This week I finally got to see 12 Years a Slave, which is no mean feat considering that taking care of toddlers makes going to the movies difficult. I'd been wanting to see it since I first heard about it, in large part because my students read part of Northup's narrative in my American history course. I was also wondering whether America would finally have a film from a slave's perspective about the true realities of slavery. Hollywood has produced several fine films about the Holocaust, and many other moving accounts of horrible atrocities in other countries, such as the Khemer Rouge's genocide in Cambodia (The Killing Fields), the Hutu slaughter of the Tutsi (Hotel Rwanda), and paramilitary slaughters in Central America (Salvador, Romero).
When it comes to America's greatest historical atrocities, slavery and the genocide of its first nations, much less shows up on the screen, and if so, very rarely, if ever, is the story told from the perspective of slaves or Native Americans. Historically Hollywood has produced potent images downplaying the violence of slavery and implicitly justifying white supremacy. The infamously pro-Klan The Birth of a Nation was America's first epic blockbuster, and a brilliantly executed piece of racist propaganda. Later, during Hollywood's "golden age," the Antebellum South was a commonly romanticized place, drenched in gauzy moonlight and lacy Spanish moss. Slaves were loyal servants, treated like family and devoted to their masters. One only has to think of Gone With the Wind or Shirley Temple in The Littlest Rebel.
In recent decades such glorification of the Antebellum South and Confederacy has faded from the screen, but it has not been replaced by realistic portrayals of such an important aspect of American history. Django Unchained, for example, was essentially a cartoon that had more to say about Quentin Tarantino's obsession with 70s exploitation cinema and spaghetti westerns than with the American past. Amistad tried to speak to this absence, but that film is about the Middle Passage, and not the institution of slavery in America as it was experienced on a daily basis by those unfortunate enough to be trapped in it.
12 Years A Slave is always locked into the perspective of Solomon Northup, so much so that when the camera goes inside of the big house, the audience feels alien there, as if they don't belong. In older films, it was the slave quarters that were off limits. The symbols that once showed the quaintness and beauty of the old South are twisted in 12 Years A Slave and made malevolent. For example, director Steve McQueen shoots the paddle wheel of the riverboat close up and ominously, its churning scary in that it is bringing Solomon from Washington to the hell of the New Orleans slave market. Nobody is singing "Old Man River." The Spanish moss in the plantation trees looks absolutely sinister and foreboding, and the film shows explicitly how the blood and sweat of slaves went into building the quaint plantation gazebos. McQueen captures the real beauty of the South's nature, both in the use of light as well as in the soundtrack's bird and insect noises. However, the beauty on display is presented as an ironic contrast to the horrible acts committed in its midst. The reversal of these symbols is nothing short of brilliant.
12 Years A Slave matters because it could, and should, bring about a permanent change in how the American past is treated on film. Perhaps instead of delving into the crimes of other nations, we might seriously and forthrightly do the same for our own nation's atrocities. Not only does the film skillfully reverse the meaning of old symbols, it is well-directed, finely written, and wonderfully acted. (I'd say it's the best film I've seen in a theater in quite some time.) I can only hope that more films of its ilk will be created in the years to come.