Should Steve McQueen and his splendid company of actors stroll up the red carpet at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles to pick up a statuette or two tomorrow night, spare a thought for Gordon Parks. Some 29 years before McQueen’s film 12 Years a Slave collected 123 international awards (so far) and nine Academy Award nominations, the pioneer African-American photographer, musician and director made Solomon Northup’s Odyssey for PBS. In 1984, it was still bright, conservative morning in Ronald Reagan’s America. Aired on a little-watched public-service TV network, Parks’s adaptation of a former slave’s testament from the 1850s barely caused a ripple. Although the director of Shaft, and celebrated photographer for Vogue and Life, had come out of retirement for the project, his movie sank almost without trace.
It doesn’t much help an artist – and in particular a film-maker – to march too far ahead of the prevailing zeitgeist. Parks’s TV drama vanished, and Northup’s extraordinary memoir lapsed back into obscurity. Critics who have seen both films find distinctive qualities in Parks’s. For Bilge Ebiri, “to Parks, the idea of a black man – even one born free – being complacent about his situation in the mid-19th century was, in all likelihood, absurd”. He also makes Solomon merely pretend to flog a female fellow slave. “The dehumanisation here is much more subtle, in the ways that Solomon is forced to completely give up his own identity.”
McQueen knew nothing about the book – let alone Parks’s long-buried TV drama – when he decided to make a film about enslavement from the perspective of one shackled victim. His partner, the historian Bianca Stigter, began to scour slave narratives. Soon she had her Eureka moment with Northup’s book. She “ran up the steep stairs of our Amsterdam home” and announced: “I think I’ve got it. You can stop searching. Everything is in here.”
12 Years a Slave was a bestseller. It had first appeared in 1853, just a year after Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Abolitionism flexed its muscles in the North, and the slave-owning South looked on in alarm. A decade later, as scores of thousands of soldiers fell across the divided states, Abraham Lincoln paid his apocryphal tribute to the history-making power of fiction. “So this is the little lady,” he reputedly said to Beecher Stowe, “who started this big war.” Historians brand that anecdote as mythical. But every author loves it.
Now cut to 21st-century Hollywood. Unlike the didactic, missionary fiction of the mid-19th century, commercial cinema tends not to pick a fight until and unless the enemy has already surrendered. As an uncompromising artist’s film, 12 Year a Slave does in some ways break the mould with its harrowing, visceral intensity. Yet the universal acclaim showered on McQueen has stuck to a classic studio script.
Issues too hot for Hollywood to handle will, inch by inch, slide from margin into mainstream. Writers, artists, even TV producers, will go over the top and charge entrenched positions at the risk of ridicule, neglect or career-terminating outrage. Then, in well-armoured limos, the top brass of LA will follow up. Once no constituency with any heft or voice is left to object or (worse) boycott a potentially controversial film, the ritual orgy of self-congratulation breaks out.
Back in 1984, when Parks first brought Northup’s journey to the screen, Alex Haley’s Roots had certainly managed to transform the domestic history of slavery into a prime-time TV chronicle. In US cinema, however, it remained all but invisible as a theme for realistic narrative. If you discount the evergreen patriarchal fantasies of Gone with the Wind and the lurid eroticism of Mandingo, slavery as plight and practice had almost fallen off the big screen.
Look at the rest of this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Picture, and the Hollywood pattern of belated bravery holds firm. Dallas Buyers Club doughtily fights the homophobic bigots – of the mid-1980s. Philomena castigates the forced adoptions of the 1950s, now that the hypocritical theocracy of post-war Ireland has gone extinct. The Wolf of Wall Street brings us urgent news about the corruption and criminality of Wall Street brokers – a quarter-century ago.
Now rewind to last year’s awards. Ben Affleck’s Argo, a smartly made romp which transformed US relations with Iran after the 1979 Islamic revolution into a big-hair-and-sideburns caper movie, took the Oscar for Best Picture. Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s much more unsettling account of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, came away merely with a gong for best sound editing.
Yes, to complain about conformism and escapism in Hollywood does cast you in the role of a sulky adolescent whining that the world’s not fair. Since when did the fantasy factory even pretend to exhibit vanguard courage in applauding stories that might divide and unsettle its escape-hungry audiences? Rather, it waits for a solid consensus to emerge and then seizes the moment. In some lights, the film business can look “progressive”; in others, “conservative”. In truth, it’s merely orthodox. It keeps time – but safely behind the beat.
Thus, long after breakthrough books in the field, epics of the Holocaust at last began to snaffle the statues: Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) and Polanski’s The Pianist (2002). True, a few exceptions do hint at untapped reserves of boldness. In 1993, Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia secured a Best Actor award for Tom Hanks as a stricken lawyer – not that many years after HIV/Aids had spread hatred, stigma and taboo around much of Middle America. However, the film came out after Bill Clinton’s election and a decisive a shift in the balance of forces during America’s culture wars. For an Oscar-grabbing same-sex romance free of Hollywood’s perennial penchant for mortal illness and disability, we had to wait until 2006, and Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain.
In their paranoid fashion, the post-war witch-hunters of the House Un-American Activities Committee codified the idea of being right too early. Under the bizarre rubric of “premature anti-fascism”, they began to investigate the leftist sympathisers of the 1930s who – from Paul Robeson to Charlie Chaplin – had jumped the gun by denouncing oppression too long before Pearl Harbor. Survey Hollywood in the 1930s and the silence over Nazism can be quite deafening. In Five Came Back, his new history of the directors – such as Ford, Frank Capra and John Huston – who after 1941 went to war with their cameras, Mark Harris points to the timidity of the pre-war industry. Often led by Jews, but operating in an anti-Semitic business environment at home and still closely tied to partners in Germany and Austria, the studios dared to rock few boats. As Harris writes, the superficially brash moguls’ “trepidation” about taking a stand stemmed from “an accurate understanding of their fragile place in American culture”.
In 1946 – remarkably early by Hollywood standards – shocking footage from the Nazi concentration camps did surface in a feature film about the hunt for a war criminal, The Stranger. Inevitably, perhaps, the director was that great rule-busting maverick, Orson Welles. The Stranger starred Edward G Robinson, on-screen villain and off-screen hero. His own outspoken history of 1930s anti-fascist activism came back to haunt and humiliate him when HUAC put him on the stand. In the mainstream categories, this year’s Academy Awards have nothing quite so trail-blazing (or “premature”) to reward. 12 Years a Slave does deserve plaudits for the singular integrity of its director – and the blazing talent of his cast. Its accolades do not bear witness to a brave or enlightened industry.
The Oscars can still ignite scorching rows about film and its role in shaping a national conscience – but not in America, and not in the headline races. Last year, Israel – a nation of just eight million people – gained 40 per cent of the nominations for best feature-length documentary (two out of five). Dror Moreh’s The Gatekeepers braided hair-raising confessional interviews with six former security chiefs; Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi’s 5 Broken Cameras charted, through a Palestinian farmer’s video dairies, the long, tense stand-off between people and power in one West Bank village. Rather than cheer on Israel’s brilliant film-makers, however, populist culture minister Limor Livnat went entertainingly ballistic. Furiously, she laid into Israeli directors for dissing their own country abroad. Another politician might have reflected a little and come to precisely the opposite conclusion. No matter: the irate minister gave solid, heartwarming proof that the art of cinema really counts.
This time, the contenders in the full-length documentary category include The Act of Killing. Director Joshua Oppenheimer and his colleagues sought out unpunished perpetrators of Indonesia’s political massacres of the mid-1960s. They persuaded these movie-buff war criminals to re-enact their own mass murders in order to understand what Oppenheimer calls “the moral vacuum that makes it possible for perpetrators of genocide to be celebrated on public television with cheers and smiles”. Genuinely disturbing, this work – already a Bafta victor – truly represents cutting-edge film. If it wins, watch out for diplomatic ructions and an incendiary speech (Oppenheimer has called on both the US and UK to admit complicity in the Indonesian slaughter) that passes unreported in news clips. Not for the first time, scuffles on the sidelines may tell us more about the strength of cinema than the cosy love-in centre stage.
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