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
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 1938 GMT (0338 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT