We Need Movies That Tell the Truth About Slavery

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One of the great tales of courage and survival is a book that you have probably never heard of before.  It is the story of Solomon Northup, a free black who lived in New York state in the 1840s.  He was lured to Washington, D.C., under the promise of work as a fiddler. In D.C., he was drugged and then sold as a slave.  Eventually, because of the intervention of several whites both in Louisiana and in his home state of New York, his freedom was restored.  It is the source of the new film by this same title.

This is not the first time that Northup’s inspiring tale of faith and endurance has been made into a movie.  Gordon Parks made a 1984 version for television starring Avery Brooks (who some of you may remember as “Hawk” in the 1980s television series Spenser: For Hire) as Northup.  While faithful to the book, it was produced with about the same budget as some people spend on dental floss, and shot in three weeks.  The acting quality varied substantially, from quite excellent to positively dreadful.  Still, I often use the first few minutes of it in my U.S. history class to emphasize the fundamentally middle class values that many free blacks in America aspired to in that era.

12 Years a Slave (2013) is what I had long hoped that Gordon Parks’ version had been.  Well-funded, it has a few big names (Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt) and exemplary acting performances throughout.  If Lupita Nyong’o (born in Mexico, raised in Kenya, educated in the U.S.), wins an Oscar for her performance as Patsey, I will not be even slightly surprised.  There is not a weak performance anywhere in this – but with material like this, what actor would fail?12-Years-a-Slave-teaser-poster

Now, this is not a film that I would call flawless.  I found some of the flashback sequences slightly confusing; the linear nature of Parks’ version both follows the book, and I find generally easier to follow.  Still, I can see the artistic argument for the flashbacks; they increase the contrast between Northup’s misery and helpless situation, and the middle class life he had enjoyed before.

I also found myself wishing that some of the sequences had been slightly abbreviated, but there is again an argument that many parts are so overwhelming in their emotional impact that some delay to calm the senses is appropriate.  There are some liberties that this version has taken with the story that are inexplicable; they do nothing to contribute to the drama, and in some cases, actually reduce it.

12 Years a Slave is R-rated, primarily for the violence. It is unflinching and accurate in its portrayal of how slavery was maintained.  It is too intense for elementary school children and sensitive junior highers. 8a0ae_twelve-years-a-slave-book-cover-01

At the same time that it portrays the evils of slavery, it also reminds us of the complexity of human nature, and how even slaveowners were sometimes good and decent men in an evil system.  This is perhaps my greatest concern with 12 Years a Slave: Parks’ version managed to capture how Northup portrayed his first master, the Rev. William Ford, as a God-fearing and decent master who treated his slaves in a way not so terribly different from how some employers treat their employees today (except employees get to quit). While 12 Years a Slave still show Ford’s decency, it is certainly given less space than I think Northup would have wanted.

Is a movie about slavery irrelevant today, or just stirring up old passions unnecessarily?  I don’t think so.  I am shocked at how little my college students know about American slavery – which may be surprising, when you consider how endlessly the Left harps about the subject today. (Perhaps students are just tuning it out.) The problem of slavery is not just the past; it is a problem is some parts of the world today.  I only regret that films that address the historical tragedy of slavery so seldom address the historical heroism of the abolition movement – a movement almost entirely of Republicans, and with significant parallels to the pro-life movement today.  But until conservatives decide to start funding movies, the tales that make it onto the screen are going to reflect the Left’s values.