12 Years a Slave, the new film by Hunger and Shame auteur Steve McQueen, is one of those films whose arrival dominates the critical conversation. The film, based on the memoirs of escaped slave Solomon Northrup, is being praised for its artistic as well as its revelatory qualities. Paul MacInnes of The Guardian calls it “not just a great film but a necessary one.” All reviewers talk about the brutality of slavery depicted in the film, because brutality is a necessary component in a film purporting to depict the realities of American slavery.
Many, like Richard Roeper, make the comparison to last year’s Django Unchained. The comparison keeps popping up, despite the fact that 12 Years and Django have relatively little in common. 12 Years is, in the words of MacInnes a “stark, visceral and unrelenting” biopic of a man enduring hellish torment. Django is a Leone-inspired Western, at times bloody but cartoonish. To the degree there’s any relationship at all between the two, 12 Years “is a necessary corrective to the antics of Django Unchained.” The consensus is that 12 Years is brutal and unforgiving, whereas Django shares only the motif of slavery. 12 Years shows us that Django didn’t come close to illuminating the realities of the time. What I’m wondering is, when do we acknowledge that Spike Lee was totally right about Django, and the legions of people who criticized him were wrong?
There was a 1990’s quality to the Lee/Tarantino beef over Django. Lee first called out Tarantino in the 90s over the latter’s frequent use of “n*gger” in both Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown. After Lee criticized Django, nearly everyone who could be called on to have an opinion blasted Lee for pointing out that using American slavery as a setting for an action movie was kind of exploitative. My one hope is that some of the angry white dudes who fulminated over Lee’s temerity see 12 Years and think, “fuck, yeah, slavery was actually a lot worse than in Django.”
Quentin Tarantino is one of America’s best working filmmakers, but he’s also a white guy who loves to say the N-word. Lee took Tarantino to task in 1997 after Jackie Brown‘s 38 N-bombs, and Tarantino pointed to his mother’s long-term black boyfriend as his claim to having lived an authentic black American experience. He also pulled the classic “but my black friend Sam Jackson says it’s cool!” The Irish-American executive played by Michael Rapaport in Lee’s 2000 film Bamboozled is a thinly-veiled Tarantino-analogue, lecturing a black TV writer played by Damon Wayans on his right to use whatever slur he wants. “God damn what that prick Spike Lee says,” Rapaport’s character says, “Tarantino was right.”
When Spike Lee inevitably commented on Django in 2012, he invited near-universal condemnation. Samuel L. Jackson accused him of attempted censorship, Luther Campbell of “2 Live Crew” called him “a conniving and scheming Uncle Tom,” and even Civil Rights activist and comedian Dick Gregory called him a “thug” and a “punk.” As far as white people go, the purest source for inchoate white dude-rage (Reddit) produced an unholy shitpile of Spike Lee-hate.
What did Lee say that was so egregious? So inflammatory as to earn the hatred of both a legendary black entertainer like Gregory and every white Tarantino-fanboy on the internet? He said “I’m not gonna see it. The only thing I can say is, it’s disrespectful to my ancestors, to see that film.” Subsequently, Lee said “American slavery was not a Sergio Leone spaghetti western. It was a Holocaust.” For all the anger his words invited, Lee wasn’t making any prescriptive recommendations. He wasn’t advocating censorship, nor was he saying Tarantino shouldn’t have made Django. He wasn’t even making a judgment about whether or not anyone else should see it, only that he personally wouldn’t. All Lee said, besides an innocuous statement about his own viewership, was that American slavery isn’t something to exploit as a plot detail for a fun, bloody romp—it carries a history and continuing legacy that he didn’t want to see trifled with.
Almost a year later, the film 12 Years a Slave is getting the kind of prestige buzz that circulates around Very Serious
Movies Films. It’s described in reverent, somber tones that people reserve for work of hefty subject matter. The average viewer may lack the critical vocabulary to describe a lot of Oscar-contenders, but a film like 12 Years a Slave is of a different class of films: one where words fail due to the sheer horror being depicted onscreen.
All of which makes me think: isn’t this what Spike Lee was fucking talking about? A year ago, not only was everyone bashing Spike Lee, but, everyone from Henry Louis Gates to the Academy Awards was dick-riding Tarantino for making a super progressive movie about an old white man who undergoes a character transformation and saves a black guy. Lee’s crime was to say that he wouldn’t see Django because slavery was actually really fucking horrible, and everyone accused him of being an out-of-touch killjoy with an ax to grind. Less than a year later, a film based on the memoirs of an escaped slave depicts the institution of American slavery with an eye for historicity, and what does it look like? It doesn’t look like the spaghetti western of Tarantino’s imagination, it looks a lot more like what Lee described: a holocaust.
The reality of American slavery is certainly worse than anything Hollywood could ever come up with. Part of that is embedded in the nature of the movie business. 12 Years a Slave, both the source memoirs and the current film, are intended for consumption by a mostly white audience. One need only look at how Solomon Northrup’s story ends to see the constraints that still exist on the slave narratives we hear. After his 12 years of slavery, Northrup escapes to freedom, able to commit his story to record—through a white abolitionist interlocutor. As horrible as it is, 12 Years a Slave is a still a story with a happy ending. Compare this violence to the cartoon violence of Django, and keep in mind that in December 2012 Tarantino was going around saying shit like “violence on slaves hasn’t been dealt with to the extent that I’ve dealt with it.”
So why did Spike Lee incur so much hate, given how anodyne his comments actually were? In an article on the controversy for The Daily Beast, we may have a glimpse of the real answer (emphasis mine):
“I am surprised Spike commented in the first place,” said Fred Mwangaguhunga, editor of Media Takeout, the popular African-American entertainment website. “When you speak out against Django, you’re not only speaking out against Tarantino, a director who is known for hiring black actors, but you’re also speaking out against a studio which is looking to recoup the millions of dollars it put up for the film. I respect Spike for speaking his mind, but it’s like career suicide to speak out against the multiple investors and backers of this film. I don’t think it was a good idea for Spike to go there.”
The answer here may be the same answer to nearly every question: money. Tarantino’s films have that lusted-after combination of box-office success and critical respectability, and that combination gives him cart blanche to basically do or say anything. Tarantino’s box-office success, and the backing of his studio and financiers, means that people have a financial incentive to stay on his good side. I don’t know how much Luther Campbell could make in royalties off of a 2 Live Crew song showing up in Killer Crow, but if the thought hadn’t crossed his mind, why get involved? Spike Lee, who makes self-financed, micro-budgeted films, has carved himself the autonomy to speak truths that others can’t say. Hopefully, someone will watch 12 Years a Slave and realize Lee was speaking the truth on this.