12 Years a Slave (2013) – dir. Steve McQueen

Hollywood has released more movies about slavery in ancient Rome than slavery in America. And the rare popular films that do directly discuss the issue, such as Amistad and Lincoln, are more concerned with the political battles fought by the white leading characters than they are the black experience of slavery.

At a wide glance, this seems very odd. Slavery was the dominant political and cultural issue on the continent for at least a century. Hollywood producers have never shied away from showing violence or cruelty, and political activism has always been a terrific way to win awards. Roots was immensely popular with television viewers, proving there’s an audience for the subject.

Statue in the Confederate Cemetery in Fayetteville, Arkansas

But to those of us living in the former Confederacy, cinema’s silence doesn’t seem unusual. Even in the liberal corners of the south, there’s a tremendous unwillingness to acknowledge of slavery. We’re practically tripping over Confederate monuments and Civil War battlefields, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen as much as a plaque to commemorate the former slaves who helped build this area. Earlier this year I attended a lecture on the 150th anniversary of a local battle. We heard about the history and geography of the city in great detail, and were read a lengthy list of the dead on both sides of the conflict.

But the “s word” was not spoken.

Very early in its history, Hollywood adopted a neo-Confederate view of slavery — that slaveholders were basically good people living in a different time who shouldn’t be judged harshly. Slavers usually treated their property well, and whether slave or servant, African Americans are better off serving white people anyway.

We see this attitude in all of the highest-grossing films that touch on the subject; Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind, Song of the South.

That’s the importance of 12 Years a Slave. For millions of Americans, the movie clips played at the Academy Awards in March will be the first time they are exposed to the historical reality of slavery.

That’s also where 12 Years a Slave gets its power. It, and last year’s Django Unchained, are the first mainstream movies to portray plantation owners are villains and to show slavery from a slave’s point of view.

But the violence in 12 Years a Slave is not Tarantino’s violence. It’s been compared to Schindler’s List in that it emphasizes the dehumanizing, unnecessary nature of the sadism inflicted upon the victims. It presents us with a picture of an evil that cannot be justified, and stands as a record of the unique horrors of plantation slavery.

It’s odd to praise a film for taking the seemingly uncontroversial stand that “slavery was evil.” But even 150 years later, that’s a rare thing to hear.

Adam Call Roberts

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