Movies are entertainment, but because movies are also art, they are not universally pleasant. Tragedy opens doors for us to explore other aspects of our humanity, parts of ourselves that comedies don’t touch. But then there are movies about real-life tragedy. Why is it not enough to have the real-life stuff in life? Because movies also bear witness to the wide range of human experience and perception. We watch movies to understand not only ourselves, but our world and our history. We watch knowing that it might not be literal truth, but that it expresses something true about our humanity.
In the movie Galaxy Quest, aliens come to Earth, and understand humanity’s backlog of movies and television to be the “historical documents.” It’s a funny conceit, and yet also it begs the question, why doesn’t our media better reflect our values?
In the case of 12 Years a Slave, the film is beautifully, carefully, and thoughtfully made, filled with wonderful performances, especially Chiwetel Ejiofor, but I think ultimately it’s an important film because it seeks to set the record straight on slavery in movies, and does so effectively.
You might say, We all already know how bad slavery was. Do we really need to dwell on it? I think the answer is yes. Because moving pictures are a huge way we engage with and understand our world, fair and accurate depictions of things that really happened are necessary. We need to be reminded about the reality of things, and the most effective way to do so is to make movies and tv shows about it, because these mediums reach more people, and are more accessible.
But isn’t it just slavery porn? I understand this perspective; when you commit something to a moving picture, it becomes a fetish. Movie pictures are in themselves beautiful and fascinating, often regardless of what is being depicted, so anything you commit to moving image becomes in some way beautiful and fascinating, too. This is why, when making a movie about problematic things, it’s important to take care how they are presented. Is it possible to make a war movie that doesn’t glorify war? Merely by depicting violence, those violent images become eye candy to us. This is a prickly thing, and I don’t really know what to do about it, because I think trying to show things “as they actually were” is important.
Movies about slavery are akin to movies about the Holocaust. They are both terrible periods from history that we still struggle to understand, “How could this have happened?” There is a troubling tendency for Holocaust movies to pull their punches. “Maybe the Holocaust wasn’t so bad?” some movies suggest (for example, Life is Beautiful, and more recently, The Book Thief). The other extreme is to focus on what monsters the Nazi’s were, which is easy; the message is that they were monsters, but we’re not like them, we’re the good people.
I think for slavery, the Hollywood tactic has been to simply not address slavery directly, instead focusing on the romanticism of antebellum South (ie Gone with the Wind, which presents slavery at its paternalistic best), or the Civil War itself, without actually engaging with the reality of slavery (last year’s Lincoln, and many others). A major exception to this is Roots, the television mini-series from 1977.
Last year’s Django Unchained brought attention to slavery (as did Lincoln, indirectly). In Django Unchained, Tarantino gives posthumous revenge to slaves against slave owners, and the film doesn’t shy away from brutality. I’ve also heard Roots, the mini-series that told the story of slavery to a generation of Americans, is being remade.
12 Years a Slave tells the story a free black man who becomes a slave through illegal means, and perhaps because he starts out free in upstate New York, we are able to more easily slip into deep empathy with the character. One of the most effective aspects of the film for me was the portrayal of the slave owners. They are not shown to be monsters, but complicated people. Some treated their slaves kindly (in relative terms), but they are still hugely benefiting from, and perpetuating, a grossly unjust system. History is not populated by monsters, martyrs, and saviors, but by people. This reminds me of Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil. Although there is no bureaucratic system like in the Nazi party, slavery was so widespread and common in the south, it seems like it was easier to opt in than opt out.
Perhaps that is the most powerful message of 12 Years a Slave. Not that all slave owners were monsters, but that slave owners were people, both good and bad people, and they all took part in an awful chapter of this country’s history. I think this is a much harder pill to swallow, because indeed, we are all implicated as human beings, and it forces us to take a good long hard look at ourselves.
12 Years a Slave is playing at Images Cinema through Thursday, 12/5, at 4:30 and 7:30pm.