18th February 2014

The 2014 Oscars and the ‘Victim Narrative’

Sarah Murray discusses The Wolf of Wall Street’s place amongst the hard-hitting Oscar-nominated narratives this year

Author and film critic Bret Easton Ellis has been talking recently on his online podcast series about ‘Victim Narratives.’ Ellis identifies a trend in modern cinema toward the ‘cult of victimization,’ and claims that this trend can be clearly recognized in the Best Picture nominations for the 2014 Oscars. The nominations include features that tell the story of African-American slavery, of individuals suffering from AIDS, and of Captain Phillips’s plight at the hands of Somali pirates. However, Ellis picks out Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street as an anomaly in this pattern.

The Wolf of Wall Street has sparked a number of debates and discussions, and provoked a varied range of critical opinions. Critics have noted that the film drops the ‘F-Bomb’ more than any other in cinematic history. Another key concern has been the ways in which the film glamorizes Wall Street culture, and the unrelenting greed and hedonism of the elite. However, what is arguably much more interesting is the critical focus on ‘Victimhood.’ In the end of The Wolf of Wall Street, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort does not appear to have learnt anything after his release from prison, as he gives an enthusiastic talk on sales. Critics and audiences have expressed outrage that Belfort was not sufficiently punished or condemned by the film, and at the fact that the ‘victims’ of Belfort and Stratton Oakmont are not represented or sufficiently avenged.

Ellis claims that the so-called ‘victims’ of Belfort were just as dumb and greedy as he was. Blinded by their own greed, they failed to see through the smooth talk and the promise of money to see the lame scam that was Belfort’s company, Stratton Oakmont. On the theatrical poster for The Wolf of Wall Street, DiCaprio as Belfort invites us with a smile and open arms to the Belfort show, as chaos ensues in the background. We the audience watch this show, this unapologetic roller coaster ride of debauchery, transfixed for the three hours running time. The final shot of the movie is Belfort’s audience looking back at us, Belfort’s other audience. Our relationship to the film instantly changes. We are forced to recognize ourselves in the role of spectator, more enamoured than the blank faces that look back at us in that closing shot.

Ellis argues that ‘Victim Narratives’ are passive narratives, and that The Wolf of Wall Street deserves to win the Best Picture award for defying this tendency in modern cinema to hail the victims as the new heroes. I would completely disagree, and argue the opposite. Let me take Dallas Buyers Club and 12 Years a Slave as an example. The characters within these films are not passive. They are, in fact, incredibly active. Captivating in their refusal to be victimized, their ability to endure and remain hopeful no matter what grips us and leaves us feeling inspired. In Dallas Buyer’s Club, Matthew McConaughey’s Ron Woodruff stubbornly refuses to lie down and die, after he is diagnosed with HIV and given 30 days to live. When Woodruff finds that AZT, an antiviral thought to prolong the life of AIDS patients, actually causes his health to deteriorate further, he seeks alternative medications. Woodruff begins to sell them to others suffering from AIDS once he finds that they work. However, as they are not FDA approved, he faces fierce opposition from them. Woodruff is far from passive; his every move is a ‘fuck you’ to victimhood. Similarly, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Solomon Northup, in 12 Years a Slave, refuses to give up hope that he will be freed and reunited with his family. His story is full of hope and endurance under the most unimaginable pain and suffering. His character is anything but passive.

Ellis is right in saying that the 2014 Best Picture nominations tend to tell the story of the victim, but I disagree entirely that this is a negative thing that brings the category down. There have been many fantastic releases this year, as the nominations show, precisely because they depict characters railing against oppression and victimization. Their activity, rather than accepting the state of passivity enforced upon them, will continue to inspire us.

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