Why 12 Years a Slave was Oscar-nominated and Fruitvale Station was Not — White Guilt

Why 12 Years a Slave was Oscar-nominated and Fruitvale Station was Not — White Guilt

Feb 27, 2013

By Christopher Peck, NCCJ Contributor

As you may have noticed due to all the self-congratulatory speeches and smugness in the air, it is awards season! The Academy Award nominations were announced on January 16 by Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and there weren’t many surprises, except for a few regretful snubs. One film that confronted racism in an unflinching and emotionally resonant way, 12 Years a Slave, earned nine Academy Award nominations, including Best Motion Picture. Another such film, Fruitvale Station, despite memorable performances by Michael B. Jordan and Octavia Spencer and the amazing directorial/screenwriting debut by Ryan Coogler, was shut out completely.

Those “in the know” about the process of garnering Motion Picture Academy votes said the film’s main hindrance was that it came out too long ago. While any film released in 2013 is eligible, most Oscar nominees are released from October-December, so they are fresh in voters’ minds. Fruitvale Station came out in wide-release on July 12 after premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2013. But based on the track record of the Academy, and their penchant for playing politics, I would consider that the REAL reason why nobody voted for Fruitvale Station is because it refuses to let white people off the hook for their role in the tragedy it depicts. As a film, it forces the "mainstream" viewer to confront their white privilege. 

If you know anything about the two films mentioned above, you know that both of them address racism against Black folks in some form or another. 12 Years a Slave is based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup, a free Black man who was abducted and forced into slavery for twelve years. Fruitvale Station depcits the 24 hours leading up to the murder of 22 year-old Oscar Grant, a young Black man, at the hands of a white Bay Area Rapid Trasit (BART) cop. 

While I would confidently call 12 Years a Slave my favorite film of 2013, and it is a painfully visceral portrayal of slavery, it is the movie that goes the easiest on the modern white person, because it doesn’t call out their own guilt or inaction. While all the white folks in 12 Years are varying degrees of despicable, the events of the film take place over 160 years ago. So while the movie quite artfully forces us to look intimately into the eyes of the humiliated, dehumanized and abused black souls—forcing this writer to fits of tears on several occasions—it would be easy for any white audience member to dismiss the tragedy on display as a thing of the past, not remotely equivalent to anything that happens in society today.

Because historically speaking any white person watching can distance themselves from the atrocities committed in the movie, the liberal Hollywood elite can pat themselves on the back for all the progress that has been made since, and congratulate themselves for awarding the film and its majority black cast. And yet, prognosticators say, that while the film is the frontrunner for Best Picture, 12 Years’ Black director Steve McQueen is not projected to win Best Director. He is only the third Black man ever nominated (John Singleton and Lee Daniels being the other two). And as for its nominated actors, there is a chance they too will go unrecognized for their individual achievements. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o are up for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress, respectively, but signs point to Matthew McConaughey and Jennifer Lawrence (both white, if you were wondering) taking home statuettes instead.

Fruitvale Station, puts the microscope on our current society to show that racism is still violent and pervasive with the oppressive actions being committed by a nonfictional law enforcement official just over five years ago—an atrocity that should have grabbed the attention of Academy voters. The filmreproduces a murder that still reverberates in the Oakland, CA communities of color. The events of New Year’s Day 2009 are injustice personified. After a fight broke out on a BART train, officers detained several individuals who they believed were involved (all men of color). While allegedly resisting arrest, and lying face down, Oscar was shot in the back. It would later prove to be a fatal wound.

The officer who shot him, Johannes Mehserle, testified that he mistook his taser for his gun after he had warned his fellow officer he would tase Oscar. Grant then exclaimed, “You shot me!” Oscar was unarmed. The events were captured on multiple digital video and cell phone cameras. For his crime, Officer Mehserle was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter, a two-year sentence. He only served 11 months. Mehserle is now a free man.

Fruitvale Station is a remarkable movie, not just for bringing awareness to this senseless murder—and yes, regardless of what the law determined, that’s what it was—but because it sought to and succeeded in humanizing Oscar Grant. Much of the coverage around Oscar Grant vilified him, describing him as a thug and pointing to his criminal record as reason to implicate him as a guilty party that night and deserving of having his life ended so soon. First-time and Black director Ryan Coogler does not hide from these accusations. He confronts them head-on. He shows that Oscar’s status as an ex-con and drug dealer are not all that define him. He was a loving son, a dedicated father and an imperfect but caring boyfriend. He harbored guilt and shame over his past actions, but like many incarcerated men he was determined to redeem himself despite overwhelming obstacles. Oscar Grant, as Fruitvale Station would tell it, was not a martyr or a villain, he was a young man who deserved to live.

So there are some questions you must ask yourself. Do you really believe that The Academy is issuing nominations solely based on merit? Fruitvale Station won the Grand Jury Prize AND Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival. Why won’t the Motion Picture Academy recognize its brilliance as well? What narratives are being celebrating? Do you think it’s a coincidence that 12 Years a Slave was financed by Brad Pitt, whose character is the ONLY white man in the whole film who denounces slavery? Do you think that because Fruitvale Station’s lethal brutality against a black man happened only five years ago, it’s easier for voters to digest a century and a half old story where in the end (of course after twelve years of torture and degradation) a Black man’s freedom is restored? There will never be a happy ending for Oscar Grant.

It is important as consumers of pop culture that we realize who controls the stories that we deem worthy of awards and critical praise. Traditionally speaking, 12 Years A Slave is not a likely candidate due to its cast of primarily people of color. In comparison to Fruitvale Station, it is clearly a safer choice. Why wouldn’t we as a society want to honor Ryan Coogler for writing and directing a movie about how racial profiling destroys lives? Because it means acknowledging the existence of white privilege, which is not something our society nor The Academy Awards is ready to do. Slavery, however? Yeah, they’ll concede THAT was horrible, because it leaves them guilt-free.

 


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