory, meanwhile, both figure their white saviors as military enablers, teaching black men to self-actualize through violence, and thereby free themselves (Django) or their people (Glory). 12 Years A Slave drops its Brad Pitt-ex-machina in only at the end, focusing instead—refreshingly—on Solomon Northup's own struggles and resilience.

The white savior in 12 Years probably wouldn't be off-putting at all except for the fact that, in Daniel José Older's words, "Did we really need yet another white savior narrative?" As it is, in the context of Hollywood, Northup's stunned/numb gratitude at the end of the film tends to blur into a montage of other teary-eyed black actors gazing with awe and wonder at the surprising, over-determined nobility of some white actor or other.

I've seen Brad Pitt's role in 12 Years defended on the grounds that Northup was in fact aided, and saved, by a white man. That's certainly true. It's also true that Lincoln did a great deal to end slavery. And it's true that white men worked to free Africans in the Amistad case, and that Colonel Robert Shaw bravely fought side by side with black troops during the Civil War. I'd even argue (as I did here) that white people need to see stories about anti-racist whites, both as inspiration and as an exercise in humility. (If Shaw is the standard for principled resistance to racism, I know I, at least, don't measure up.) But when every major film representation of slavery hinges on venerating the noble sacrifices of honorable whites—well, let's just say that as a challenge to white supremacy, it leaves something to be desired.

If slavery movies seem too focused on "white," they also can seem too wedded to "savior," and to salvation in general. It's true that slavery ended. But does every story about slavery have to be about that happy fact? After all, slavery was not (as 12 Years a Slave makes quite clear) a happy thing. Holocaust narratives don't always, always have to end with upbeat validation. Art Spiegelman's 1991 graphic novel Maus, which is focused on how trauma lingers even through generations, does not. Neither does D.M. Thomas's 1981 magical realist novel The White Hotel, which concludes with a kind of sexualized Freudian vision of heaven, both acknowledging and denying the desire to turn atrocity into a narrative of healing. In terms of slavery, Edward P. Jones' 2003 novel The Known World, about a black slaveowner, is more concerned with providing a tapestry of a community built on (if not entirely defined by) injustice than it is with a narrative of liberation.

And then there's Beverly Jenkins's 1996 novel Indigo, which isn't sad, but isn't precisely focused on salvation either. Indigo opens with a story about the protagonist's father, a free man who went back into slavery in order to be with the woman he loved. That's a good thumbnail of the book's concerns; it's a romance set during slavery times, and while bondage and freedom are important, they're secondary to courtship, true love, and marriage. The main characters, Hester and Galen, work with the Underground Railroad, so slavery and freedom are things they confront every day—but they're not the point of, or the meaning of, the book.

Indigo isn't great art, but it is refreshing to encounter a narrative about slavery which doesn't define black people entirely through their slavery or their freedom—and which, therefore, doesn't define black people in terms of the white folks who torment or liberate them. And that's the kind of narrative Hollywood needs more of. I love 12 Years A Slave, admire Django and Glory, and think Amistad and Lincoln are sanctimonious drivel. But they'd all be better if they existed in a context of other films that allowed for different kinds of stories. Hollywood’s insistence that white people have set black people free seems like a sign that maybe, possibly, we could stand to hear other truths, both about the past and about the present.

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Noah Berlatsky is a correspondent for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of a forthcoming book on the original Wonder Woman comics.

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