Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Have you seen the year's best film?

By LZ Granderson, CNN Contributor
updated 11:30 AM EST, Fri January 17, 2014
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
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri July 11, 2014
Michael Werz says in light of the spying cases, U.S. is seen as a paranoid society that can't tell friends from foes.
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Fri July 11, 2014
Eric Liu explains why in his new book, he calls himself "Chinese American" -- without a hyphen.
updated 11:12 AM EDT, Fri July 11, 2014
John Bare says hands-on learning can make a difference in motivating students to acquire STEM skills.
updated 9:20 AM EDT, Fri July 11, 2014
Karl Alexander and Linda Olson find blacks and whites live in urban poverty with similar backgrounds, but white privilege wins out as they grow older.
updated 12:20 PM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Frida Ghitis says a poll of 14 Muslim-majority nations show people are increasingly opposed to extremism.
updated 2:28 PM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spending more on immigation enforcement isn't going to stop the flow of people seeking refuge in the U.S.
updated 4:48 PM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Faisal Gill had top security clearance and worked for the Department of Homeland Security. That's why it was a complete shock to learn the NSA had him under surveillance.
updated 2:41 PM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Kevin Sabet says the scientific verdict is that marijuana can be dangerous, and Colorado should be a warning to states contemplating legalizing pot.
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
updated 7:37 AM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Tom Foley and Ben Zimmer say Detroit's recent bankruptcy draws attention to a festering problem in America -- cities big and small are failing to keep up with change.
updated 8:01 AM EDT, Thu July 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
updated 1:53 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
updated 5:07 PM EDT, Wed July 9, 2014
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
updated 8:08 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
updated 3:03 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
updated 6:37 PM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT