Oscars Dilemma: Is It OK to Joke About Slavery?

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Stephen Fry is the latest host to run into problems trying to make light of the year’s most serious movie

British comic Stephen Fry has become the latest to learn a tricky lesson from this year’s awards season: Make jokes about “12 Years a Slave” at your own peril.

Hosting the British Academy Film Awards on Sunday, Fry tried out a few gags, including one in which he told lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, “In the nicest way possible, you were so good in ’12 Years a Slave,’ I wish it was ’24 Years a Slave.'”

And immediately, the tweeting and sniping began. “Bad start. Joke in dubious taste about ’12 Years a Slave'” … “’12 Years a Slave’ is a serious film & Stephen Fry mocking it” … “Anyone else think Stephen Fry getting these ’12 Years a Slave’ jokes terribly wrong?”

Also read: BAFTA Awards: ’12 Years a Slave’ Pulls Out Shocking Win (Complete Winners List)

The guy should have seen it coming. “12 Years a Slave” is a critically-acclaimed movie, an award-winning film and a harrowing chronicle of a shameful time in history.

But over the past couple of months, it’s also turned out to be a problem for awards shows, where jokes about the top movies are often the starting point for any host.

But when you’re joking about a movie that depicts a horrific chapter in U.S. history in unflinching detail, you have to tread very, very carefully.

“The glaringly obvious point,” veteran awards-show writer David Wild told TheWrap, “is that slavery is not funny.”

And while a number of comics have struggled to find some way not to ignore one of the year’s most significant films in their hosting duties, few have drawn more laughs than grimaces and groans.

The best, perhaps, were Tina Fey and Amy Poehler at the Golden Globes. The two were bantering about films when Poehler said that after watching “Slave,” “I’ll never feel the same way about slavery again.”

Fey did a double take and started to ask, “How did you feel before?” but Poehler, playing a wide-eyed dimwit, moved on to the next joke with a brazen cluelessness that worked because of the pair’s expert timing. But still, the temerity of the gag got some criticism on social media.

Also read: Golden Globes Review: Tina Fey and Amy Poehler Kill on a Weirdly Entertaining Night

“Tina and Amy’s [joke] was essentially about Amy playing dumb,” longtime Oscar writer Bruce Vilanch told TheWrap. “It wasn’t a joke on the movie. Nevertheless, elements of the blogosphere took the standard offense.

“I thought it was a pretty brilliant bit, but it just shows you how sensitive a subject it is … I don’t think you can do jokes around that movie, or the word slavery to begin with.”

Vilanch, in fact, called slavery “the new s-word,” and likened the topic to the Holocaust, which he said he and Whoopi Goldberg studiously avoided joking about when she hosted the Oscars the year of “Schindler’s List.”

But at the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards a few days after the Globes, Aisha Tyler was neither as wary as Vilanch nor as adept and Fey and Poehler when she talked about the fact that “Slave” was so beautifully photographed “it almost made me want to go back to that time.”

When the audience groaned, she compounded the offense by going from borderline to crude as she talked about how she liked the time she lived in, because that very morning “a white guy made me scrambled eggs and then he took it downtown, you know what I’m talkin’ about.”

Wild said the only way he could envision writing a “12 Years a Slave” joke would be to play off the movie’s title and relate it to something else, like marriage – but that’s also a minefield, as David O. Russell learned last month. The director had to apologize after joking, “Talk about ’12 Years a Slave!’ in reference to Jennifer Lawrence‘s commitment to the “Hunger Games” franchise.

Also read: David O. Russell Apologizes For Comparing Jennifer Lawrence’s ‘Hunger Games’ Role to Slavery

Partly, though, the joke depends on who’s telling it. At the Directors Guild Awards, DGA president Paris Barclay (who is African American) made essentially the same joke as Russell when he said his family looked at his term as president as “two years a slave,” and pulled it off without visibly discomforting anybody in the room.

But on the  same show, host Jane Lynch had to scold the crowd after she referred to “Slave” as “a movie about an educated black man struggling to prove his real identity to those who want to put him down – or, as Barack Obama calls it, Tuesday.”

When the joke landed with something of a thud, Lynch snapped, “Don’t hold your applause – it’s a good joke!”

And later in the show, African-American actor Nick Cannon introduced the reality-television award by quoting “Duck Dynasty” patriarch Phil Robertson’s comments about how the blacks he grew up with were “singing and happy” as they picked cotton.

“I think I recall that scene from Mr. McQueen’s movie, ’12 Years a Chorus Boy,'” he said – whereupon the camera cut to a shot of McQueen, who was stonefaced and unsmiling.

See video: Jon Stewart on ‘Duck Dynasty': Phil Robertson Has Right to Say Ignorant S–t on TV (Video)

“On a practical level, award shows are places where the audience gets as much camera time as the host, and nobody wants to be seen laughing at an obviously questionable joke,” said Vilanch. “So you get a lot of non-committal faces staring up at you and into the camera.”

The Producers Guild Awards fell into a different pitfall when it came to “12 Years a Slave.” When “Slave” stars Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o walked onstage to serve as presenters, and again when its producers came up to accept an award at the end of the night, the PGA band played Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours),” a song that was taken by some to be a rather jokey and cringeworthy play on slaves being delivered as property.

It turned out that the song, according to a PGA spokesperson, had been chosen by the bandleader without knowing what would win. While “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” was most likely chosen to refer to the opening of the envelope that would reveal the names of the winners, the charged nature of “12 Years a Slave” made an innocent moment seem tone-deaf.

See video: ’12 Years a Slave’ Featurette: Solomon Northup Descendants on Freedom Anniversary

Maybe it’s belittling McQueen’s achievement to insist that awards shows use kid gloves around “12 Years a Slave”; maybe they ought to feel free to do with it what they’d do with any other movie.

But matters of tone are important, and there’s been something off about the way this season’s awards shows have come to terms with the film.

The ball’s in your court, Ellen DeGeneres.