Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Have you seen the year's best film?

By LZ Granderson, CNN Contributor
January 17, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • LZ Granderson: "12 Years a Slave" deserves praises for its unflinching portrayal
  • Granderson: Even though it's a contender for Oscars, it hasn't attracted many viewers
  • He says many people may not be ready to see a movie about our ugly past
  • Granderson: "12 Years" deserves best picture for sure, but who will see it?

Editor's note: LZ Granderson writes a weekly column for CNN.com. A senior writer for ESPN and lecturer at Northwestern University, the former Hechinger Institute fellow has had his commentary recognized by the Online News Association, the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. Follow him on Twitter @locs_n_laughs.

(CNN) -- The image of Solomon Northup's body hanging from a tree -- noose around his neck, hands tied behind his back, feet barely touching the ground -- is uncomfortable to look at.

And Steve McQueen, director of "12 Years a Slave," does not spare the audience with an expedient exit.

There is no overbearing soundtrack to drown out the sound of him gasping for air. For what feels like an eternity, McQueen makes us watch. He makes us listen. He makes us know the truth about slavery in a way no Hollywood film in recent memory has. The beatings are not brief. Christianity is not spared. There are no scenes of white heroes racing against time to save him or undo the injustice that is being done.

As he hangs there, we hear the birds singing. We see the sun fading.

LZ Granderson
LZ Granderson

We feel the fear coursing through the body of a slave who risks her own life just to bring him a sip of water.

The film shows unflinching moments that shed an unflattering light on something our culture prefers to gloss over, perhaps as a way of healing. Just like calling people who point out racial inequality "race baiters" is supposedly an effective way to move on.

Oh, we're willing to talk about slavery. But we like the stories told like "Lincoln": inspirational, with redeemable characters and very few scenes of actual slavery because, well, that's a downer.

Because of this, McQueen's Oscar nomination for best director is welcomed, Chiwetel Ejiofor's performance as Northup worthy of praise and the best picture nomination for "12 Years" deserving.

And yet, in one important way, something is missing.

For if the Oscars were held today and "12 Years" won best picture -- as some favor it to do -- it would be one of the lowest-grossing winners of the award ever. With proceeds just a hair under $40 million since its October release, it would join "The Hurt Locker," "The English Patient," "Amadeus" and "The Artist" as the only best picture winners not to crack the top five at the box office. To put this in perspective, the latest Tyler Perry in drag movie made more in less than a month.

There is a chance that could change, because historically, there is a surge in interest in movies that are Oscar darlings.

Even "The Hurt Locker" -- the lowest-grossing best picture winner to date -- enjoyed an 11.9% increase in box office receipts after Oscar nominations were announced. When the film won best picture, it jumped 13.6% from the week prior to the win.

Perhaps in anticipation of a similar increase in demand -- and on the heels of a best drama win at the Golden Globes -- Fox Searchlight is reportedly planning to bring the movie to 500 more theaters this upcoming weekend, with the goal of raising the total to 1,000 in the next two weeks. Before the Globes, "12 Years" was in only 114 theaters.

The film will be in position to make more money. The question is: Who will go see it?

'12 Years a Slave' based on true story
Hollywood's black renaissance?

Because word on the street is that "12 Years" is an unapologetic portrayal of our ugly past, and Americans prefer our history with some nips and tucks.

Even now, as we are about to celebrate the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., we prefer to talk about the impact of his dream while limiting the mention of the nightmares that gave birth to that dream.

How many of us will pay to see the scathing truth when refuge in fantasies are far more comforting? How many of us are ready for a film whose narrative is not dominated by white protagonists but rather a free black man who, in 1841, was kidnapped, tortured and sold?

To see "12 Years" is to find out that "nigga" as a term of endearment is a misguided delusion. To see "12 Years" is to see the full story of what those who fought under the shadow of the Confederate flag gave their lives to keep. To see "12 Years" is to see that the claim that the black people who picked cotton in the field with the star of "Duck Dynasty" were "happy" is a racist insult.

The movie is an unsanitized portrait of a nation's shameful past. It is two hours of breathing in the antebellum South and then walking out of the theater trying to pretend the stench is all gone.

There is no question that "12 Years a Slave" was the best picture of 2013. But as the box office receipts show, not many of us are ready for that kind of honesty.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of LZ Granderson.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT