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.
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.)
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.”
There’s always the chance—or at least the hope—that some of Cyrus’s audience will stumble on one of the recent movies about our tortured racial history and make some kind of connection. As I tried to get a fix on my own conflicted response to the emotional clout of 12 Years a Slave, I thought back to the first dramatic treatment of race I was exposed to, the original stage version of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, which I saw at age 11 in my hometown of Washington, D.C., in 1961. At that point in its history, the nation’s capital and the public schools I attended there had officially been desegregated. Raisin was a first step toward disabusing myself of that illusion. My “integrated” school was essentially white. So was my neighborhood. I finally began to notice the huge gap that separated my Washington—as well as the official Washington visited by tourists—from the racially divided southern town whose black population, much of it in poverty, supplied “the help” for middle-class households like my own.
There’s a moment early on in 12 Years a Slave that reminded me of the revelatory effect Raisin had on me back then: As the newly kidnapped Solomon cries, “Help me! Help me!” and wrestles impotently with his chains in a cell in Washington, McQueen’s camera cranes upward to capture the alabaster city on the hill, the Capitol glinting in the sunlight and indifferent to the rank injustice at its doorstep. It’s a harrowing juxtaposition that might make any teenager look twice at today’s Washington, where, incredibly enough, one of our two major political parties is still essentially all-white, and where white legislators in both parties have responded to the Supreme Court’s recent castration of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 largely with apathy, not urgency.
If the days when an Uncle Tom’s Cabin could sway an entire nation are gone with the wind, we can still hope that some young person somewhere is being moved—whether in front of a screen or while cradling a book or in a theater—by a piece of art that wants to make a difference in the world. But while such small victories still count, they shouldn’t be confused with the real-life battles that will have to be fought tooth and nail by adults if they are to be won. Reflecting on the Obama era in a symposium on 12 Years a Slave in the Times, McQueen said, “The problem is: When he’s not the president anymore, will these films still exist?” That’s hardly the problem. The problem comes when we go to these movies, have a good cry, and imagine that, through some kind of Hollywood magic, they will bring about change.