The Wall Street Journal film critic Joe Morgenstern has cheered 12 Years a Slave as a furious polemic that “seems certain to transcend the movie realm and become a new reference point in contemporary culture.” Such certainty is the latter-day equivalent of a quote Baldwin attributes to “an American liberal” in his essay on protest novels: “As long as such books are being published, everything will be all right.” It would be great if Morgenstern and the others who are saying much the same (e.g., “A game-changing movie event!”) are correct about the transcendence of 12 Years a Slave. But in all likelihood the film’s polemic won’t even move the editorial page of Morgenstern’s own Rupert Murdoch–owned paper, which has led the charge for those new voter-identification laws that will suppress voting by descendants of the black characters onscreen.
At the Toronto film festival in September, the producer Harvey Weinstein, a Barack Obama supporter who has released three recent movies with African-American protagonists, said that the sheer quantity of these movies is in itself a sign of racial progress. It’s a “renaissance” he attributes to what he calls “the Obama effect”: The first black president is “erasing racial lines.” But in truth, the uglier events of the past five years, reinforced by polling that finds a resurgence of pessimism about racial progress among both whites and blacks, suggest that the net effect of Obama’s White House tenure has been to draw new racial lines, not erase the old ones. If anything, you could argue that the current flood of movies about black America is shadowed by a rise in racial animosities during the period of their release. Just as 12 Years a Slave was opening to ecstatic praise, a GOP precinct chair from North Carolina named Don Yelton could be found on The Daily Show, itself a booster of McQueen’s film, unashamedly defending his state’s new law imposing voting restrictions. “If it hurts a bunch of lazy blacks that want the government to give them everything,” Yelton said, “so be it.” He has since been forced to resign, but he’s taken back nothing and is probably on his way to coronation as a right-wing folk hero. It’s hard to imagine that he and the constituency he represents will be moved to change their views—or, more to the point, their actions—should the tale of a Louisiana slave or a White House butler triumph on Oscar Night.
Though there have been other exemplary film and television treatments of slavery and the civil-rights era in recent decades, none has matched the impact of ABC’s legendary eight-part mini-series Roots in 1977. That adaptation of Alex Haley’s genealogical history of his family’s path from Africa in 1750 to post-emancipation Tennessee in 1867 (albeit fictionalized, as we’d later learn) was hailed by Vernon Jordan, then the executive director of the National Urban League, as “the single most spectacular educational experience in race relations in America.” In the view of the Washington Post, Roots was not just “a stunning passage in the mass culture of America” but one that “trampled the old mythology into the dust.”
The “old mythology” in question had been enshrined in Hollywood’s previous epics about the Civil War and its aftermath, the two biggest box-office hits in the history of movies up to that time: D. W. Griffith’s racist account of Reconstruction, The Birth of a Nation (1915), and David O. Selznick’s adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind in 1939. Roots was a phenomenon of comparable cultural scale and mass appeal to those predecessors. In a day when there were still only three networks to choose from in prime time and home video recording was a novelty, Americans rushed to their sets each night to see how slavery turned out. But even Roots, for all its viewership (some 85 percent of television households saw at least some of it), did not change America as much as its enthusiasts predicted, and it certainly didn’t stick a fork in Mitchell’s sentimental portrayal of chivalrous southern gentry and their contented slaves. Indeed, only the last of the eight consecutively aired Roots episodes beat the back-to-back ratings records set a year earlier when Gone With the Wind made its broadcast network debut in two parts as NBC’s Bicentennial gift to the nation.
Gone With the Wind, which was repeatedly rereleased in movie theaters into the late nineties, is not as culturally prominent as it once was, but Mitchell’s roseate view of the Confederacy as a noble Lost Cause lingers. It can’t be dismissed as the fringe credo of those protesters who unfurl the rebel flag in front of the Obama White House. In 2010, Bob McDonnell, the current governor of Virginia, released a seven-paragraph proclamation of Confederate History Month that could have been written by Mitchell herself: It honored “the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers and citizens during the period of the Civil War” and made no mention of slavery. That omission wasn’t an oversight. “There were any number of aspects to that conflict between the states,” the governor explained. “Obviously, it involved slavery. It involved other issues. But I focused on the ones I thought were most significant for Virginia.” It’s to be remembered that McDonnell, who would later recant under political pressure in his increasingly purple state, is seen as a moderate Republican, not an extremist outlier, and was a potential presidential contender. (He still might be now, were it not for the career-ending financial scandal that threatens to make him a criminal defendant in the final months of his term.)