Is '12 Years a Slave's' Oscar Campaign Playing White Guilt Card to Sway Voters?

Is '12 Years a Slave's' Oscar Campaign Playing White Guilt Card to Sway Voters?

The studio behind the harrowing drama 12 Years a Slave thinks “it’s time” the film win an Oscar or two. Maybe more.

Fox Searchlight is using that two-word phrase as part of its awards season ad campaign in newspaper and television spots for the celebrated film.

The implications are many. It’s time to honor a film that reminds the nation anew of its slavery sins. It’s time, perhaps, for an industry which continues to struggle with diversity issues to award a film made by a black director, Steve McQueen, and starring a black actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor.

The issue of guilt, or more specifically white guilt, isn’t a topic suddenly tied to the film. A BBC interview which aired earlier this year asked McQueen for his reaction to a black writer who said race films are “made for liberal white film goers because they’ll end up feeling guilty, and that’s really the purpose of them.”

“I don’t make films for white people,” McQueen said in response, laughing. “I make art because I’m an artist … my film is about us, rather than specific people.”

That’s a fine answer, of course. The studio behind the film, however, may be hoping some of that stirred up guilt will be a factor when it comes time to make those crucial Oscar votes.

There could be other interpretations to the tag line. The film is an uncomfortable proposition for some viewers given its violent nature and connection to real-life atrocities. The ads may be suggesting “it’s time” to watch an important movie rather than, say, RoboCop.

The message also reminds us of the campaigning behind recent Oscar victories. It’s not enough to make a great movie these days. A film’s actors must say all the right things during interviews, shmooze the right press members and, at times, spread the right message–think An Inconvenient Truth.

12 Years a Slave is a powerful film, and should it win the coveted Best Picture Oscar come March 2 few will see the victory as an upset or slight against the competition. Saying “it’s time” for the movie to win a major prize actually dulls the glory it has every right to receive.


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