“12 Years a Slave” — Portrayal or Propaganda?

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.

29 thoughts on ““12 Years a Slave” — Portrayal or Propaganda?

  1. The purpose of the current crop of “modern” era slave narritives, so long after that evil was eliminated in this country, is to create a sense of righteously aggrieved “blood libel” in the black population and an accompanying sense of guilt in the white polulation. It is heavily promoted for the same reason that the horrible pictures and videos of people falling/jumping from the twin towers were quickly squelched and replaced with “personal” sob stories while pictures of Abu Ghrab and Falujah were endlessly promoted and distributed for YEARS.

    Pictures of innocent civillians falling from the twin towers can serve to instill feelings of outrage and revenge in average Americans, and those are “bad” things. Pictures of Arabs being mistreated like hell week frat initiations at Abu Ghrab instills Arabs with a sense of outrage and hatred, and that is a “good” thing. Movies / TV series / books that tell horrific tales of victimized blacks, even though they may have occured 150 years ago, serve to instill blacks with a sense of aggrieved outrage, and that is a “good” thing.

    Understand now?

    Those who seek to overthrow the country from within – The Leftists in particular – Have a vested interest in promoting as much division between all groups as possible and, if possible, instill very deep seated feelings of aggrieved resentment among those various groups. That way the Leftists can attempt to insert themselves into positions of power with the assumption that THEY alone are qualified to interceed in all of our group squabbles and “make us play nice”. They work tirelessly to create as much divisivness, hatred and aggrievement among various groups as possible, then they promote themselves as the ones best suited to sort out our the hatred they created and fostered. It is a rather simple tactic but one that works time after time.

  2. I remember coming across an old book in the public library (1930’s publication, but not the first edition) supposedly written (as told to someone else) by one of Jefferson’s slaves. He had been trained in a number of skills needed at Monticello, including iron work – i.e., making wrought iron fences and gates. He claimed to have accompanied Jefferson to some big town (most likely Philadelphia) to learn some of these crafts when Jefferson had business there.

    The book was blessedly free of “slave diction” and interesting to me in particular since the fellow talked about being able to see a mountain in our county from the high spot at Monticello. I doubt he could do that anymore.

    Slave life has been depicted over the generations in a number of unsensational memoirs. But those don’t move book sales or generate lucrative movie rights. Before the entitlement socialism that LBJ used to grab Dem votes from black people and permanently ruin black culture, that kind of initiative and ingenuity that Paul Green talks about was common.

    It was never easy being black in this country, or in any white majority country but it’s not easy for any human being in this vale of suffering. Black folk don’t have the lock on hard times. And living in a black majority country is even less enticing. Notice all the black citizens who don’t return to the lands from which their ancestors were sold – often by other blacks?? They’re not that stupid; in fact most of them know the Black Grievance Industry is a scam, but for them
    it’s a useful one.

    For black folk with integrity – the ones who won’t bother wasting their money on this piece of BGI propaganda – this only serves to make life more dangerous for everyone, not just for the White Enemy it was intended to spear.

    I hope Walter Williams does one of his inimitable essays on this thing.

    • A bit off-topic but are the words Tuckahoe and Cohee still familiar in Virginia, if so how are they imparted or received.

      Do they still have any force or recognition?

  3. Take a look at modern day Africa, a famine riven, violent hellhole. The black people of America should go down on their knees and thank white people that they finished up in America. Apart from those in places like Chicago, Detroit (which are now beginning to resemble parts of Africa.

    • thank white people? seriously?

      thank ya’ massuh’ – i does apprec’ciate y’all for savin’ me from the bad’uns.

      i don’t even know how to respond – so i shall rely on the wise adage that’s it’s best not to argue with [persons whose intellectual capacity I deprecate].

  4. Mr. Green writes a thoughtful review. I, too, wonder about the obsession over slavery that ended 150 years ago. I suppose I could think about the subjugation of my ancestors under Ottoman rule, which ended 190 years ago. But I rarely have.

    What seems to be lost in this retrospective is that we are losing our liberty today, as paternalistic government takes over our lives. This “old southern slavery” retelling seems to be a distraction from the new serfdom that is spreading over our land like weeds on a dying civilization. I can’t help thinking that the left isn’t opposed to slavery; it’s just opposed to the fact that some people are free.

  5. “For those women who had laboured in the fish factory or led lives of drudgery as domestic servants, slave life would actually have been an improvement. Here, there were fresh running water; it did not have to be humped from the springs in slopping buckets. Here, even the chore of laundry was a reasonably pleasant social activity carried out in a roof garden where clothes would dry rapidly in the warm sun.”

    This is only one of many passages condoning white slavery in a book about the capture and enslavement of white English men, women and children by Mohammedans in North Africa, namely, the corsairs. Can you imagine someone writing a similar defense of black slavery in the Americas? Where is the outrage?

    Source: The Stolen Village – Baltimore and the Barbary Pirates by Des Ekin, 2006.

  6. The abolition of slavery cost a lot of (white) lives; the Royal Navy lost a lot of men closing down the (black owned and run) barracoons on the African West Coast, and in chasing the slave ships across the Atlantic. Also, of course, there was the war between the states etc.

    If we give merit where merit is due, then Young white males came up trumps.

    But the left does not like young white males, it likes an agenda of HATE, and the incitement of Hatred where white males are at the epicentre.

    Overall there were probably more white slaves in the world than black ones, but the public consciousness has been ‘trained’ (brainwashed) to equate slave and black.

    Maybe a certain ‘white African’ president should be setting an example here by NOT playing the race card at every oportunity, but then pigs might fly when they evolve wings….

    • The RN was wasting its resources on this.

      I think of the colonies as “white flight” writ large. Nowadays blacks sue municipalities for being too white and deliberately move blacks in to break up white areas. Think of slave importation as the pro active enrichment of a boring old white colonial population.

    • It is interesting to note that very few commentators mention the East African slave trade which still continues today. Could the silence be because the perpetrators are Muslim. Ten years ago I spent time in Central Asia where there is evidence that the enslavement of Caucasians by Muslims continued into the 1920s. It seems that only white males can be held accountable for slavery.

      I remember some time ago Ken Livingstone when he was Mayor of London standing on a stage snivelling at an audience as he delivered an apology on behalf of Londoners for London’s role in the slave trade. Not in my name!

  7. Sorry, this contains a correction in the quotation.

    “For those women who had laboured in the fish factory or led lives of drudgery as domestic servants, slave life would actually have been an improvement. Here, there was fresh running water; it did not have to be humped from the springs in slopping buckets. Here, even the chore of laundry was a reasonably pleasant social activity carried out in a roof garden where clothes would dry rapidly in the warm sun.”

    This is only one of many passages condoning white slavery in a book about the capture and enslavement of white English men, women and children by Mohammedans in North Africa, namely, the corsairs. Can you imagine someone writing a similar defense of black slavery in the Americas? Where is the outrage?

    Source: The Stolen Village – Baltimore and the Barbary Pirates by Des Ekin, 2006.

  8. Mark Twain gave an interesting perspective, firstly in the mark twain/ tom sawyer novels I would guess the insight in to the minds is about right then read A yankee in the court of king arthur, and likely the best description of serfdom in England long ago. My surname (edwards) harks back to then, forebears who belonged to a lord edward! and that people is just where the left are taking us! as for the lazy, entitlement ridden blacks, they are an evolutionary dead end, not the same race as Rosa Parks at all!

  9. The whole black slavery thing is completely hypocritical because they were even worse offenders and probably the worst were the muslims, but we don’t want to discuss that, that would be “racist”…

    Throw 12 years a slave and the stolen village into the fire.

  10. Slavery in America was brutal. It can not be denied and just like Black folks torture and kill other Black people today, they did it during slavery. Some of you White people are so deep in denile. It will be your downfall.

    • If slavery in America was brutal, then what is slavery in Saudi Arabia?
      I wonder why, after the Arabians have been involved in slavery longer than the White Folks have, that there are no black communities in Saudi Arabia? Where are their ghettoes? Where is the payback?
      Slavery started in Africa.
      It never ended there.
      And you self-righteously don’t give a damn.

  11. What is ironic about the numerous films about American slavery 150 years ago is that no film has been made about present-day slavery in many countries today, including Islamic Republic of Mauritania where 500,000 Blacks are still in slavery. Slavery there, today, represents 20% of the population! More African slaves were sold in the Middle East (28 million) than in the Western Hemisphere (12 million). Furthermore, considering that the United States has been the target of all of these anti-slavery films, it should be kept in mind that only 645,000 slaves ever reached the U.S. in all the years of slavery. (Source: Peter Hammond, “Slavery, Terrorism, and Islam.”)

    • It’s all about the Benjamins as the people would say. The ethnic grievance industry thrives on extorting money from guilt ridden whites.

      That said, of course Hollywood wouldn’t dare make a movie about contemporary slavery because it goes against their narrative that white men are the root of all evil and the principal slavers in the world.

      And anything that runs counter to it gets ignored. Just recently in Los Angeles a Saudi princess was busted for keeping 4 black women from Africa as slaves. You think the black community or activists cared or that the lefty press would make a issue out of this – since it happens a lot with Saudi Royalty?

      Nothing but crickets since because no white people were involved. These ethnic activists are a bunch of phonies, hypocrites of the worst kind.

      Oh yeah, the Saudi princess walked away, the DA and judge were very lenient on her.

      One could get the impression it is okay to keep blacks as slaves as long as you are the right ethnicity such as being a wealthy Arab.

      • White men both abolished slavery, enforced that abolition and invented the machines that make slavery unnecessary.

        No good deed goes unpunished though…

        • Not that I don’t agree, but when exactly slavery was necessary? My tiny brain doesn’t follow …

          • In the British Empire, slavery was introduced predominantly to provide labour in the sugar cane fields of the Caribbean Colonies and in the Cotton fields of the American colonies. Its introduction came as a means of making up the shortfall in bonded labourers who previously carried out this work which due to its arduous nature was no longer an attractive option.

          • Necessity usually implies that something must be done in one way and not another. When a life is not at peril, we additionally assume that it shouldn’t violate any tenet of our morality. Under normal circumstances and it was under normal circumstances, employer would simply offer better conditions, instead of making deals with African chieftains to buy some of their helots. For vendors it might have been just a business, while for “christian” buyers it should have been a mere swinery. Shortage in labor force does not make a fine excuse.

  12. can we call it a day? and accept that the advent of slavery anywhere (or anytime) is a crime. and immoral. and let go of past injustices on both sides?

    but look around with clarity folks – slavery exists today – in many parts of the world. in america – in its economic form (as it did in the north during and well after the civil war years). in middle eastern countries with the suppression of women and christians. in russia, central, and south america where oppressive regimes are RISING in power and numbers. pick a place.

    don’t we have enough to worry about right now without wasting more words on the past?

    let it go.

    • Advent of slavery is a crime. No one claims otherwise, yet it is not the case. The filmmakers made it clear that their main goal was to install a sense of guilt in whites and nurture hatred among blacks. I don’t think there is a single good reason why whites should feel that way and I’m absolutely sure that stirring up racial hatred is far from being justified. Absurdity thereof is strikingly obvious, when one takes a closer look on the Pietrzak’s case. Perpetrators were thinking they were “punishing” him for the wrongdoings of his slave-owning forefathers, but instead killed a guy, whose ancestors not only could not possess any slaves, but most probably were ones themselves (in the 18th century, feudal peasants made vast majority of Polish society). So no, letting it go is the last thing they should do, unless you give your advice to the other “side” and make them actually listen.

  13. I haven’t seen the movie, but I don’t think we white Americans need to get defensive about slavery or deny how bad it was. Some of our ancestors did terrible things. Some of our ancestors did great things. On balance, I think the existence of the United States of America is far more positive than negative. If people see this movie and take away the message that white people are evil or that we all need to feel guilty for things that happened 5 or 6 generations ago, that’s too bad, but I think a person can face the idea that slavery was disgusting, perverse and evil without beating themselves up for the mistakes of people long dead.

  14. I saw the movie and im not denying it was a true story. However, both the butler and this movie both had a similar exagerated scene where a low life white man goes to rape a woman and a defensive slave gets killed. Slave owners did not just kill for this reason for it is what they called their property. Yes this could have happened less than 1% of the time but both movies? Come on! There was exageration in this movie. It would be liken to 150 years from now depict in a movie about the Saudi war and show most of the American troops going awol just because one did.

  15. I saw the movie and im not denying it was a true story. However, both the butler and this movie both had a similar exagerated scene where a low life white man goes to rape a woman and a defensive slave gets killed. Slave owners did not just kill for this reason for it is what they called their property. Yes this could have happened less than 1% of the time but both movies? Come on! There was exageration in this movie. It would be liken to 150 years from now depict in a movie about the Saudi war and show most of the American troops going a-wall just because one did.

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