Charles Petzold

On Seeing "12 Years a Slave"

November 17, 2013
New York, N.Y.

Here is some basic American history:

In 1860, four million men, women, and children of African descent remained enslaved in a country founded over 80 years earlier on the principles of "live, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." These enslaved people were bought and sold like farm animals, forced to work long hours without wages, kept in a state of intellectual and moral degradation, and subjected to repeated physical and sexual violence.

By 1860, slavery had been banned in most of North America, South America, and Europe, but it was still going strong in the American South. There was no sign that slavery was withering away as was earlier hoped. The South was instead making a strong push to extend slavery into the colonies and the new states of the Union.

Between the election of Abraham Lincoln to the Presidency in November 1860 and his inauguration in March 1861, seven slave-holding states seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America (later joined by four other states) leading to the American Civil War. Over the next four years, the Confederacy sent 365,000 Southern men to their deaths for the sole purpose of perpetuating the institution of slavery.

This is not just some distant event in a far-off time. The scars of slavery and the American Civil War have never healed and continue as deep divides in American political discourse. When Texas Governor Rick Perry and others talk about secession and nullification; when an advisor and co-author to Senator Rand Paul uses a persona of "Southern Avenger" to promote pro-Confederacy beliefs; when Chris McDaniel gears up to run for Senate from the state of Mississippi despite ties to Neo-Confederate groups; when a Confederate flag is waved outside the White House, we can hardly ignore the reminders that the regressive politics of slavery, race, and intolerance are still alive and well in 21st century America.

The Confederate flag has the same relationship to America that the swastika has to Germany. The flag is a symbol of a government whose sole purpose was to perpetuate the enslavement of other human beings, and while Germany has long banned public displays of the swastika and other Nazi symbols, the Confederate flag still waves.

It may very well be true, as Brad Paisley sings, that for someone wearing a Confederate flag t-shirt "the only thing I meant to say is I'm a Skynyrd fan," but if that makes the wearer only an "accidental racist," it qualifies him as a total moron as well. Most people who wave the Confederate flag do so to proclaim their vile politics in very unambiguous terms.

Meanwhile, the historical reality of slavery is frequently trivialized by careless use of the word in ridiculous metaphorical senses. Sarah Palin, for example, recently used the word "slavery" to describe the national debt, while people of half-baked "libertarian" tendencies toss around the word to describe any form of government coercion regardless of its public good or individual benefit!

It also doesn't help at all that the American film industry has a dismal record in portraying slavery. Somehow a romantic view of the antebellum South is a cinematically pleasanter image than the historical reality of enslavement. One of the silent classics of American film, D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation is based on a pro-Ku Klux Klan novel The Clansman and features white actors in hideous blackface victimizing white people. Even more famously, Gone with the Wind portrays the bygone era of slavery as peaceful and happy, with the genteel Southern way of life "gone with the wind" following the incomprehensible and violent Yankee invasion.

The seriousness of slavery and the dearth of accurate movies about its horrors suggests that filmmakers have a special obligation and responsibility to deal with slavery with respect and realism. It is in this sense that Quentin Tarantino failed dismally with Django Unchained. While I completely acknowledge the spectacular filmmaking on display, Django Unchained was merely (like its companion piece, Inglourious Basterds) a feel-good revenge fantasy where the oppressed have a chance to kill their oppressors, but which sacrifices historical veracity in the process.

If there was an historical figure anything like Django, why not make a factual movie about him? Django enacts his revenge with rifles and cinematic explosions, but the real-life slave rebellions were carried out with simpler technologies such as knifes and swords with far more horrifying results.

There are plenty of period photographs of enslaved people, but none show a woman like the one in Django Unchained wearing a French maid's outfit that seems to have come from a modern day Halloween costume shop. Her role is to serve drinks to the slaveholder and his friends while they watch slaves forced to fight each other to the death. There is no historical evidence that this type of fighting ever occurred, and it is revealing that the movie refers to the practice as "Mandingo fighting" after the exploitation movie Mandingo. Perhaps it was by watching other movies that Tarantino researched this one.

After decades of failure, can we ever expect the film industry to redeem itself with a movie that captures the reality of slavery?

Yes! we can finally proclaim with the release of British director Steve McQueen's extraordinary film 12 Years a Slave. Adapted by John Ridley from the memoir by Solomon Northup, 12 Years a Slave tells the story of a free black man in 1841 living with his family in Saratoga, New York, who is illegally abducted by slave catchers and taken to Louisiana to work in the cotton and sugar cane fields.

12 Years a Slave doesn't need to engage in fantasy and silliness. The movie is based on the writings of a man who lived through it all. Solomon Northup was one of the very few people who was liberated from his wrongful kidnapping. Besides writing a memoir of his experiences, he pursued remedies in the courts against his abductors and the slaveholders who kept him, although with no positive results.

While we can never be entirely sure that 12 Years a Slave shows slavery the way it really was, much of the film seems to ring with truth. It is a powerful compassionate film that helps us remember that slavery in America was very real and very violent and very horrible, and not just a metaphor.