America, Slavery, and McQueen and Tarantino's Two Very Different Movies

12 Years a Slave is every bit as intense as one might imagine, though not completely depressing, whereas Django Unchained aestheticizes its extreme violence.

12 Years a Slave is every bit as intense as one might imagine, though not completely depressing, whereas Django Unchained aestheticizes its extreme violence.

The films 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained made big waves in recent years. These two works mark a rare Hollywood foray into the dark heart of American history and slavery. It is surprising -- and totally unsurprising -- that so few films have tackled this topic, let alone as directly as these two. Slavery just hasn’t exactly attracted droves of movie investors or ticket buyers over the years. Yet, and while these films have drastically different approaches and goals, both have enjoyed significant critical and commercial success.

12 Years a Slave, directed by Englishman Steve McQueen (Hunger [2008], Shame [2011]), is a stark and often harrowing adaptation of Solomon Northup’s autobiographical memoir of the same name. The movie tells Northup’s story as a free black man living in the North in 1841, before being kidnapped and enslaved in the South. McQueen’s film is flawless, and though it certainly does not offer a classic, “Hollywood” ending, it may be the most powerful film of the year, even earning an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.

Quentin Tarantino’s (Reservoir Dogs [1992], Pulp Fiction [1994]) Django Unchained, is a highly-violent, buddy-pic and revenge fantasy, set in the same pre-Civil War era as 12 Years a Slave. Django Unchained, too, is unflinching and at times masterful, and had the far more box office success of the two. Unlike 12 Years a Slave, however, Django Unchained offers a more triumphant finalé, including virtual fireworks when a slave owner’s mansion is dynamited. What really drives the story, however, is a hyper-violence and sadism that ultimately drags the film down. Nonetheless, considered together, these two films mark a new era in Hollywood, and maybe for broader society, in how we view and deal with America's legacy of slavery and ongoing race matters.

Both films have their critics, due largely to the use of severe violence and the overwhelmingly despairing depictions of slave life, in each. Some have complained that rehashing the past in such a way only serves to keep the African American story stuck in a victim narrative, or that it otherwise distracts from discussion of current racial injustices. (White, 2013) Others see the films as both unnecessarily antagonizing white people and preying on “white guilt”.

Yet both of these films are certainly based in fact, though Django Unchained takes an obviously fictionalized turn, and 12 Years a Slave was true to Northup’s book. Neither film seems particularly preoccupied with guilting anyone for what their ancestors did. In Django Unchained, Django’s partner is a white, German hero (and, somewhat sadly, the real focus of the film), thus Euro-white folks are not seen as inherently evil, while one of the worst of the bad guys is himself a slave.

In 12 Years a Slave, the North itself, as a place of freedom, and a heroic, white abolitionist character, fills a similar role. Further, the worst of the slave masters is not only horribly flawed, but he is fleshed out as a tortured human being, at the same time, a pretty crucial distinction.

So why did these two filmmakers decide to revisit slavery at this time and in the manner they did? Perhaps the better question is how well has America actually dealt with slavery to begin with? There has long been a gulf in understanding not that slavery happened, but in understanding its true impact on a more personal and even more visceral level. Tarantino has noted that slavery has usually only been been dealt with in TV movies and otherwise presented in films as “historical with a capital H”, meaning these personal stories are shown at “arms-length” and feel more like “history under glass”. (NPR, 2013) What has been lost is a deeper and more accurate appreciation for the real depth of not only suffering, but also of the bravery in these stories, as well. Presumably this would just be too heavy and too enraging for audiences to sit through.

There is a saying that, “Time does not heal all wounds, it is what you do with that time.” With that in mind, some historical context on America’s relationship with slavery is helpful. Author Toni Morrison, for example, observed that despite slavery being a defining story in America’s history, it has “no suitable memorial or plaque or wreath or wall or park or skyscraper lobby… park bench...” (Morrison, n.d.) Apparently, the avoidance of the ultimate social third rail eventually became a gaping void.

Consider that it took 91 years from the end of the Civil War before an authoritative treatise on slavery was written by someone other than a white supremacist southerner (until Kenneth Stampp’s, The Peculiar Institution, in 1956). U.B. Phillips, the son of southern slave owners, was the nation’s preeminent slavery historian from the 1910s until the early '30s, and taught at Michigan and Yale. Phillips saw slavery as an economic-labor issue more than anything else. On a personal level, Phillips’ was of the belief that slaves “were by racial quality submissive rather than defiant, lighthearted instead of gloomy, ingratiated instead of sullen, and [their] very defects invited paternalism rather than of repression.” Thus, in Phillips’ world, the treatment of slaves by slave owners was, all-in-all, “excellent”.

Phillips further wrote of the great racial harmony he saw in the Deep South, well after slavery was, on the books anyway, finally ended: "The negroes themselves show the same easy-going, amiable serio-comic obedience and the same personal attachments to white men, as well as the same sturdy light-heartedness and the same love of laughter and of rhythm which distinguished their forebears." (Phillips, 1918) And this was one of the most celebrated minds on the subject! In sum, there has long been an enormous gulf in what black people really experienced under slavery (as well as in the Jim Crow South) and what white people assumed or wanted to believe that they experienced.

Consider the very current and significant neo-Confederate attempts to argue (erroneously) that the South did not fight for slavery, but for State’s rights, or the ongoing and heated debates concerning government sanctioned uses of the Confederate flag. And while it did not exactly come from a respected scholar or a statesman, it's worth noting the words of entrepreneur and reality TV star, Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty, who echoed virtually the identical observations as Ulrich in a recent GQ interview. In referring back to pre-Civil Rights era Louisiana, Robertson observed:

They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!... Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues. (Magary, 2014)

The pronounced lack of slavery-related films is noteworthy. As McQueen said, he wanted 12 Years a Slave to help fill “a huge hole in the canon of cinema.” (NPR, 2012) Some of the most well-known, slavery-related films, e.g., Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone with the Wind (1939), for example, demonstrated zero and little awareness of the personal plight of slaves. Mandingo (1975) is more associated with the blaxploitation era it sprung from than actual black history. The Africans in Amistad (1997) were never actually enslaved in the US. Other films have focused on more palatable topics of the era, like Abraham Lincoln (e.g., Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Lincoln(2013)), or even the Civil War (Glory (1989). Yes, the Civil War was horrendous, but at least for filmgoers they know going in that the war will end soon enough and that the good guys win in the end.

Slavery just kept going.

The 1998 film adaptation of Morrison’s Beloved, though a bold effort, is really a tough look at the immediate emotional after-effects of slavery. Further, and surprisingly but sadly not surprisingly, even given the pedigree of a novel by a Nobel Prize-winning author, the boasting of a top director in Jonathan Demme, and starring no less than Oprah Winfrey herself, hardly anybody went to see it.

The cultural high-point regarding slavery-awareness may be the epic, 1977 TV mini-series, Roots. Roots was a true national event (and the first hugely successful TV miniseries), though it was maybe not the visceral approach that Tarantino and others might have liked. Plus, 1977 was a long time ago. To many young people today, "The Roots" refers not to a ground-breaking historical program, but to the popular hip-hop band.

Thus, the enormous challenge for McQueen and Tarantino was to depict these often depressing and disturbing events in a way that was palatable to viewers, yet that still did justice to the slavery story. This is something few have even attempted until 2012.

12 Years a Slave

The title of 12 Years a Slave, too, offers some advance relief to viewers, clueing them in that the protagonist’s entire life is not going to be devastated by slavery, just 12 years of it. Otherwise, McQueen does not soften Northup’s story, at all. If anything, Northup’s often hellish experiences feel overly-condensed into the film’s 134 minutes. Yes, the story is every bit as intense as one might imagine, though McQueen does, somehow, keep it from being completely depressing. 12 Years a Slave is obviously challenging, undeniably powerful, and ultimately cathartic in its own the-truth-will-set-you-free kind of way.

The film begins in Saratoga Springs, New York, in 1841. Northup (the Oscar-nominated, Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free and prosperous family man employed as a carpenter and as a professional fiddle player. Northup takes a high-paying music job that brings him to Washington D.C., just outside the bounds of southern slavery. There, he is drugged and kidnapped into Louisiana, all but disappearing into the world of slavery for the next dozen years. McQueen then depicts Northup as he struggles to maintain his dignity and hope as he is literally and figuratively broken down, day-by-day.

Northup has some enormous advantages over his fellow slaves, though. To begin with, he has far more spirit to break than those born into the institution and that have never experienced anything else. Northup further has the enormous reassurance of knowing that at least the slaves being brutalized around him are not his wife nor his kids, as they are living their lives worlds away in the North, and a life he could conceivably get back to.

Right after Northup is enslaved, he is brutally beaten simply to make sure he knows the score. On a riverboat, a fellow male slave’s attempt to stop a slave trader from raping a slave woman quickly results in a knife in the gut and an unceremonious dumping of his body into the Mississippi River. Even a relatively mundane act like bathing becomes the degradation of men, women, and children, as they are stripped down together in front of the male slave masters. Slaves are paraded in front of prospective buyers like cattle. They endure devastating whippings. Slave men are separated from their partners and young children are separated from their mothers. When Northup defends himself against a physical attack, and even strikes back, he is nearly lynched and then subjected to a day-long torture. A Christian God is introduced to slaves as a hateful white supremacist being that justifies such brutality. One slave comments after the burial at sea that the deceased was “(b)etter off. Better than us,” and it is a little bit hard to argue, at that point.

Despite Northup’s personal strength and his hopes of regaining his former life, slavery inevitably reduces him to his core-being. In a later scene, Northup does finally succumb, but not to a hopeless plight or to the will of a slave master. Instead, and though Northup does not identify as Christian, he surrenders to the Negro spirituals being sung all around him and he finally joins in. Those songs, with their melodies, their soulfulness, and their communal call-and-response, provide a very real salve in a world seemingly devoid of any comfort. In those spirituals, the slaves find peace in a place so deep within that even slave masters cannot take it away.

Capturing this moment of musical conversion, if you will, might be one of the great expressions of American history ever put to film. Along with the spiritual connection for Northup, in that scene you can hear the blues, jazz, Mahalia Jackson, Little Richard, the Beatles -- and virtually all of popular music since. This is quite a spiritual legacy for America.

When Northup is finally freed, there is still no easy ending. As he leaves the plantation for good (and his story as a freed slave is a complete anomaly), one of the slaves he leaves behind is Patsey (the remarkable Lupita Nyong’o). Patsey’s life to that point has consisted of exemplary and back-breaking cotton-picking, for no reward, and being savagely beaten and repeatedly raped by her slave master, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who himself is deeply-disturbed, and obsessed with Patsey. Due to the latter, Patsey is targeted for even further abuse by the slave master’s jealous wife. By the end of the film, Patsey is physically and psychologically nearly broken. With Northup leaving, the last person in Patsey’s life that she can count on is gone forever. Showing Patsey crumble as Northup leaves is nearly unbearable.

When Northup returns home to New York, his small children are now fully grown; his wife is remarried. He's presented with an infant grandchild: Solomon Northup Staunton. As the on-screen epilogue explains, Northup’s memoirs were published and widely-read, while he himself became a prominent speaker for the abolitionist cause. Throughout it all, Northup maintained his dignity, clearly a heroic act in-and-of-itself.

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