Wednesday, October 30, 2013

12 Years A Slave

This is no "sentimental Gone With The Wind kitsch" as David Denby of the New Yorker Magazine observed, but a stark and powerful story of slavery in the pre-Civil War South and how it brutalized not only the slaves but the people who owned them.

The story is based on the book written by Solomon Northup, a free man from Saratoga Springs, New York, who was kidnapped and sold into bondage and endured the dehumanizing effects of slavery for 12 years.

I had recently read Frederick Douglass's memoirs and recognized much of what he suffered as a slave in Northup's story. Although Douglass was born into slavery and escaped to freedom, unlike Northup, who was born a free man and was forced into slavery, both men's stories of unimaginable suffering and humiliation remind us of this country's horrific original sin and how the South was unwilling to give up its barbaric addiction to a culture that forced its people to dehumanize their slaves so they could justify keeping them in unspeakably cruel and brutish conditions.

David Denby called 12 Years A Slave "...easily the greatest feature film ever made about American slavery."

After having seen Django Unchained and The Butler, I have to agree.  This is a radical film that challenges the viewer to confront the stark reality of "America's primal wound," and refuses to sentimentalize the savagery that was practiced in the pre-Civil War South.  And it is presented with elegance and historic clarity I rarely see in Hollywood films of this kind.

Do yourself a favor and go see this.  And take your children. This is real American history and all its bloody truth in the lash and the chain, brought to the screen by British director, Steve McQueen.

British Shakespearean actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, as Northup, is outstanding.

New York Times Review:

“12 Years a Slave” isn’t the first movie about slavery in the United States — but it may be the one that finally makes it impossible for American cinema to continue to sell the ugly lies it’s been hawking for more than a century. Written by John Ridley and directed by Steve McQueen, it tells the true story of Solomon Northup, an African-American freeman who, in 1841, was snatched off the streets of Washington, and sold. It’s at once a familiar, utterly strange and deeply American story in which the period trappings long beloved by Hollywood — the paternalistic gentry with their pretty plantations, their genteel manners and all the fiddle-dee-dee rest — are the backdrop for an outrage.


  1. Thanks for calling attention to this film. I haven't had the chance to see it yet, but isn't it about time we had a movie of substance to make up for the typical "historical" drama like Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. This is a country where people will tell you The Flintstones is history.

    I wouldn't downplay the power such things have. Uncle Tom's Cabin as hokey as it sounds today had a huge influence on American opinion and I hope this does too, not only in terms of racism, but the whole theater of power and hopelessness, privilege and oppression being staged today.

    Slavery is, I think, the major reason we're not one nation and never have been. It has much to do with the perversion we see in American morals and the corruption of our religious tradition - our antipathy to humanism. Any creed that justifies slavery can easily justify any kind of oppression and justify tolerance of being oppressed - and isn't that typical of the kind of godbothering that we see and hear? Right wing politics is all about justifying the rights of the powerful and right wing religion is its servant.

    1. Well said Fogg and I had never formulated the thought that we are not one nation and never were in direct relation to slavery but that rings so true. Being black in America is a whole different set of circumstances than being white in America and while we may empathize with our African-American brethern, there is no way to truly know exactly what that is like - to grow up facing prejudice and hatred just for the color of your skin.
      And isn't it so true if you can spout some religious claptrap you can justify anything you do.

  2. I was first going to comment at PE. Then I realized what's the point.

    Slavery has existed since antiquity. It has always been wrong. It has always been dehumanizing. It has always been about power of someone or some race.

    Those who understand understand. Those who don't likely never will.

    As the human race continues to find new ways to enslave.

    Yet we practice self immolation without analyzing what is wrong with the way we're wired for the last.. well, since we evolved to human status.

    Good day...

    1. RN - I don't usually find myself in complete agreement with you but on this comment I'd say we are totally on the same page.

  3. Perhaps we're wired for all kinds of ugly stuff. Chimps aren't nice either, but we do have the ability to act against our nature when it's in the best interest of others and if we do, as you say, find new ways to enslave, exploit, take advantage of other people we might just, maybe take a lesson from the past.

    I'm not too optimistic, but we might. It's a worthwhile goal if nothing else.

    1. Agree. I do have a slightly different take though. For me I think in terms of rational self interest because unless down in an act of self defense it is never rational to harm another person.

      Those you harm may very well harm you in return. Those you abuse, attempt to control, enslave physically, emotionally, financially or in any other way may very well return the action when circumstances change.

      Thinking in terms of long term rational self interest should lead one to the conclusion that respecting the rights of others and helping wherever possible is only logical and therefore rational.

      Something about do into others as you would have them do unto you. Ultimately founded in rational self interest.

      Pure self directed selfishness to gain power or unethical or unearned financial gain at the expense of another or others is decidedly not in ones long term rational self interest.

      My take on what would be utopia. Something I believe humans, like chimps are likely never going to achieve.

    2. If you're talking about enlightened self interest in terms of real enlightenment, it probably would include behavior we could call altruism and yes, the do unto others thing is exactly right. But humans are so supremely good at justifying whatever is it they want to do. "Enlightened" things were written about how it was really the best thing for Africans to enslave them and we taught them they would be rewarded in heaven for going along with the program.

      Pigs will fly long before we live in peace and harmony in this world.

  4. This country's "...horrific original sin..."

    I just love it when elitists write hyperbole.

    Slave owners accounted for less than 20% of the population in the South and they were most concentrated in the fertile areas of South Carolina and Mississippi (the two states with the greatest concentration of slave owners.

    Thus in terms of "this country" they represented what? The 1% of their times?

    Slavery was more an economic necessity rather than a "cultural artifact" and as such couldn't we view capitalism today, and our current "1%" as slavery and slave owners?

    I want to see this movie, but not to arrogantly gloat over the fact that I am, as a liberal, or as a northerner, or whatever somehow superior to those from "The South" but rather to wonder about the human condition and all the ways we still enslave each other.

    1. "Slave owners accounted for less than 20% of the population in the South and they were most concentrated in the fertile areas of South Carolina and Mississippi (the two states with the greatest concentration of slave owners.

      Thus in terms of "this country" they represented what? The 1% of their times?"

      So we're to ignore or accept the degradation of human beings because it occurs in only a small percentage of the population?

      I don't understand your statement.

      Would you be saying the same thing if, say, only 20% of the population of the South enslaved Jews? Broke up their families? Raped their women? Hanged their men and boys on whims?

      In my opinion (and I'm hardly "elite') that a country that knowingly allowed and did nothing about a system that allowed this monstrosity and did nothing about it--even if it affects 1% of Americans, it is still evil. And if you've read the book "Slavery By Another Name," you would know that a form of slavery continued up until the 1970s.

      No one is "gloating." You saw that yourself. But the facts are that the northern states got rid of the evil that was slavery. And yes, we may treat each other in a less than perfect, way. But that imperfection that we deal with does not compare, or even come close, to what African-Americans endured as slaves. Even under our economic system, no one can come into your home and rape your women at will, drag your men folks from their homes, beat them, and, if they wish, torture and hang them.

    2. I never said anything about ignoring anything.

      But in your own example, "Would you be saying the same thing if, say, only 20% of the population of the South enslaved Jews? Broke up their families? Raped their women? Hanged their men and boys on whims?" You acknowledge the belief that depravity in our society is only reflected in the South.

      I think the North did a fine job of exhibiting the same depravity in its treatment of Native Americans.

      I think that the depravity of the North's treatment of Native Americans was pretty close to the same level of depravity as that shown to blacks in the South.

      Thus, if the point of the movie is to show the extent to which a people will lower themselves to exploit economic gain then yes, that would be "original sin" and one that both the North and the South share.

      As far as the aftermath of slavery or "slavery by another name" that occurs, from my perspective even to today, then again the North is an accomplice to that crime. Because it was liberal democrats, who needed the southern democrats to pass legislation, who kept that system afloat.

      The concept of society, the concept of a social contract, is by nature a compromise and if you think about it, history is littered with examples of the compromises society makes between good and evil.

      That in no way expresses an excuse for slavery or a defense of slavery. Don't jump to any conclusions there.

      Yes, northern states did get rid of the evil that was slavery in regards to African-Americans, but that was because it had no economic need for slaves. But the treatment of Native Americans by the north shows that it did not rid its self of evil period.

      If we studied the history of Christianity, Islam, and or capitalism for that matter, we find that this history is littered with examples of "...can come into your home and rape your women at will, drag your men folks from their homes, beat them, and if they wish, torture and hang them."

      Thus depravity, thus the original sin, is not unique to the South.


  5. Apparently living in the past gives some comfort?

    Tao is correct.

  6. This post is about a review of a film that dealt honestly with pre-Civil War slavery in the south. When you and RN see a film on the way America treated its native people and then write a review on it, I'd be happy to have a conversation about that.

    But you have deliberately hijacked this thread and diverted the discussion away from the merits of the film.

    And it appears you've done so because you think it's a form of "gloating" to acknowledge the fact that slavery was a stain on this country's beginning, and that stain belonged to the people in the south who fought a war where 600,000 lives were lost and that precipitated the assassination of President Lincoln, all to keep slavery in place.

    It has always been a puzzlement to me why so many Americans get so uncomfortably touchy when slavery is brought up in either a film or any discussion. I can't count how many times I've heard the vapid complaint from folks who believe we should leave this all behind us since slavery doesn't exist any more, and besides that, their relatives weren't around when it happened.

    The Germans, including those who were not around during WWII, deal with their awful history and their complicity in their attempted genocide of the Jewish people in Europe. And they do so by not running away from history, or by talking about how other countries in Europe did what to whom, but by facing the awful truth and trying to understand why it happened. And to have that understanding and remembrance part of their national character.

    IMO, that's how mature, intelligent people deal with the horrors of their past.

    1. I don't get "uncomfortably touchy" whenever a discussion starts about slavery. What I get uncomfortable about is our inability to get beyond "us" and "them" or "The North" and "The South."

      Then we sit and wonder about what's wrong with southerners.

      We need to discuss slavery and the evils of Jim Crow but we need to find a way to discuss it in a manner that does not involve "The South" or "Southerners".

      Its probably too late anyway so what does it matter.

      In regards to your comparison with Germany....

      One thing the Germans and the Japanese have NOT done, is acknowledge their complicity in their war crimes. The older Germans will not talk about it and the few that do, will counter whatever claims you make with things such as, "....well, we suffered to..." or "...we didn't know what was happening...."

      The grandchildren of Nazi's are shocked to find out, if they even seek out the information, what their grandparents did during WWII.

      In Japan, the third generation still doesn't know.

      So exactly how do we have a conversation about race? About slavery? When its always crouched in "The North" and "The South"? That form of discussion leads to nothing but defensiveness on the part of southerners.

      No one in Germany and or Japan for that matter has come up with a good logical reason for why they all of the sudden decided to murder 6 million jews and why an educated and cultured society either cheered or sat quietly by while it happened.

      Forget Hannah Arendt and The Banality of Evil because I am talking about conversations amongst high school educated folks...

      Exactly how do you expect a Southerner to respond to slavery? How exactly would you respond to a Native American who claims that Boston was land you stole from his/her ancestors?

  7. So, Tao and I lack intelligence and maturity IYO?

  8. Tao wrote:

    " You acknowledge the belief that depravity in our society is only reflected in the South."

    I disagree. I don't see where Shaw is saying Slavery was the Southern Sin that the North did not share in. I'm just not seeing it nor hyperbolic elitism.

    The slow progress of mankind is away from slavery. The last to give it up inherits the most guilt, I think -- or is left holding the bag, if you prefer. Many countries gave it up voluntarily. The CSA did not give it up voluntarily. But if slavery was only in the South, and it was, I don't see how it follows that anyone is claiming that only Southerners share in any part of tolerating slavery. The USA was a slave country for nearly a hundred years and our legal institutions racist for many years more. Nolo contendere, but not necessarily mea culpa.

    Shared guilt is not without gradations. The law has always recognized this. Whether or not the heart of the rescuer is pure, he's still the rescuer. Doesn't Oskar Shindler bear less shame for the Holocaust than Goebbels? Whether or not Lincoln was perfect in modern light, he put an end to an immoral legal institution. He shares less collective 'original sin' in my opinion than Bobby Lee or my openly racist Confederate ancestors for that matter.

    Maybe it's because I haven't had my second cup of coffee but I also don't see where the awful history of mankind ameliorates one man's or one country's evils. I'm not suggesting that you're apologizing for slavery. I know you're not, but I'm suggesting that Shaw wasn't implying what you reacted to.

    There were abolitionists on both sides and the North had its Copperheads and racists too. Of course that's true, but guilt is not binary. There are degrees.

    Yes, as RN said, people are nasty creatures, singly and collectively, but that's an observation and shouldn't be used as an excuse for being nasty creatures. All in all, neither Shaw nor the movie is asking anyone to do anything other than to remember that evil is always here, posing as morality and economic necessity and patriotism and God's will.

    1. I can agree, that the one "left holding the bag" is probably the best way to look at the issue. I know Shaw was not doing anything but using the words of someone else to promote a movie that she liked.

      But, like the Holocaust, we have to ask ourselves how could people live with this evil and not be appalled. I remember as a 15 year old standing at the perimeter fence of Dachau Concentration Camp and looking out at the town and realizing, "....THEY KNEW...."

      How exactly did non slaveholding whites go about their lives without batting an eye?
      When you look at the census data from 1860 and you realize that in the south at that time whites made up 59.9% of the population, slaves were 38.7% and freed slaves were 1.5%. In three states, Louisana, Mississippi, and South Carolina blacks actually were the majority.

      Then you read something like this:

      When you have folks like Rand Paul claiming that "property rights and contract rights" trump civil rights and voting rights then you have to get beyond "The North" and "The South" and beyond "good" and "evil" and think differently.

      Maybe we should have had a war crimes trial after the Civil War, maybe we need a "Righteous Among the Nations" to highlight the fact that "guilt is not binary. There are degrees." Because when you use terms like "The North" and "The South" in reference to slavery you are conceptualizing guilt as binary.

    2. Yes, I've been to Dachau too. The stench from the crematorium must have been obvious to everyone. Incidentally, my experience with Germans is that they do know quite well and were taught in school, but that isn't scientific. I remember when studying in Vienna in 1967, seeing posters saying Nie Mehr Krieg und Fashicmus but that's not quite the same thing either.

      But I do think movies such as this - and I haven't seen it yet - serve a purpose because we've got the same tendencies as any other people to rewrite our past and I remember slavery being downplayed in history classes. We have a duty to remember -- not necessarily to wallow in guilt, but to remember the personal horror of everyday life and how ordinary people participated in it in everyday life. The "let bygones be bygones" attitude I see seems too much like sweeping history under the rug.

      I get your point about assigning guilt to the South and feeling good about ourselves, but I just don't think that's where Shaw was coming from. Maybe there should be a movie about the race riots in East St Louis in 1917 and in Chicago in 1919 to illustrate just how similar the attitudes were in the North.

  9. The last time I visited Germany, I, too, went to Dachau. I also remember my hosts telling me that Dachau had the opportunity to change its name after WWII, but the city decided to keep it. To remember. And that's the heart, I think, of what movies like 12 Years A Slave are about: Remembrance. But also truth-telling.

    I am fully aware of how the northerners treated African-Americans as they migrated to cities like Boston, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. But one crucial fact is that Jim Crow was the law in the south.

    The details of what southerners and northerners did to African-Americans are all out there for us to see. But I think, as I said in my previous comment, to remember what we did to our fellow citizens is facing the awful truth and trying to understand why it happened. And to have that understanding and remembrance part of our national character, I think, is important.

  10. Shaw and Fogg, I agree with your perspective.

    Slavery was a peculiar institution in the U.S. It was predicated on a belief that Africans were not people in the same sense as Whites were people. Thus when the institution of slavery ended, southern whites, and yes it was predominantly in the South, passed Jim Crow laws to maintain separation of the races and to enforce inequality of the races. If slavery had been followed by genuine efforts at reconciliation and integration, it is unlikely that we would still be talking about race in the 21st century.

    Jim Crow laws weren't based on any economic needs, they were designed to maintain a separate, black underclass and grounded in a belief that blacks were not the same as whites but were by nature inferior and less than human. The hate behind Jim Crow laws was palpable and lasted well into the 20th century. I was born into a world of Jim Crow. Where I went to school, ate, shopped, had a drink of water and went to the bathroom was restricted by Jim Crow laws. I'm not young anymore but neither am I ancient; I'm 58 and I don't speak of Jim Crow as an abstract concept that I studied in school but as the defining experience of my life.

    I'm not going to get into some long debate with anyone about all of this but I have no qualms about talking about what the South did. It doesn't excuse the North for its role in allowing the institution of slavery to persist for so long but the South made a business out of enslaving people based on skin color. Those who didn't have their own slaves still benefited from the institution, any black person was inferior to every white person and those who didn't own slaves outright still took advantage of their superior status in the hierarchy of the South. After the legal ending of slavery, the South followed up by continuing to denigrate and subjugate black people via Jim Crow. Lynching became a pastime in the South only after slavery ended. You didn't hang a source of free labor but after slavery, The goal became to keep blacks in their place, to ensure that we didn't dare dream that we were equal to white people. The horrors done to the Native people of this land are horrific in and of themselves but this film isn't about all horrors, just the horror of slavery which too many people in this country seem incapable of facing head on.

    What shocks me is how this film appears to take so many people by surprise. I read Northrup's book when I was a teenager. Good Lord, the book was published in 1853. His story and other firsthand slave narratives have been out there for more than 100 years but only studied in African-American Studies courses in a few college classrooms across the country. We have lived among you since the inception of this country but very few of you know our history but instead base your views of slavery on the sanitized clap trap that passes for history in books written by whites for whites.

    Shaw, I think that you sum up the essence of the the focus of this film very well: "And that's the heart, I think, of what movies like 12 Years A Slave are about: Remembrance. But also truth-telling." Thank you.

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  12. "Exactly how do you expect a Southerner to respond to slavery? "

    A good starting point would be to stop pretending that it was all about the economy. Slavery began as an economic convenience, a source of labor at no cost, but it persisted because whites convinced themselves that dark skinned people of African ancestry were inferior. As you point out, Tao, only 20% of southerners were slave owners, yet that 80% who didn't own slaves wholeheartedly supported the institution of slavery. They participated in capturing runaway slaves, the beatings, the hangings, the raping of black women. A southern abolitionist was a rare breed.

    I expect a southerner to acknowledge that there is no justification for slavery. It matters not that it has been done in other places, during other eras; slavery and its progeny, Jim Crow is this country's horrific original sin.

    Why should we have to present some revisionist history that avoids the truth? The South needs to drop its defensiveness. It started a war that tore apart this country so that it could maintain its social and economic culture centered around slavery. Although the South lost the war, it continued to promote hate and disdain for blacks through 100 years of Jim Crow. While riding through the streets of our state capital where I live, I see pick up trucks and soccer mom SUVs with confederate flags proudly displayed on the bumper. The newest thing that has arisen with the tea party is to fly a confederate flag on a pole mounted in the bed of your pick up truck. Another thing way that a southerner can respond is to acknowledge that the South lost the damn war and it is never going to rise again.

    I'm southern, how in the hell do you expect me and the millions of other black southerners to respond to slavery? "Aw shucks, we know that y'all didn't mean it?" The first step in moving on to a healing place is admitting that you were wrong, and the South was wrong. And what I am tired of is the attempts to try and place the South's actions in any context that seeks to minimize or justify slavery or Jim Crow. As for the North, of course it wasn't perfect but there was some safety in the parts of the North. You never read of anyone fleeing to the South to escape slavery.

    The very question is predicated on a sort of arrogance, all southerners aren't white and your question, Tao, is about white southerners, so say so. Black southerners have been responding to slavery for generations; it's about time that white people started listening.

    1. Sheria,

      "whites convinced themselves that dark skinned people of African ancestry were inferior."

      And of course that idea is still as prevalent in some American hearts as pickup trucks with Confederate battle flag bumper stickers are in Central Florida.

      Every last fried chicken and watermelon stereotype survives and not just in Dixie. When I worked in Chicago, I heard racist jokes every day and people I know who had come from the South insisted that Chicago was worse. The Scurrilous commentary when Harold Washington was running for mayor of Chicago - and after he won, was all over the place. I'll never forget hearing a man I worked for reminiscing about his Catholic High School experience: "the brothers sure taught us to hate the *******, didn't they?"

      I'm ten years older than you and yes I remember segregation of all sorts, institutional and de facto. I remember very fondly an incident when my father who had had a very racist upbringing in the South noticed a George Wallace campaign sticker on a pickup truck parked on our farm and pushed it into the Galena river." My mother had long since beat the racism out of him.

      But anyway, I don't think of movies like this as being self flagellation and more than Schindler's list or Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee even though they make many people uncomfortable. the ":let the past stay in the past" position seems very common in the South and it's true that focusing on all the sadness and injustice and evil that has plagued us for a million years is unproductive, we owe it to our ancestors and our progeny not to forget and not to redefine it away as though their lives were nothing.

  13. Shaw - regardless of your original intent for this post, I believe whenever we can have a conversation about our history, especially the dark, evil, uncomfortable past then we should embrace the opportunity to discuss, share and enlighten.
    Sheria - the truth should be told, without the sugar coated lies of economics and apologies for ignorance. Slavery has more to do with power, hate, fear and perversion than it does with economics or ignorance. I feel so fortunate that you are here in the Zone with us because your knowledge base is vast, your articulation exemplary and your first person analysis priceless to those of us who wish to acknowledge the true past, heal the wounds and move forward as more enlightened individuals.
    When the Bible speaks of slaves obeying their masters, etc the reference is to a situation of indentured servants working off a debt. Moses on the other hand dealt with a type of slavery that God found unacceptable and is more like the type of slavery that took place in this country.
    Man's inhumanity to Man - Biblical Egypt and the Jews, Germany and the Jews, Roma and Gays, America and the Indians and Africans - we are a species that sometimes seems bent on destroying ourselves but I'm always looking for those rays of hope to hold on to when people rise above all that they have been brought up with and reject it. When they speak out and embrace a new reality.

  14. The extraordinary 12 Years a Slave thrusts its lead character (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the audience into slavery's moral and psychological morass more fully and directly than any movie before it.


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