Just because critics have proclaimed 12 Years a Slave a “landmark event” and “easily the greatest feature film ever made about American slavery” does not mean it’s as tedious as such eat-your-spinach accolades suggest. The black British artist turned director Steve McQueen has tried harder than anyone else in commercial filmmaking to convey the physical barbarity of slavery along with its perverse racial, economic, sexual, and Christian trappings. All that’s missing in the extended lashing scenes is 3-D. His movie is grueling in a naturalistic way that the equally violent Django Unchained didn’t aspire to, and, like Quentin Tarantino’s operatic fantasia, it’s never preachy or boring.
And when you’re protesting massive murderous injustice nothing’s worse than being preachy or boring about it.
AM I BORING YOU FRANK?????!!!!!!
Still, as I fought back tears at the end of the film, I questioned why I was crying. Like many, if not most, of the white and black adults you’d expect to turn out for 12 Years a Slave on opening weekend in downtown Manhattan, I arrived at the theater knowledgeable about the history on tap. Was I crying because I was moved all over again by the movie’s lucid take on America’s primal sin? No doubt. But then what? Art has no responsibility to promote political action, but surely there has to be some connection between the deluge of movies about African-American history—along with Django and Lincoln, this is the third A-list movie about slavery in two years—and the real world we are living in today.
What should also matter to a contemporary audience seeing a movie about the evils of slavery are the intractable vestiges of slavery’s legacy that persist even now. There are more than a few, the most explicit of which may be the push by politicians in states like Texas and North Carolina, with the blessing of the John Roberts Supreme Court, to enact new Jim Crow laws that deter minority voting. Up north, we have our own issues: It’s but a short subway ride from a Manhattan multi¬plex exhibiting 12 Years a Slave to Barneys New York and Macy’s, which have been accused of racially profiling black customers, with consequences that have included false detentions and other humiliations. Tears shed about the past in a movie theater don’t cost anything. Better that they lead to a renewed civic engagement with such present ills once we’re back on the street.
In reality, some hostile viewers might dismiss the same scenes as over-the-top hectoring designed to rub white moviegoers’ noses in guilt.
And that’s one thing we must NEVER do.
At the Toronto film festival in September, the producer Harvey Weinstein, a Barack Obama supporter who has released three recent movies with ¬African-American protagonists, said that the sheer quantity of these movies is in itself a sign of racial progress. It’s a “renaissance” he attributes to what he calls “the Obama effect”: The first black president is “erasing racial lines.” But in truth, the uglier events of the past five years, reinforced by polling that finds a resurgence of pessimism about racial progress among both whites and blacks, suggest that the net effect of Obama’s White House tenure has been to draw new racial lines, not erase the old ones.
Not all that “new”
As I tried to get a fix on my own conflicted response to the emotional clout of 12 Years a Slave, I thought back to the first dramatic treatment of race I was exposed to, the original stage version of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, which I saw at age 11 in my hometown of Washington, D.C., in 1961. At that point in its history, the nation’s capital and the public schools I attended there had officially been -desegregated. Raisin was a first step toward disabusing myself of that illusion. My “integrated” school was essentially white. So was my neighborhood. I finally began to notice the huge gap that separated my Washington—as well as the official Washington visited by tourists—from the racially divided southern town whose black population, much of it in poverty, supplied “the help” for middle-class households like my own.
Note: Frank has nothing to say about A Raisin in the Sun. Why not? Is its value and import self-evident?
Or is it a “period piece”?
Reflecting on the Obama era in a symposium on 12 Years a Slave in the Times, McQueen said, “The problem is: When he’s not the president anymore, will these films still exist?” That’s hardly the problem. The problem comes when we go to these movies, have a good cry, and imagine that, through some kind of Hollywood magic, they will bring about change.
Garrett Morris will sing us out.