By Rick Kisonak | November 11, 2013

Where are the serious American films about slavery? And how did I fail to note the paucity of pictures addressing our national dirty laundry? Just one of the great things about this great new movie is the fact that it shines a light on a significant cinematic hypocrisy.

Virtually every year some film attracts award season buzz with a saga set against the backdrop of Nazi Germany. Filmmakers revisit this shameful chapter as though it’s the only well to go to for examples of man’s inhumanity to man.

Meanwhile, as 12 Years a Slave reminds us, American storytellers have zero need to look elsewhere for instances of systematized inhumanity. And yet the list of sagas about slavery is astonishingly short.

One of the earliest-Birth of A Nation (1915)-was actually pro-slavery! Gone With the Wind (1939) didn’t give a damn. Mandingo (1975) turned the subject into softcore cheese. Beloved (1998) gave us a heart-tugging Oprah-flavored take on indentured servitude and, a TV miniseries or two aside, that brings us to 2012’s Django Unchained. More holocaust dramas get made in the course of the average presidential administration.

Well, it took a Brit to get the job done but we finally have it: A nightmare snapshot of plantation life from the viewpoint of a slave. How authentic is the portrait? Not only does it tell a true story, the remarkable individual whose story it tells has a writing credit. Right there on IMDb-”Director: Steve McQueen; Writers: John Ridley (screenplay), Solomon Northup (based on ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ by). Never mind how long it’s been since you’ve seen a serious movie about slavery-when have you ever seen a movie credit for an honest to god former slave?

Chiwetel Ejiofor is simply magnificent as Northup, a free man living in Saratoga, NY with his family when he’s offered a gig fiddling for an out of town circus in 1841. After celebrating with his two recruiters he awakes to find himself shackled on the floor of an empty basement. With its echoes of Saw, the scene suggests the opening of a horror film. That’s exactly what it is.

McQueen (Shame) and Ridley remain faithful to Northup’s 1853 memoir as they chronicle an intelligent man’s descent into a hell beyond comprehension. As a casually creepy slave dealer, Paul Giamatti plays about as far against type as an actor can. He displays his human merchandise, stripped of clothing and dignity, in an incongruously civilized parlor inviting shoppers with the musical pitch “What catches your fancy; inspect at your leisure…”

Northup realizes survival will require hiding his ability to read and write so no letters begging for help are dispatched. When he winds up at the mercy of a perpetually drunken Louisiana cotton baron (Michael Fassbender), it’s strictly heart of darkness time and what we witness ranks with the most chilling of movie loonytoon creations.

Edwin Epps lynches, rapes and generally terrorizes his workers. Hell, that’s the job description. What sets him apart are little innovations like waking his slaves, inviting them into his home and ordering them to dance as part of a crazy pantomime of a party. His whippings, let’s just say, are not for the delicate. They’d give Mel “The Passion” Gibson bad dreams.

The director’s exquisite compositions, the extraterrestrial poetry of the period dialogue and some of the year’s most searing performances combine to make this a more than worthy companion to Spielberg’s monumental Lincoln. Both are masterworks. Watch McQueen’s first and the significance of Spielberg’s will come into full and horrifying focus. Between them, the real story of human bondage in the land of the free is finally told. Better late than never.

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  1. […] view into the realities of slavery and a dark era that we would often rather not acknowledge. 12 Years A Slave doesn’t sugarcoat anything and isn’t afraid to “go there.” As such, it’s not an easy […]

  2. Mike says:

    Nothing changes and the history in some https://www.usatoday.com/ only confirms this

  3. Phil Hall says:

    While the silent versions of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” may seem terribly unsophisticated by contemporary standards (to put it mildly), at least they were still retelling the story of slavery and not sweeping it under the proverbial carpet. Films of that era did not pursue the level of realism that McQueen brings to his new film, so it is unfair to judge these film’s by today’s sensibilities.

    “Santa Fe Trail” focuses on efforts to squelch John Brown’s uprising. It is not a “Ronald Reagan movie”; Reagan was a supporting player in the film, billed fourth behind Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland and Raymond Massey. And the love story is between Jeb Stuart and a lady named Kit Carson Holliday – things weren’t that progressive in 1940 that Jeb Stuart and Kit Carson were shown as lovers!

    “Band of Angels” is about a young woman who is sold into slavery after it is discovered she is part-black. Granted, it is not at the realistic level of “12 Years a Slave,” but it does cover the abrupt enslavement of a once-free adult. “Tamango” was about the slave trade, which I cited – slavery, of course, was not unique to the U.S. (The 1969 Italian film “Burn!” starring Marlon Brando focuses on a slave revolt in the Caribbean.)

    As for the made-for-television productions, one can argue that they reached more people in one telecast than they would have found if they played in theaters for several weeks (especially the productions that were shown in the pre-cable years).

  4. Rick Kisonak says:

    Phil, I’m not sure the existence of the “excellent” movies you list actually contradicts anything I wrote.

    Of course, I’m aware a number of versions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin were produced but I decided not to reference them, first, because they were from the silent era and that wasn’t the period I was concerned with, second, because the films lack the historical significance of Birth of a Nation (the films, not the book) and, third, they hardly offer the brutally accurate depiction of slave life for which I commended 12 Years. The source of all modern wisdom, Wikipedia, in fact, goes so far as to say that the work “helped popularize a number of stereotypes about black people. These include the affectionate, dark-skinned “mammy”; the “pickaninny” stereotype of black children; and the “Uncle Tom”, or dutiful, long-suffering servant faithful to his white master or mistress. In recent years, the negative associations with Uncle Tom’s Cabin have, to an extent, overshadowed the historical impact of the book as a ‘vital antislavery tool.'”

    Um, Santa Fe Trail was a Ronald Reagan movie about the romance between Jeb Stuart and Kit Carson. Band of Angels starred Yvonne De Carlo as a privileged southern woman who discovers her mother was black. Tamango wasn’t about life as an American slave because it was about a revolt on a Dutch boat sailing for Cuba.

    In my review, I noted that other productions had been made for TV. A Woman Called Moses was a TV miniseries about the abolitionist Harriet Tubman. She was not a slave. Likewise A House Divided (about a free black man-again, not a slave), the first adaptation of McQueen’s source material, Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, (a highly sanitized episode in the American Playhouse series), Brother Future (about a time-traveling rapper) and Nightjohn (the story of a slave who teaches a fellow slave to read, mostly the bible) were all made for TV.

    So I believe my central point stands: Shockingly few serious American movies have been made on the subject of life as a slave in the antebellum south.

  5. Phil Hall says:

    There have been a lot of excellent films about slavery and the slave trade. Several film versions of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” were made back in the silent era, including one from 1903 – 12 years before “The Birth of a Nation.” Other notable films that focused on slavery or the slave trade include “Slave Ship” (1937), “Santa Fe Trail” (1940), “Band of Angels” (1957), “Tamango” (1958), “A Woman Called Moses” (1978), “A House Divided: Denmark Vessey’s Rebellion” (1982), Gordon Parks’ “Solomon Northup’s Odyssey” (1984 – the first film version of the Northup story), “Brother Future” (1991) and Charles Burnett’s “Nightjohn” (1996).

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