Why haven’t more movies been made about American slavery? Hollywood studio racism is certainly a prime factor; but even for determined anti-racists, there’s also the aesthetic problem of creating a compelling film drama.
By Gerald Peary
Can a filmmaker possibly simulate the daily horror of Southern slavery? Jack the heat up to 110 degrees in a movie theatre and then project one continuous shot of shackled, nameless African-Americans, backs bent and sore, picking cotton. For a fifteen-hour period, sundown to sunset.
Filmmaker Steve McQueen doesn’t do anything remotely like the above in his 134 minutes of 12 Years a Slave, a decent film, and a sincere and civil one, but hardly the breakthrough anti-slavery masterpiece many have claimed. (Another Fuse view of the film.) For one, it’s difficult to stay in the brutal reality with A-list movie stars around every bend. There’s Paul Giamatti having a great time as a wheeler-dealer slave dealer, only missing the twirling mustache, and, hey, that’s Brad Pitt suddenly appearing to deliver the film’s didactic message. And when McQueen self-consciously holds on Chewetel Ejiofor’s saintly face toward the end of the movie, I imagine half the audience thinking: Best Actor Oscar!
How does McQueen strive to make the audience feel the pain of slavery? There are some effective scenes in which his subjugated are made to stand about naked, slabs of dark meat, to be worked, to be raped, to be bought, bartered, sold. But McQueen’s pièce de rèsistance is a kind of cheat, a too-facile battering of his viewers: having a slave on screen being whipped and beaten, whipped and beaten, and then, the slave moaning in hurt, the camera coming up close on the raw, sliced, bloodied back. Sure, the (arthouse) audience is horrified, sure the (arthouse) audience gasps, but we’re in the territory of the most manipulative melodrama—not far from Mel Gibson’s graphic torturing of Jesus to stir the religious masses in his The Passion of the Christ.
For me, McQueen’s great movie, and the most visceral, is his first one, Hunger, in which your nose is really pushed down through the bars into a hellfire Northern-Irish British prison. You’re in there with Bobby Sands and his fellow IRA members for their insane hunger strike. Yes, it is insane—they’re grubby naked and willfully starving, drowning in their own feces, on a lunatic death trip. And if their English captors are evil incarnate, the militant wing of the IRA are hardly winged altar boys. Terrorists perhaps, in the name of a noble cause? With all that ambiguity, and craziness on both sides, it’s the stuff of potent drama. But McQueen’s second feature, Shame, had one blunt point, and every scene hammered it in: the protagonist’s sex-addict life is so, so, so, so, so alienating. And the same with 12 Years a Slave: slavery is so, so bad.
Why haven’t more movies been made about American slavery? Hollywood studio racism is certainly a prime factor; but even for determined anti-racists, there’s also the aesthetic problem of creating a compelling film drama. Every good human opposes slavery, as they should. Where are the stakes? Slavers are evil, and they are, and slaves are heroes for what they endured, which they are. Simon Legree and Uncle Tom. To see the story any other way is unconscionable. So making a movie, one is fairly stuck with a treacly setup of good versus evil, Luke Skywalker opposing Darth Vader. And you can’t get much “gooder” than Ejiofor’s earnest, righteous Solomon Northrup, the last guy on earth who deserves to be enslaved. (As at least one skeptical critic has suggested, couldn’t Steven Spielberg be behind the helm of 12 Years a Slave?)
Was it just a few months ago when everybody cool admired Django Unchained, and Quentin Tarantino won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay? The word now is that Tarantino’s movie was phony stuff and that 12 Years a Slave, based closely on Northrup’s memoir, is, at last, the authentic movie. Well, be informed that Henry Louis Gates, Jr., historian of slavery, who was an advisor on McQueen’s movie, is also a huge fan of Django Unchained. (See Fuse review of Django.) He interviewed Tarantino about it for his on-line magazine, The Root. Am I alone (perhaps) in preferring, as a screen hero, Jamie Foxx’s rowdy, impolitic Django to Ejifor’s impeccably behaved Northrup? Might I also argue that slavery in Django Unchained is shown in an even tougher way than in 12 Years a Slave, with the forced ”Mandingo” fight of two slaves until the death of one, also a slave being torn apart by dogs trained to attack black men?
How do you dramatize a triumph over slavery? 12 Years a Slave celebrates with the freedom of its protagonist, who gets to go home to his family. His revenge will be later through his writings, where he finally indicts the plantation that enslaved him. Another way, for Django Unchained, is instant vengeance: to blow up the plantation and every racist living on it. And for Django to ride off exuberantly into the night.
Which is the proper path?
Perhaps wisdom should be taken from the words of Shoah filmmaker, Claude Lanzmann, that any dramatic attempt to recreate the Holocaust is intrinsically a lie, an obscene lie, no matter if it’s Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS or Schindler’s List. The same rule goes for slavery movies. For me, the most telling accounts of the institution of slavery aren’t on screen but in print. There is nothing to match Frederick Douglass’s extraordinary autobiography, or Nat Turner’s own fiery narrative describing his bloody insurrection, or William Styron’s deeply moving novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner. I’m sorry I haven’t yet read Solomon Northrup’s 12 Years a Slave, said to be fabulous memoir, in lieu of the overrated movie.
Gerald Peary is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of 9 books on cinema, writer-director of the documentary For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess.