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.

  • fred

    I think films like “12 Years a Slave” & “Schindler’s List” you never touch with a 10 foot pole, just don’t go there if you value your reputation and career. Historical films like that are just too painful, emotional and personal to even attempt to skate around. There are just some films that are untouchable and not even approachable when it comes to making jokes, “12 Years” & “Schindler’s List” or such film. I know I didn’t leave the theater in a joyful happy mood after watching “12 Years a Slave”, but what I saw is a very powerful and strong film that left it’s mark on a very quiet and stunned audience. Like “Schidler’s List” it’s an absolutely brilliant film, it’s just not a happy go lucky one. I hope it wins Best Picture this Sunday, because in my honest opinion it sure deserves it.

  • http://www.sweeneysays.com Sweeney

    It seems the essential issue is that jokes about sensitive topics need to be sure that they don’t mock the victims. Fry’s joke failed because it made light of the experience of slavery. Poehler’s joke was infinitely more successful because it highlighted part of why the film is so important: that this film brought home the lived reality of slavery in a very real, visceral way. The joke didn’t belittle that, rather it poked fun at a kind of pervasive privilege and ignorance that left some section of the population oblivious to that reality until seeing this film.

    That’s a basic rule with making jokes about sensitive topics. It’s not a question of certain topics being off limits but taking responsibility, as a writer and comedian, for taking care not to further subjugate an oppressed group. Use humor as a mechanism to mock the insane logic of the oppressor, not to undermine the suffering of the oppressed.

    • redbluegreen

      Well put…I agree Poehler’s joke was more about ignorant or uncomfortable (white) audiences…not about slavery itself.

  • Matt

    You should come check out The Toscars version, and see how justice has been served.

  • Blame Mame

    I wish people on social media sites were as quick to offer their love and support as they are to offer their outrage…

  • Luke

    People shouldn’t make jokes about slavery, anymore than they should make jokes about The Holocaust. You do so at your own peril.

    • Lisa Campbell

      I agree. This would not even be a question if it was about the Holocaust.

  • Logon

    Fry’s joke was a riff on the typical compliment of wishing for more of something you like, only in this case it was also “inadvertently” a wish for more of something horrible with the subtext commenting on horrible nature of slavery. Its simply far too subtle for rabid politically correct crusaders who are too busy looking for a slightest of slights to pounce on.

    • sonnymorgan

      Something just aren’t a joke, Logon. You’re better than that, my friend.

  • George G

    I see The Toscars annual parodies version of “12 Years a Slave” is called “12 Years a Stripper”. I doubt it takes much notice of the Politically Correct! We won’t know until the screening next week at The Egyptian in Hollywood.

  • Eugene

    Ultimately it’s all about context and intention. I think it’s dangerous to say what can and can’t be made fun of. Where does one draw the line then?

    That said, I too am aware of the annual Toscars event. Glad to see that others are! I look forward to seeing what they’ve done with all the films. “12 Days a Stripper”….hahahahaha!

    • sonnymorgan

      I’ll say it for you. Joking about slavery is wrong and shouldn’t be made fun of. My ancestors were mutilated, raped, lynched, murdered, whipped, molested and castrated. Their families were separated and their entire identity and history was lost to them, my friend. I would never wish that on you or anyone else and if it happened to you, I would certainly not defend someone who joked about it happening to you. I don’t have to know you to know that you are better than that statement. There, the line has been drawn.

  • SonnyMorgan

    Remember that anytime in history where there has been human suffering, that it was just that…human beings just like me and you and our families that were brutalized and murdered. How would you feel if someone made jokes about those type of atrocities happening to your loved ones? Would you say, ‘Oh, we shouldn’t censor what to joke about’ or ‘Everyone is just so sensitive’. No, I think you would feel a different way. What if the joke was about Paul Walker? Think about that. Is one man’s death any more serious than hundreds…no hundreds of thousands more? Loving others means understanding their pain as you would your own. This is the will of God. There are too many other funny things to joke about in this world and in entertainment that are okay. It shows a lack of talent and a lack of character.

  • detseason

    ANYTHING can be funny if the joke is well thought out, intelligent, and in the right context. ANYTHING. Rape, incest, child abuse, the holocaust, slavery, it doesn’t matter. I’m not saying all jokes about those topics will work, and most are offensive and wrong, but to completely exclude something as “off limits” is the first step to censorship. And come on, that first joke about “24 years a slave” is pretty funny. There’s a fine line to be sure, but he wasn’t making jokes about slavery, he was saying he wished he could enjoy the actress’ performance longer. It was a play on words in the title of the film, not an endorsement of slavery. Some people are just looking for things to be offended by. This shouldn’t be one of them.

  • conbug

    I am thinking if “12 Years A Slave” doesn’t win best picture I can see where there will be liberal bloggers and liberal pundits outcries of outrage and even labelling the Academy as being RACIST. I can see it coming. Can you.

    • Luke

      I am thinking that you’re a fool and a troll.

  • JAB

    It is not OK to joke about slavery & this magnificent film. How many jokes about “Schindler’s List” does anybody break out to get the crowd rolling in laughter?