Opinion: On ’12 Years A Slave’, ‘The Butler’ And Hollywood’s ‘White Savior’ Obsession


/ January 17, 2014


Hollywood has become obsessed with revenge tales of bondage and servitude like 12 Years a Slave and The Butler. But why aren’t depictions of blacks removing their own chains getting the big-screen treatment?

It’s 1841, and an enslaved black man is making a pitch to a skeptical white plantation owner for his freedom. “Master Ford, you must know I am not a slave!” beseeches Solomon Northrup, a once-free black man bonded to a Louisiana plantation. Ford reluctantly concludes that Solomon is indeed an “exceptional nigger,” but a nigger he must remain—to allow him the liberty and humanity Ford enjoys would jeopardize his own wealth and privilege. Director Steve McQueen and actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, black Brits both, will brilliantly capture this gripping scene (and others from Northup’s life) on the silver screen roughly 175 years later in 12 Years a Slave, moving audiences around the world to tears. But the collective wisdom of the wizards who rule cinema storytelling will remain as unmoved as Ford was by Solomon’s plea—cheap and common stereotypes of submissive slaves, butlers and maids, and “magical negroes” who redeem white protagonists, must remain in their century-old lane. If a dynamic, leading hero is needed, a photogenic, bankable white savior must continue to be the status quo; to change this would risk the lucrative formula of the studio alchemists and scare away the gold, or so they seem to believe. That’s as good an explanation as any for why veteran actor and political activist Danny Glover still climbs up the jagged, unforgiving crags of Hollywood power like a postmodern Prometheus while clutching one burning desire: to direct the tale of Toussaint L’Overture and the Haitian Revolution. The greatest David-Goliath story the Americas has ever seen. Historian C.L.R. James’ classic The Black Jacobins credits this revolution for destroying “European feudalism” once and for all. It’s the reason Louisiana is even a part of the United States! Alas, for nearly 30 years, Mr. Glover has been bashed with predictable objections—how much will a sweeping epic about how over 500,000 African slaves violently overthrow their French oppressors cost? As much as Spartacus, which would cost an estimated $188 million today? Or at least as much as Gladiator or John Adams ($100 million)? Of course, film executives being soothed only by predictably obscene profits, they also wondered, is there a certain, safe audience for a film about 19th century black revolutionaries, like the ones for comic book adaptations, cheap horror films, “chick” and “family” flicks? But what they were really getting at was “where’s our Variety cover boy, our $20- to $30-million guarantee? Can’t Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks somehow play L’Overture—or maybe at least be his secret Freemason mentor? Where’s the white knight that rides to the rescue?” To be fair, American filmmaking has come a long way from pushing blatantly racist commercial successes like D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and David Selznick’s Gone With the Wind. Apologists can point to hope and change in the form of Django Unchained, 12 Years a Slave and a planned remake of Roots—see? We’re not afraid to tackle the darkest evils of American history! Well, no knock on Quentin Tarantino, Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz and the like for directing or portraying decent, redeemable white characters. But those films still require a sympathetic Caucasian hero to justify their existence. Audiences have accepted black violence against white villains, but Hollywood for one isn’t convinced that changes much going forward, or perhaps that it even should. Full disclosure: 15 years ago, I was a graduate student in New York University’s Africana Studies program, where scholar Manthia Diawara assembled a veritable Enlightenment salon-quality gathering of poets, musicians, authors, playwrights and scholars from all over the African diaspora. In this fellowship of black arts visionaries, Glover often expressed his fierce determination to bring this great struggle to the big screen. He certainly won over Venezuelan caudillo Hugo Chavez; prior to dying last March, he promised $18 million to Glover to help make the film. Yet studio shot callers still seem spellbound by their own racial clichés. Whether or not Glover’s island epic gets done, the next time they wave their holly wands and green-light an epic with strong black heroes but without a mandatory white lead, it will be their first. They’ve added room next to magical Negroes for “exceptional” ones like Django and Solomon, but like Master Ford, we should fear that no further good will come of it. —Gregory Johnson

This story appears in VIBE’s Winter 2014 Race Issue, featuring Drake and Kevin Hart.