Just because critics have proclaimed 12 Years a Slave a “landmark event” and “easily the greatest feature film ever made about American slavery” does not mean it’s as tedious as such eat-your-spinach accolades suggest. The black British artist turned director Steve McQueen has tried harder than anyone else in commercial filmmaking to convey the physical barbarity of slavery along with its perverse racial, economic, sexual, and Christian trappings. All that’s missing in the extended lashing scenes is 3-D. His movie is grueling in a naturalistic way that the equally violent Django Unchained didn’t aspire to, and, like Quentin Tarantino’s operatic fantasia, it’s never preachy or boring. There are naysayers, of course—the reliably dyspeptic African-American critic Armond White has accused McQueen of hawking “torture porn”—and the movie is not without its flaws. As is de rigueur in American films on this subject, a white star (Brad Pitt as an abolitionist) arrives to save the day—although, as Courtland Milloy, a black columnist at the Washington Post, has helpfully calculated, at least we see “fewer good whites than usual.” They don’t upstage the movie’s real-life hero—Solomon Northup, a free black man of Saratoga Springs, New York, who was kidnapped in 1841 while visiting Washington, D.C., and spent the next twelve years in bondage in the fetid hell of antebellum Louisiana.
Still, as I fought back tears at the end of the film, I questioned why I was crying. Like many, if not most, of the white and black adults you’d expect to turn out for 12 Years a Slave on opening weekend in downtown Manhattan, I arrived at the theater knowledgeable about the history on tap. Was I crying because I was moved all over again by the movie’s lucid take on America’s primal sin? No doubt. But then what? Art has no responsibility to promote political action, but surely there has to be some connection between the deluge of movies about African-American history—along with Django and Lincoln, this is the third A-list movie about slavery in two years—and the real world we are living in today. After taking in 12 Years a Slave, I found myself recalling James Baldwin’s indictment of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and its modern literary offspring in his famous 1949 essay “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” Baldwin decreed that “the novels of Negro oppression written in our own, more enlightened day,” however worthy, were pointless because they added nothing to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s moral of a century earlier, as voiced by the abolitionist character Miss Ophelia: “This is perfectly horrible! You ought to be ashamed of yourselves!” And let’s be honest: However elegantly rendered, that is the message of 12 Years a Slave to a white audience. It’s the message we knew going in.
What should also matter to a contemporary audience seeing a movie about the evils of slavery are the intractable vestiges of slavery’s legacy that persist even now. There are more than a few, the most explicit of which may be the push by politicians in states like Texas and North Carolina, with the blessing of the John Roberts Supreme Court, to enact new Jim Crow laws that deter minority voting. Up north, we have our own issues: It’s but a short subway ride from a Manhattan multiplex exhibiting 12 Years a Slave to Barneys New York and Macy’s, which have been accused of racially profiling black customers, with consequences that have included false detentions and other humiliations. Tears shed about the past in a movie theater don’t cost anything. Better that they lead to a renewed civic engagement with such present ills once we’re back on the street.
Which leads to the more important question: Could this film possibly preach to the unconverted? Could it reach Americans who at this late date, in the 21st century, still haven’t gotten Stowe’s message? Will it even be seen by any of the millions who swear by Glenn Beck? This question might be asked of all the recent movies that touch upon America’s unfinished racial business: Lee Daniels’ The Butler, the Jackie Robinson biopic 42, and Fruitvale Station, as well as Django and Lincoln.
Liberals are fond of chastising the right (accurately) for living in a media echo chamber of Rush and Drudge by day and Fox News by night, with no other reality penetrating the bubble. The left has never been able to replicate that mass-media ecosystem; an exclusive diet of, say, the Times and NPR would be far more porous to contrary views than 24/7 of Fox and friends. But whenever mainstream media start gushing en masse about a cultural work with an uplifting historical or political message, a smaller liberal echo chamber does spring up that I’ve at times been part of: We tend to assume that a wide audience will be converted by the power of the new masterpiece at hand, especially under the tutelage of critics, editorial pages, magazine cover stories, and awards ceremonies. Much as the right can convince itself that all of America must regard Obamacare as the worst piece of legislative blight in the country’s history, or that easy access to guns is a God-given right tantamount to freedom of speech, so liberals can become prisoners of our own bubble. Surely, we think, no one could possibly watch the protracted whipping scenes of 12 Years a Slave without seeing them as unusually effective depictions of slavery’s horrors. In reality, some hostile viewers might dismiss the same scenes as over-the-top hectoring designed to rub white moviegoers’ noses in guilt.