Paul Green, a longtime reader, commenter (as Papa Whiskey), and tipster at Gates of Vienna, reviews the latest — ahem — courageous cinematic examination of “institutionalized white privilege” in the United States as expressed in 19th-century chattel slavery.
12 Years a Slave — Portrayal or Propaganda?
By Paul Green
The new movie 12 Years a Slave carries forward a tradition of didactic depictions of American slavery that began with the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly in 1852. The tradition extends through Alex Haley’s 1976 novel Roots, made into a television mini-series the next year, Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved, also made into a movie the year after its publication, and Charles R. Johnson’s 1990 novel Middle Passage.
Works of this sort, and those of its sister genre the slave narrative, were originally intended to advance the abolitionist movement. Stowe herself was moved to begin her novel by the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, by an 1849 slave narrative titled “The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself”, and by her sister-in-law, who wrote her that “if I could use a pen as you can, Hatty, I would write something that would make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is.” Stowe did just that, in a book that sold 300,000 copies in the first year of its publication and did much to arouse anti-slavery sentiment in the North. In due course attitudes in both the North and South so hardened over the issue as to ignite the conflagration that left at least 750,000 soldiers dead.
12 Years a Slave is itself based on a slave narrative: “Twelve Years A Slave,” published in 1853 by Solomon Northup, a freeborn New York black man kidnapped and sold to a slave dealer in Washington, D.C. in 1841. Northup was transported by riverboat to New Orleans and sold first to a comparatively benign owner and then to a Simon Legree-style psychopath. After enduring a punishing ordeal, he managed to send a letter north with the help of a sympathetic Canadian worker and was eventually delivered from bondage.
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” includes a number of scenes designed to shock, and these have become conventions of the genre. 12 Years a Slave employs them all: the traumatic separation of families, savage and sanguinary whippings, cruel and capricious masterhood, and white sexual exploitation of black female slaves. Field hands toil as overseers crack whips over their heads. A slave patrol hangs captured runaways in a lonely grove. One slave is forced to scourge another. A young black woman is raped by a drunken white master. The film has been crafted to pound at the sensibilities of the viewer, and as one black reviewer, Demetria L. Lucas of theroot.com, complains, in this it was too effective for her:
As good as “12 Years a Slave” is, it is also the most awful experience I have ever had in a theater. At that same 20-minute mark where I acknowledged I should have waited to see it, I also wanted to walk out. As an unflinching look at the brutality of slavery, “12 Years a Slave” is hard to take. Other stories of slavery such as “Roots,” “Django Unchained” and “Amistad” allow for moments of light or catharsis throughout or at their conclusion; “12 Years a Slave” doesn’t. It’s unrelenting and harrowing, and it beats up the audience as much as it does the characters, then does it again and again before there’s time to heal.
What can be the intent of such a cinematic beat-down? As manifest an injustice as the “peculiar institution” of chattel slavery was, it ended nearly a century and a half ago, after the most terrible war in American history. The film’s intent, then, cannot be to advance an abolitionist movement that met with complete success — nor even to advance a civil-rights movement that did likewise a century later. Is it instead to educate its audience about the nature of slavery as it once existed? Not really, for it does not do that, either. As the historian Thomas Fleming notes in his new book A Disease In The Public Mind: A New Understanding of Why We Fought The Civil War, many slaves — including Josiah Henson, whose narrative informed Harriet Beecher Stowe — were much more than viciously oppressed stoop laborers. Henson himself became an overseer of the farm on which he worked, and not only did he superintend its workforce, he brought its wheat and tobacco to market and “bargained skillfully to bring home astonishing profits.” Eventually he decamped to Canada with his family and set up a sawmill that was so successful that he took his lumber to England for exhibition at the 1851 London World’s Fair. Fleming cites other research by “a new generation of historians, who are trying to get beyond the myths perpetrated by abolitionist critics and southern defenders of slavery.” He concludes that
In the past, black men and women have been given very little credit for the South’s remarkable wealth. It is time to revise that mindset. The slaves participated in the system, not as mere automatons, but as achievers, frequently mastering the technology of the South’s agriculture as well as the psychology of leadership. A substantial number of black men and women did not succumb to the worst tendencies of the system. Their industrious lives within the unjust institution of slavery were frequently a triumph of the human spirit over adversity that should no longer be overlooked.
It bears noting that Henson’s role as a plantation overseer was hardly anomalous. Fleming observes that
By the 1850s, black overseers were far more common than most Northerners of that era — and most Americans of the twenty-first century — have realized. Some historians estimate that blacks predominated in that position on roughly 70 percent of the plantations with a hundred or more slaves. On smaller plantations, the overseer was almost always black.
So if the intent of 12 Years a Slave is neither to advance the cause of freedom or to expand our knowledge of the genuine conditions of the “peculiar institution,” what is its intent? Simply brutalizing the audience is not its goal — the audience, both black and white, is being brutalized with the objective of inducing a distinct state of mind in each racial sector of it.
The whites, of course, are to be imbued with race-shame, which the film’s director Steve McQueen (no, not that Steve McQueen) makes abundantly clear in a round-table discussion printed in the Oct. 13 New York Times. During the talk, McQueen, a black Brit, says that he was “absolutely” seeking to bring to mind “contemporary analogues” to the grim tale: “It’s the whole idea of once you’ve left the cinema, the story continues. Over a century and a half to the present day. I mean, you see the evidence of slavery as you walk down the street.” In response to the moderator’s comment that “you let us experience the moment that is part of the lore of America, the slave master raping the black female slave,” he declares that “I didn’t want people to get out of it.” And he goes to state candidly that
I made this film because I wanted to visualize a time in history that hadn’t been visualized that way. I wanted to see the lash on someone’s back. I wanted to see the aftermath of that, psychological and physical. I feel sometimes people take slavery very lightly, to be honest. I hope it could be a starting point for them to delve into the history and somehow reflect on the position where they are now.
That, for whites, is a position of undeserved privilege — the “white privilege” with which the pullulating legion of diversity indoctrinators, college professors, journalists, historians, activists, and authors ceaselessly browbeats white Americans today. Viewed from this perspective, 12 Years a Slave is less a work of art than a beautifully contrived piece of racial propaganda. And the purpose of such propaganda is twofold: to perpetuate not just white race-shame but black racial anger.
That anger is so pervasive that in listing examples of it one hardly knows where to begin. In the world of movies we may note the black actor Jamie Foxx’s announcement during a Dec. 8 stint as guest host of “Saturday Night Live:”
And I got a movie coming out, “Django,” check it out. Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson. “Django Unchained.” I play a slave. How black is that? And in the movie I had to wear chains. How whack is that? But don’t be worried about it because I get out of the chains, I get free, I save my wife, and I kill all the white people in the movie. How great is that? And how black is that?
Oh — that was all just a big joke, right? At least the race-shamed New York whites in Foxx’s audience thought so, delivering their nervous laughs on cue. Well, how about that prominent promoter of reconciliation the Rev. Jesse Jackson, speaking at Furman College in South Carolina on Oct. 30? Jackson repeatedly called the United States “the land of the free, the home of genocide” and suggested that the Tea Party movement began with “the shots fired at Fort Sumter.” Or the singer Harry Belafonte, who, in a Nov. 3 mayoral campaign appearance, called the conservative benefactors the Koch brothers “white supremacists” and likened them to the Ku Klux Klan?
Well, one must suppose the demagoguery of pig-rich publicity hounds can be written off — though, like the movie poor Ms. Lucas sat through, it “beats up the audience … then does it again and again before there’s time to heal.” So let us consider the physical manifestations of the black anger that is so carefully nurtured by the diversity legion — such as the murders of Jan Pawel Pietrzak, a Polish-born U.S. Marine sergeant, and Quiana Faye Jenkins-Pietrzak, the black woman he had the temerity to fall in love with and marry. In a home-invasion robbery on Oct. 15, 2008, four black Marines forced their way into the couple’s French Valley, Calif. home, beat and bound the pair of them, and sexually violated Quiana as her husband was forced to watch. The helpless victims were then shot to death. Three of their murderers have been convicted, while a fourth defendant is awaiting trial. Or the ghastly murders of Christopher Newsom and Channon Christian in Knoxville, Tenn. On Jan. 6, 2007, the young white couple went to watch a movie at a friend’s apartment, but were carjacked by multiple assailants and slain in the most grotesque manner imaginable. Christopher was bound, gagged, sexually violated with an object, marched to a railroad track and shot to death. His corpse was then set afire with gasoline. Channon was stripped and repeatedly beaten and raped. Bleach was then poured down her throat in an attempt to conceal the attackers’ DNA, and she was wrapped in plastic bags and stuffed into a garbage can, where she suffocated. All five of Christopher and Channon’s black tormentors were convicted.
The epidemic of black anger-fueled interracial violence has been chronicled by the reporter Colin Flaherty, who even has a Web site devoted to the phenomenon. And this violence is not the stuff of long-ago history. It is happening right now. But don’t expect to see it depicted in a well-crafted, heart-rending cinema production. Thanks to the reflexive self-censorship inculcated in American journalism by the diversity legion, much of the time you won’t even see it in the national news.
Paul Green is a Tempe, Arizona-based novelist who resigned in protest from the editorial staff of the (Mesa, Arizona) East Valley Tribune in 2006 after the paper refused to print any of the Danish Muhammad cartoons with an op-ed piece he had written about the Muslim world’s reaction to them.