If you live outside of major film markets like New York or Los Angeles, this weekend marked your first opportunity to see Steve McQueen's much-lauded 12 Years a Slave. But it's probable that you've already heard early buzz, either from fawning reviewers or from friends who've caught advance screenings. Perhaps you've heard that its commitment to historical accuracy has resulted in graphic depictions of violence and torture. Maybe your best friend still can't shake the cracking urgency in Chiewetel Ejiofor's voice or a haunting expression on Lupita Nyong’o's face.
If you've experienced any of this as a member of the black movie-going public, you're already in the cycle. You've entered the Seven Stages of Important Black Film Fatigue, a tiring exercise in decision-making whenever films like 12 Years a Slave are released.
The stages are doubt, guilt, self-preservation, annoyance, anger, vulnerability, and acceptance.
You may have never heard these stages named, but you've likely experienced most of them. And if you’re one of the fortunate few who’ve escaped the cycle, it’s safe to presume you’ve seen someone else struggle through it on social media. For some, the cycle starts as soon as a new black film, chronicling an important issue or public figure, is announced. It persists through marketing, early reviews, and opening weekend, as we wonder what effects the film will have on us. We may predict, with doubt, annoyance and anger, "This writer or director is not going to do this story justice." We might declare, with some vulnerability, "I'll have to mentally prepare myself to watch this." Or we may opt out of a viewing altogether, with the self-preservation explanation, "My heart just can't take seeing this." Box-office numbers tell part of the story; the better attended an Important Black Film, the more of us have reached the acceptance stage.
For the black filmgoer, movies set during slavery or the civil-rights movement, as well as biopics which take place in contemporary, racially-charged America, are not mere entertainment or popcorn fare. Films like 12 Years A Slave, Fruitvale Station, Django Unchained, and The Butler hold particular emotional resonance. They re-enact (or subvert) sorrow with which we have some experience, sorrow that has worked its way through our lineage in the form of oral history.
This is why we deliberate before attending Important Black Films. It's also why so many are marketed to us as moral obligations. We're told we must support these films because they advance the narrative of our people in this country, each ostensibly offering one more chance to flesh out details that have been willfully overlooked in history books or minimized in favor advancing a post-racial objective.
We saw this obligation argument in George Lucas's push of 2012's Red Tails, where he patted himself on the back for working so hard to bring his vision of the Tuskegee Airmen as noble, heroic, respectable, and beleaguered to the big screen. He even gave audiences an ultimatum, claiming that if Red Tails flopped Hollywood would be warier of funding other black films.
When Lucas and filmmakers work this angle, their message is clear: because they’ve been gracious enough to show everyone the best achievement and worst injustice black Americans have faced, black audiences owe them ticket sales. Without them, we’ll be stuck in a vacuum of Tyler Perry dramedies.
But viewers like Orville Lloyd Douglas would rather take their chances with the telling of more original stories, set outside the eras of slavery and Jim Crow. He questions Hollywood’s motives for producing historical “race films” in The Guardian:
“I'm convinced these black race films are created for a white, liberal film audience to engender white guilt and make them feel bad about themselves. Regardless of your race, these films are unlikely to teach you anything you don't already know.”
Douglas’s sentiments speak not just to our doubt, anger, and annoyance, but to the vulnerability we feel when our history has been commodified by Hollywood. Will it be viewed with pity or empathy? Will it account for the realities of black Americans at all, or are these films really, as Douglas asserts, all about evoking white liberal guilt? The mystery of motive drives so many other stages in our fatigue cycle and, ultimately, determines whether we’ll be able to trust the story and the team who’s telling it enough to head out to a screening.
With its visceral violence and hard, but familiar truths, 12 Years A Slave may not be for everyone. I’m still struggling through the Seven Stages of Important Black Film Fatigue, myself. I’ve skipped Django Unchained (doubt and annoyance), Fruitvale Station (self-preservation), and The Butler (guilt). But with nearly unanimous recommendations from trusted reviewers and friends, I’m hoping I can push my way toward accepting that a teary, shaken, introspective viewing experience is in order this time around.