Antebellum cinema


12 Years a Slave: The film validated my feelings about today’s race relations in the US. It provides a contextual basis to understand racial dynamics in the 21st Century. It explains, inadvertently, the reasons for racial animus in today’s American political, cultural and social scenes.

In preparation for viewing the film, I also viewed Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone with Wind (1939). The romanticism of southern nobility was stripped away and the brutality was revealed like never before. 12 Years is just a small part of the American Holocaust, there is much more to be told, but a 133 minute film is limited. (Birth of a Nation was 3 hours, and Gone with the Wind 4 hours) Granted, the mini-series ROOTS, played on the ABC network for a week in 1977, but the images of brutality were suppressed for the TV audience. For instance, the scars on Kinte’s back was not as dreadful as the whipping scars in 12 Years. In the name of conceptual balance, more black protagonists are needed in American cinema. Perhaps a 4-hour epic of Nat Turner’s rebellion, or a 3-hour saga of Harriet Tubman’s family might be in the works. Who knows?

Technically the film was superb. Considering that the slave’s point of view has never been told before in a major US motion picture, filming in Louisiana shows real progress that the south is ready to deal with its past honestly.

In terms of content, I was expecting more gore. But thank God that didn’t happen. I absolutely love Michael Fassbinder in this film. I was convinced that he was a raving madman. Interestingly, I did not hate him as the film’s most culpable villain, the system itself was on trail and rightly earned my disgust.

The earlier films mentioned here were more sympathetic to Southerners. Whites were portrayed as victims who had lost the American equivalent of a classical civilization. 12 Years gives us a new perspective, that of the slave. In the same way Kirk Douglas’ Spartacus (1960) reveals Rome’s corruption and excesses, McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave presents the quiet heroic efforts of Solomon Northup to stay alive in a world gone mad.

Some of my friends are reticent about seeing the movie. Some want to see it in the privacy of their homes so that they may weep in great anguish. I can’t fault them for that. It is a powerful film that will evoke uncomfortable feelings of sadness. But I suggest that most folks can see the film in the theater. McQueen shows us the brutal truth the same way Spielberg gave us the horrors of the Holocaust in Schindler’s List (1993) … just enough to make us feel uneasy.

The telling of the American Holocaust has started. I hope more films of this quality are on their way.

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