Press Play has now posted an essay I wrote about 12 Years a Slave. It begins:
12 Years a Slave has arrived in theatres already barnacled with expectations. In its festival appearances, it met with critical acclaim, and Oscar odds-makers had already slated it for various awards. Viewers buy their tickets, sit down in their seats, wait for the lights to dim, and expect great things. But viewers also have other, deeper expectations. The dominant cinematic story of slavery has been the story of white redemption and white heroism against an unfortunate institution perpetuated only by the most sadistic of bad white men. Even today, it is exceedingly rare to find a story about slavery that doesn't emphasize how good-hearted white people can be and how inherently just, good, and equal America is. In American movies, black suffering redeems white characters and affirms white nobility.The rest is available here.
12 Years a Slave tells a different story, but because the familiar narrative has conditioned us to view “slave movies” as a genre, we — especially white viewers — may find our expectations unsettled. This unsettling is one of the great virtues of the film.