The Right-Wing Backlash to '12 Years a Slave'

Steve McQueen's acclaimed film is the new target of right-wingers who hate "white guilt" and love racial resentment.

If “Best Picture” is supposed to award the film that excels in all categories, then 12 Years a Slave was a worthy choice. From its performances to its cinematography and music direction, Steve McQueen’s story of Solomon Northup—and his journey through the antebellum South—is a tremendous accomplishment. By any measure, it deserves its award.

Unless, that is, you’re a little critic named Rush Limbaugh. Then, the success of the film is just further evidence for your resentment and paranoia. To wit, here’s what he had to say about it on his radio show: “If it was the only thing that movie won, it was gonna win Best Picture. There was no way. It didn’t matter if it was good or bad. I haven’t seen it. It was going to win. It had the magic word in the title, ‘slave.’”

Limbaugh believes 12 Years won because of the power of liberal guilt. But if there’s anything to take away from Hollywood’s history with race, it’s that the industry is far more likely to award films that highlight liberal virtue. As Adam Serwer notes for MSNBC, “The film industry is a place where the stories of people of color are still rarely told through narratives they themselves create.” Indeed, if 12 Years had fit the mold of films like The Help, Crash, and Driving Ms. Daisy—that is, if it were about the redemption of a sympathetic white protaganist—then Limbaugh would have a point.

Limbaugh, it should be said, isn’t alone. His resentment is echoed by a small group of right-wing writers who see white guilt as one reason for the film’s success. There was Breitbart’s Christian Toto who, before the Oscars, wondered if white guilt weren’t a key part of the film’s campaign for Best Picture. Likewise, on Monday, Debbie Schlussel disparaged the event as “PC” and complained that 12 Years fit the “usual Hollywood victimization narratives.” For her, the film represents “the never-ending cries of racism that justify Obamaphones, Obamacare, welfare, minority set-asides, affirmative action, and every other form of reparations now plaguing America.” “Race merchantry,” she asserts, “lives on at Oscar.”

Of all of these, my favorite complaint comes from James Bowman of theAmerican Spectator who attacks Steve McQueen—the director—as an anti-slavery propagandist, as if this were a bad thing:

“If ever in slavery’s 250-year history in North America there were a kind master or a contented slave, as in the nature of things there must have been, here and there, we may be sure that Mr McQueen does not want us to hear about it.”

It’s when you find yourself denouncing someone for unfairness to slaveowners that you should step back and reevaluate your life.