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Uncomfortable truth in the Oscars' '12 Years a Slave' joke

'12 Years a Slave' is a story told and shaped by black artists like no other Oscar-winning film for best picture.
Lupita Nyong'o speaks after winning best supporting actress for her role in "12 Years a Slave", at the 86th Academy Awards, March 2, 2014, in Los Angeles, Calif.
Lupita Nyong'o speaks after winning best supporting actress for her role in "12 Years a Slave", at the 86th Academy Awards, March 2, 2014, in Los Angeles, Calif.

Sunday night, as the 2014 Oscars got underway, host Ellen DeGeneres joked that the night could end in one of two ways. 

"Possibility number one: 12 Years a Slave wins best picture," DeGeneres said. "Possibility number two: You’re all racists."

The uncomfortable truth of DeGeneres's joke is that the Oscars can be as much about what the overwhelmingly white film industry wants to say about itself as it is about the quality of the films themselves. The film industry is a place where the stories of people of color are still rarely told through narratives they themselves create.

12 Years a Slave is a film adapted from a memoir written by Solomon Northup, a free black man who was captured and enslaved. That memoir was adapted by the Oscar-winning black American screenwriter John Ridley, and directed by Steve McQueen, a British black man of Grenadian descent. It is a story that was told and shaped by black artists like no other Oscar-winning best picture film. 

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Despite the film industry's reputation for cultural liberalism, the films about the catastrophes of history it most recognizes are those in which a heroic white figure redeems the sins of others. We have films like Schindler's List, which celebrate Liam Neeson's Oskar Schindler -- the Nazi who used his power to save some of his Jewish workers. We have Kevin Costner's Lt. John Dunbar in Dances with Wolves, who tries to save the Lakota Indian people from inevitable genocide. We have Amistad, a film about a revolt on a ship carrying enslaved human cargo that somehow turns into a story about the benevolent white American abolitionists who prevent the kidnapped Africans from being convicted of murder. And let's not get started onThe Help

Most films that tell stories of people of color are oftentimes movies about the exceptional white people who ultimately triumph against evil, and so people of color become vehicles for white redemption. They are exploited twice over -- in history, and again in cinema. 

What sets 12 Years a Slave apart is that it is utterly uninterested in redeeming anyone, or in making anyone feel better about slavery. Northup, portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor, and the other enslaved persons remain at the center of the film from start to finish. The audience never gets an opportunity to avert its eyes from Northup's struggle to maintain his sanity and sense of self as he endures the unimaginable cruelty and desperate loneliness of enslavement. The moments of friendship, intimacy, loss and terror shared among the enslaved are paramount. 

More than 70 years ago, Hattie McDaniel became the first black person to win an Oscar for best supporting actress for her role in Gone With the Wind. McDaniel was a tremendously gifted actor, whose choices were limited by the institutionalized racism of her time. She won the award for playing Mammy, an enslaved person so devoted to her benevolent white mistress that when villainous Union troops burn the plantation where she is enslaved, she remains rather than seeking freedom.

McDaniel breathed more life into Mammy than the filmmakers could have intended. But this was slavery as America wanted to see it in 1939, as the Jim Crow South existed in a state of racial apartheid: Happy, loyal, enslaved people who loved their masters. It was slavery as mere anachronism, rather than crime against humanity. When the Academy was done with its celebration of McDaniel, she returned to her segregated table in the back of the room

As Lupita Nyong'o emerged from the audience to claim her award for best supporting actress for playing Patsey, more than just years stood between12 Years a Slave and Gone with the Wind. Where Mammy's loyalty ran so deep that she rejected a chance at freedom, Patsey would prefer death to the daily, soul-splintering violence of enslavement. It is the difference between a story meant to whitewash the evil of slavery, and one meant to bear witness to a terrible crime. 

"It doesn't escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else's, and so I want to salute the spirit of Patsey, for her guidance," Nyong'o said. "When I look down at this golden statue, may it remind me and every little child that, no matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid."

Not just their dreams, but their stories, and the way they want to tell them.