Want to go to the movies? When the film is ‘12 Years a Slave,’ the answer isn’t so simple


Chiwetel Ejiofor, left, and Michael Fassbender in a scene from “12 Years A Slave.” (Francois Duhamel/AP/Fox Searchlight)
November 7, 2013

There are a lot of decisions to make at the movies: butter or no butter, large or extra-large, center or aisle. But perhaps the most important decision comes before you even enter the theater: Whom do you want in the seat next to you?

When I saw the first preview for “ 12 Years a Slave,” I knew I’d have to figure this out. And as I expected, when the film opened in Washington, a friend asked me the question for which I’d been preparing for weeks. Did I (a black woman) want to see a movie about slaves (with my white friend)?

I said I’d think about it.

As I discussed my reluctance with friends, family and co-workers, I learned I wasn’t the only one in high demand as a date for this particular movie. The question of mixed-race viewing and “12 Years a Slave,” which opened nationwide last week, seemed to be coming up again and again. For one friend, a black woman, it was deciding if she should see it with the white guy she’s only been dating for a few weeks. For my brother, who studied film in college, he had to decide whether to go see it with another film buff, who is white and a fan of the director, Steve McQueen.

But the decision to say yes or no to the request didn’t come down to the two-plus hours spent in the dark; it hinged on what happens when the lights go up — the discussion. I’m no stranger to talking with my diverse group of friends about everything from the differences in black hair maintenance to my views on Beyoncé, but that is not what we’d be talking about after this movie.


Adele Exarchopoulos, left, as Adele, and Lea Seydoux, as Emma, in the film ”Blue Is the Warmest Color.” (AP/Sundance Selects)

On the surface, I imagine that seeing this film — the true story of a free man who is tricked and sold into slavery — with me might offer my friend a movie-date embodiment of how far America has come since the 1800s. Slavery is wrong. Pass the popcorn.

It also would provide an opportunity to see it with, as my friend put it, the “target demographic.” Sitting next to me would essentially provide a cheat sheet for when to be sad, when to laugh and when to be outraged, as well as an opportunity to get answers to the questions she was sure to have at the end. Questions about racial discrimination and race relations today. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be her movie buddy/ambassador to this subject matter, which is why I didn’t say yes right away.

This kind of moviegoing can be well-meaning, says Tricia Rose, a Brown University professor of Africana studies and director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America, but it also can be a sort of shortcut around real understanding if both parties are only interested in positive responses.

“With ‘12 Years a Slave,’ a movie about the history of racial oppression, the degree of trepidation is directly related to [the person’s] empathetic relationship and their investment in understanding,” Rose says. “If a friend is not putting in the time, then it is a way of connecting without connecting.”

A movie buddy might make it seem less daunting to see a film on a subject matter that you’re curious about but don’t directly relate to. Of course, no one who makes movies wants an audience to think you need to bring your black friend to “12 Years a Slave” or find a willing gay woman to go see “Blue is the Warmest Color,” a French lesbian love story that opened recently.

“It’s an epic story of first love and the aftermath of first love — the breakup and the heartbreak. With the trailer and the poster, we’ve been very forthright with the fact that this is a story about two women,” explains Shani Ankori, vice president of marketing at IFC Films.

But to transform the movie from a three-hour French “lesbian sex film” into a film about first love, IFC ran a parallel marketing campaign. This campaign focused on highlighting a quote from Elle magazine, whose reviewer called it “one of the best movies about love I’ve ever seen,” on the posters and trailers.

Still, it’s tricky for movies like these to get past the “target demographic” syndrome. A co-worker remembers being in high demand as a movie buddy when the critically acclaimed “The Kids Are All Right,” about a lesbian couple and their family, came out in 2010. A straight friend wanted to chat with her about whether the relationship rang true.

“We all go to see George Clooney or Brad Pitt films; the illusion is that a certain white mainstream is neutral to everyone and that they’re equally accessible. But that’s not true,” Rose says. “Movies with a queer or feminist focus, gender issues or racial discrimination potentially create some distance between some unconscious filmgoers and their ability to go to these films without thinking about this.”

Pair confronting slavery or getting an intense look at same-sex romance on the big screen with the past 11 months outside the theater — Supreme Court decisions on marriage equality, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, recent instances of racial profiling at major New York retailers, among many other things — it’s understandable that your own views on race or same-sex relationships will influence how you think about a movie. And it makes sense that you’d want someone, especially someone in a “target demographic,” to talk to about it.

“Films are powerful levers in society,” says B. Ruby Rich, editor in chief of Film Quarterly and author of “New Queer Cinema: the Director’s Cut.” “I love what happens when people see films in a community. I think it’s transformative.”

Rich says she was in the audience at the Telluride Film Festival when “12 Years a Slave” received a standing ovation. “Social movements give rise to film. I don’t know if movies can give rise to social movements, but they can change people’s perceptions,” she says. “They can create a groundswell of emotion and lead to a change of actions.”

So much for a chill night at the movies.

In the end, I decided that I could handle the discussion about “12 Years a Slave,” and I said yes to my friend’s invitation. I had one rule: no talking during the movie. There will be plenty of time — and plenty to discuss — afterward.

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