FOR TWO YEARS in a row we have seen significant films about oppression and struggle nurture public consciousness. Selma and 12 Years a Slave invite us to reimagine iconic moments closer than we usually think, their protagonists more like us. Slavery had not been portrayed in such visceral fashion in a mainstream film before 12 Years. Before Selma, images of Martin Luther King Jr. had never quite transcended the almost superhuman projections that accrue from his martyrdom and decades of being co-opted by cultural mavens from Apple to Glenn Beck.
These films create new benchmarks for the mainstream depiction of black history, black struggle, and wider perceptions. But entertaining portrayals of inspiration contain a powerfully dangerous substance that needs to be handled with care. The cathartic tears shed at a film about other people’s suffering and heroism can also be a narcotic, implying that the work has been done. Think of all the talk about freedom struggles after Braveheart, or challenging the principalities and powers after The Matrix. The problem was, most of it was just that. Talk.
Countercultural critic Armond White suggests that the danger of such films is that viewers “are encouraged to profess an inheritance they do not earn”—watching Selma is not the same thing as participation in social struggle. This is a problem, not just for the personal integrity of audiences, but for the world, because feeling something is not the same thing as doing something. Schindler’s List swept the Oscars in 1994, where speeches invoked the plea that “never again” should genocide be permitted. It was only days before the Rwandan genocide began.