It was in the same year as McDonnell’s proclamation that the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam given to 12,000 high-school seniors found that only 2 percent of them knew that the striking down of “separate but equal” educational facilities in Brown v. Board of Education was prompted by the existence of racially segregated schools. In a 2011 CNN poll marking the 150th anniversary of the Civil War a year later, 42 percent of Americans said that slavery was not the main reason why the southern states seceded from the Union.
No wonder film critics as different as those of the Times, the New York Post, and Hollywood Life felt they had to address the continued sway of Gone With the Wind in their raves of 12 Years a Slave. All offered some variation on the thesis that the movie was, at long last, an antidote to (as Manohla Dargis put it) “all the fiddle-dee-dee” of its nearly 75-year-old predecessor, the film that was supposed to have been trampled into the dust by Roots more than a generation ago. Maybe, but tomorrow is always another day at Tara, and it’s probably wishful thinking that 12 Years a Slave will consign Mitchell’s magnolia-scented view of the South to oblivion any more than the far more widely disseminated Roots did.
With all due respect to James Baldwin, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel did change the country, whatever its merits as literature. In his recent book Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America, the cultural historian David S. Reynolds makes the case that “no book in American history molded public opinion more powerfully.” It has retained a bad rap over the years largely because it spawned an endless profusion of broad theatrical adaptations that turned “Uncle Tom” into the epithet for an obsequious minstrel-show stereotype well removed from what Stowe actually wrote. (Her defenders have included Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois.) The magnitude of the book’s impact in its own time is unassailable. Published in 1852, a year after Moby-Dick and a year before Northup published Twelve Years a Slave, it was what we’d now call a viral best seller; only the Bible outsold it. No one knows whether the quotation attributed to Abraham Lincoln upon meeting Stowe—“Is this the little woman who made this great war?”—is fact or myth. But as Reynolds writes: “Whether he actually said it is moot. In his era, many claimed that Stowe had brought on the Civil War.”
Margaret Mitchell’s romantic view of the Civil War South was a direct rebuke to Stowe and her rending account of slavery’s cruelty. “I am happy to learn that Gone With the Wind is helping to dispel the myth of the South that Uncle Tom’s Cabin created,” Mitchell wrote to a fan. Walter White, a successor to Du Bois as a leader of the NAACP and a ferocious adversary of the Ku Klux Klan, judged Mitchell’s mission a success, observing that “whatever sentiment there was in the South for a federal anti-lynch law evaporated during the Gone With the Wind vogue.”
In our digitized and far more diverse America, where the idea of a national cultural event seems an oxymoron, no work in any medium could have the vast audience or impact of any of these lodestars: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Birth of a Nation, Gone With the Wind, or even Roots. Movies about race and politics—movies that aspire to art and sophistication, period—have long since become a boutique niche of the film industry, just as the high-end television series that have largely usurped such movies play to a fraction of the audience that tuned in for network-television hits in the analog era.
The best hope for 12 Years a Slave, The Butler, and their peers, treacly as it sounds, is that they touch young viewers who happen to see them, even if such films never get a hearing with the tea-party brigade. In that context, the African-American critic Wesley Morris’s response to 12 Years a Slave in Grantland is particularly arresting when he recounts the horrific scene where the sociopathic owner of the Louisiana plantation, Mr. Epps, awakens Solomon and his fellow slaves in the middle of the night, ordering them to come to the big house to dance in their nightgowns for their masters’ entertainment. “I watched the joyless look on all those black faces and the amusement on the faces of their white owners,” Morris writes, “and I thought about last August 25. I thought of the handful of black burlesque dancers who jiggled and bounced in animal costumes for Miley Cyrus at the MTV Video Music Awards. Cyrus couldn’t have known the uncomfortable history she had reached into, what it means for black people to perform this sexually, this anonymously for a white woman, but there she was traipsing, like Mrs. Epps, among her fine beasts.”