Movie Talk

Finally, Films About Slavery Have Their Day

Movie Talk

"12 Years a Slave" follows last year’s contenders "Django Unchained" and "Lincoln" into the Oscar race, marking a trend toward looking back at The Peculiar Institution: slavery.

Steve McQueen's taut drama adapts one of the most famed slave narratives, a staple on college syllabi, written by Solomon Northup (1808-63) and used as propaganda by the Abolitionist Movement. Native New Yorker Northrup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a free and literate African-American family man, hoodwinked and kidnapped in 1841 and sold and resold into slavery in the Antebellum South. He had the misfortune of landing on the plantation of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a tortured and sadistic man who kept his slaves in an endless state of physical and emotional terror.

That state of terror is a constant in slavery movies, but both Quentin Tarantino and Steven Spielberg treated slavery very differently than McQueen does in "12 Years a Slave." In Tarantino's double Oscar winner "Django Unchained," the slave experience fueled a profane vengeance fantasy about the titular freed slave (Jamie Foxx) who joins a white bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) to rescue Django's wife (Kerry Washington). Although it shares certain tropes with McQueen's movie – a stripped woman being whipped, sudden and extreme violence and over-the-top, misbehaving masters – it's actually closer in tone to Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds." That Oscar-winning film gave a parallel vengeance experience to the Holocaust in an exuberant and violent piece of revisionist history.

Spielberg, though more staid, also bookends slavery and the Holocaust in his "serious" films, including his 1997 slave ship mutiny drama "Amistad." Last year's "Lincoln," about the president who delivered the Emancipation Proclamation, was an urgent period biopic about slavery hooked on a white man's story. In fact, the movie's black characters, from David Oyelowo's reverential corporal down to S. Epatha Merkerson's final cameo, carry luggage in their own drama. This mirrored a flaw in "Schindler's List," a real-life Holocaust tale where Jews played subordinate positions to a fully realized gentile German savior in Liam Neeson's Oskar Schindler.

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Chiwetel Ejiofor and castmates in '12 Years a Slave' (Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight)

"12 Years a Slave" eludes the victim or avenger narrative laid down by Tarantino and Spielberg in a way that seems completely in keeping with his two previous films. In "Hunger" and "Shame," he pushed men, both played by Fassbender – one an Irishman on a hunger strike, the other a Manhattan sex addict – to their physical and emotional limits.

McQueen crawls inside the skin of Northup, who is first seen in the modest tailored clothes of a middle-class family man. As time passes, he's stripped naked, herded, and sold like cattle, and even hung by a rope. We are so deep inside this man's skin, as we were in both "Hunger" and "Shame," that McQueen forces the audience to ask a very physical question: What could it possibly be like to own one's skin and then lose it, to have it sold out from under like a foreclosure property?

In this devastating film, which leaves audiences as much shell-shocked and horrified as they are in awe, it comes down to a capitalistic question of ownership. What is it like when a person is treated like property? True, it's an indictment of brutal racism in America but it's also an exploration of the human condition in the era of slavery. McQueen forces us to stand in Northup's shoes – or atop his leathered bare soles – and it's a harsh reality.

McQueen told The New York Times: "I made this film because I wanted to visualize a time in history that hadn’t been visualized that way. I wanted to see the lash on someone's back. I wanted to see the aftermath of that, psychological and physical. I feel sometimes people take slavery very lightly, to be honest."

It’s not likely, after "12 Years a Slave," "Lincoln," and "Django Unchained," that moviegoers could possibly take slavery lightly. But the trio is not without precedent: from more antiquated takes on the institution in "Birth of a Nation" (1915), "Uncle Tom’s Cabin" (1927), and "Gone with the Wind" (1939) to more contemporary portrayals like "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman" (1974), "Beloved" (1998), and "Glory" (1989). And of course "Amistad."

While we need to address the past as it informs the future, with slavery in particular, there are pitfalls. There's a danger to the backward-looking glance presented in these three antebellum movies in an era when many viewers glean their history from movies. Make no mistake: Hollywood history is no substitute for an education.

Why? Hollywood movies are in the business of storytelling and packaging for a mass audience. They have to pluck out the heroes and the villains to tell the story – Django and Leonardo DiCaprio's Calvin Candie, Lincoln and his political adversaries, Northup and Epps. And that story, unlike the capricious passage of time, must be wrapped up in or around two hours (unlike the most definitive screen biography of slavery, the eight-part miniseries "Roots"), generally with the bad guys punished and the hero living on to enjoy another day ... or dying a martyr's death.

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Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio in "Django Unchained" (Photo Credit: Weinstein Co.)

Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio in "Django Unchained" (Photo Credit: Weinstein Co.)

McQueen actually ran into Tarantino in New Orleans just as the former was about to begin production on "12 Years" and as the latter was wrapping up "Django." The British-born McQueen, who has said his Caribbean ancestors were slaves, recalled their exchange to Indiewire: "He said to me, 'I hope there can be more than one film about slavery.' And I said, 'Of course, just like there's more than one gangster film or more than one western.' And that was it."

And like the multitude of films about World War II and the Holocaust, there's a clear need for stories about slavery in the cineplex.

"You cannot understand the United States without knowing about the history of slavery," the Columbia University historian Eric Foner told The New York Times. "Having said that, I don't think we should go too far in drawing parallels to the present. Slavery was a horrific institution, and it is not the same thing as stop and frisk. In a way, pulling it back to slavery takes the burden off the present."

While McQueen has made a movie that reminds domestic and international audiences of the horrors of slavery in a very visceral way that can never be forgotten, it's also time to embrace movies that reflect the diversity of the African-American experience – including the election of the first black president, Barack Obama.

"The world has seen African Americans as slaves (and maids and butlers)," Isaiah Washington told Yahoo Movies when discussing his role in the critically acclaimed "Blue Caprice." The long-shot Oscar contender for his portrayal of the senior partner in the Beltway Sniper attacks of 2002 expressed his desire for Hollywood to recognize the variety and complexity of the black experience on screen, even if that meant, as in his film, "two African-American killers portrayed as human beings before the incident."

Change is slow in coming, but it is coming: Alongside "12 Years a Slave" and "Django Unchained," there has been a proliferation of films driven by black characters recently. These include the box-office hits "The Help," "42," "Lee Daniels's The Butler," and Tyler Perry’s hugely profitable backlist. On the indie side, notable releases include "Fruitvale Station," "Middle of Nowhere," and Washington’s "Blue Caprice."

Films about slavery have been underrepresented in Hollywood for far too long, so it's nice to see them finally get their due, especially in the shape of prestige films that will bring home awards ("12 Years a Slave" is the early favorite to take home Best Picture at the Oscars) and demand a wide audience. And while "12 Years," "The Help," "42" and "The Butler" mostly all look back at a checkered national past, it's equally as important to start looking forward.

Watch the trailer for "12 Years a Slave":

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