Finally, a film gives realistic view of slavery

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I was in 11th grade in 1977 when "Roots" captivated the country for an entire week with what would eventually be considered a rather sanitized depiction of American slavery.

Until then, American slavery in mass popular culture had been limited to "Gone with the Wind," the "Mandingo" novels and a blaxploitation film here and there.

Last year, director Quentin Tarantino released "Django Unchained," a bloody revenge fantasy about American slavery that had more in common with the blaxploitation sensibility of the 1970s than it did with mainstream TV fare like "Roots," which feels musty and quaint in hindsight.

My biggest problem with Mr. Tarantino's film was its tendency to put one of the most horrific chapters in American history on the same moral plain as "Grand Theft Auto" -- complete with absurdly cartoonish villains and a hero with a six-shooter who overcomes every obstacle by aiming true.

"Django" proved exceptionally popular with critics and audiences for whom American slavery is an abstraction in need of campy, over-the-top violence to validate it as a fitting subject for a movie. That film's ridiculously high body count stoked vicarious thrills while also serving to distance the audience from slavery's more compelling and complicated reality.

With the release today of the film "12 Years a Slave," British director Steve McQueen will never be accused of sentimentality or nihilistic irony.

Instead of concocting a tale from whole cloth like Mr. Tarantino -- and to some extent like Alex Haley did with his novel "Roots" -- Mr. McQueen based his film on Solomon Northup's once famous but nearly forgotten autobiography, "12 Years a Slave." Northup's narrative, as the title suggests, is about being born free in New York but spirited away to slavery in Louisiana for a dozen years.

For Mr. McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley, basing the film on an actual narrative written by a black man in the 1850s makes more sense than centering the film around a fictional superhuman slave or a sympathetic white protagonist, as is usually the case.

Because Solomon Northup was a literate and relatively privileged professional musician before he was kidnapped and reduced to slavery, we feel his horror more acutely. We feel his rage at being viewed as a commodity without rights despite his obvious intelligence.

Initially, Northup resists efforts to break him and to force him to take a name assigned to him, but he relents once the reality of his predicament settles in. Hundreds of miles from home and condemned to a life of plantation drudgery where he is expected to carry his burden like every other animal, Northup sees the wisdom of keeping his ability to read and write to himself until he finds the opportunity to run away.

Even more than its realistic depiction of plantation rape and explosive and random brutality, "12 Years a Slave" is the first film I've ever seen that got the paternalism, paranoia, religious hypocrisy, racism and self-deception of the slave-owning class right.

"12 Years a Slave" is also a necessary corrective to the suggestion bubbling up among apologists for the Confederacy that slavery wasn't half as bad as depicted. After all, no "sane" slave owner would willingly damage or kill his "property." This myth holds that among the white American slave owners, absolute power did not lead to widespread abuse; consequently, the slaves loved and respected their masters.

Poor whites were far worse off than enslaved blacks in this strange scenario, because blacks had their material needs taken care of by their benevolent white Christian masters. While every slave narrative ever written puts a lie to this ridiculous notion, it took a black British director to point out its stupidity.

The film also highlights the passivity of the slaves who had to find individual ways of dealing with the crushing weight of human bondage. Those who chose not to run away or kill their masters are as much the ancestors of today's black Americans as those who escaped via the Underground Railroad. They survived long enough to pass down their genes, so we owe them all a tremendous debt, despite compromises made along the way in the name of survival.

The push-back against "12 Years a Slave" will be intense. There will be the usual howls of "The Africans sold slaves to the Europeans in the first place" and "Where is the movie about the black slave owners?"

The fact that some see moral equivalence where none exists is proof we aren't as removed from that dark era as we ought to be.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNormanPG.

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