The Reaction to '12 Years A Slave''s Oscar Win Was, Predictably, Uncomfortable

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As it turns out, when you produce a film that isn't sparing in presenting the horror that was the slavery, it makes people uncomfortable. And that discomfort can prompt them to do and say things that are dumb.

We'll begin, as so many "someone said something dumb in the wake of a racially-inflected moment" conversations do, with Rush Limbaugh. On his radio program on Monday, Limbaugh declared that there was one main reason that 12 Years A Slave won Best Picture: Because it was about slavery.

"There was no demonstrable political preaching from anybody," Limbaugh said about the awards program, with the exception of host Ellen DeGeneres' joke that either the movie would win the top honor or all of the Academy voters were racist. There's an element of truth in every joke, Limbaugh said. "There's no way that movie was not going to win. … It didn't matter if it was good or bad. (I haven't seen it.) It had the magic word in the title: 'Slave.'" Emphasis added, just for kicks.

For the record, IMDB has 200-plus movies that have that magic word in the title. One of them has won the Best Picture Oscar. Or looking at it the other way: 86 movies have won the award. One has included the magic word. Some magic!

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Not that Limbaugh was alone in assuming that the movie — 92 percent audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes — won the award because white people felt guilty. At New York, Jonathan Chait walks through several, including a Breitbart writer who questioned whether or not the movie was hoping to parlay white guilt into an Oscar victory.

And there's James Bowman at The American Spectator, who laments that the movie — which is about a free man who is kidnapped into slavery, abused, and separated from his family — doesn't show the positive side of slave ownership. "If ever in slavery’s 250-year history in North America there were a kind master or a contented slave," Bowman writes, "as in the nature of things there must have been, here and there, we may be sure that Mr McQueen does not want us to hear about it." Bowman, we assume, was similarly disheartened by Schindler's List's failure to show just how generous the SS could be to their prisoners, at times, probably.

As the rest of that Bowman piece makes clear, Americans love to dismiss discussion of America's racist past because we like to pretend that the fissures have been healed over. One reaction to that discussion is to realize that such wounds don't heal that easily, creating echoes in modern America. Another reaction is to insist that they have been healed and that suggestions to the contrary are simply attempts to score political points or, apparently, leverage the topic for financial gain. This argument has the side benefit of allowing you to avoid discussing the topic at all, which is most of its appeal.

There's one last point worth making in the aftermath of 12 Years A Slave's win: slavery puns are not as clever as they may seem.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.