The question to be answered about Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is this: whether or not it expresses a truth about chattel slavery as practiced in the American South before 1865 — and let us stipulate that it does — does it express the truth? In everything I have read about it, the assumption seems to be that it leaves nothing more to be said on the subject. The movie “vividly conveys the realities of life within the peculiar institution” writes Annette Gordon-Reed in the New Yorker. Eric Foner, like Ms. Gordon-Reed a credentialed historian, tells an interviewer for the New York Times that he thinks “this movie is much more real, to choose a word like that, than most of the history you see in the cinema. It gets you into the real world of slavery. That’s not easy to do.” But to choose a word like that is also to make a leap out of history and into politics. Professor Foner ought to know better
So ought Richard Cohen of the Washington Post, but he at least has the excuse of stupidity in failing to make the elementary distinction between representation and reality. Heis so utterly convinced of the literal truth, not only of the horrors that Mr. McQueen has got up to show him but of their exhaustiveness as history that he takes 12 Years a Slave as an indictment not just of slavery but of himself and everyone else who has ever enjoyed the presumptively false portrait of the ante-bellum South in Gone With the Wind. “The grave obligation of art is to show us what we look like,” he writes. “McQueen has held up a mirror. God, we look ugly.”
We, forsooth! This is, I shouldn’t have to point out, to make some very large claims for the movie — even larger, perhaps, than those made by Mr. McQueen himself in the same New York Times interview with Eric Foner. When the interviewer tentatively suggests to him that an “analogue” of the scenes of torture out of which the movie is mostly composed might be the “stop and frisk” policy of today’s New York Police Department, he eagerly agrees:
Absolutely. History has a funny thing of repeating itself. Also, it’s the whole idea of once you’ve left the cinema, the story continues. Over a century and a half to the present day. I mean, you see the evidence of slavery as you walk down the street. . .The prison population, mental illness, poverty, education. We could go on forever. I think people are ready. With Trayvon Martin, voting rights, the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and a black president, I think there’s a sort of perfect storm of events. I think people actually want to reflect on that horrendous recent past in order to go forward.
See, there are some pretty obvious differences between slavery as practiced in the U.S. a century and a half ago and today’s “prison population” or Trayvon Martin, not to mention stop and frisk. The only connection between these things and slavery is that the presumptive moral debt owed to the descendants of slavery’s victims and the moral authority conferred on them by it may be applied to the disapproval and eventually the disappearance of things its beneficiaries don’t like or find objectionable or irksome, on account of the sufferings of their ancestors.
Our awareness of Mr. McQueen’s frankly stated political agenda cannot but affect our view of the supposed history that is supposedly repeating itself and may even cast doubt backwards on that history itself. If ever in slavery’s 250-year history in North America there were a kind master or a contented slave, as in the nature of things there must have been, here and there, we may be sure that Mr McQueen does not want us to hear about it. This, in turn, surely means that his view of the history of the American South is as partial and one-sided as that of the hated Gone With the Wind. That professional historians among others insist on calling such propaganda “truth” and “reality” and condemning anyone who suggests truth and reality might be more complicated than that is one measure of the politicization of historical scholarship in our time — to a level, perhaps, rivaling even that of film studies.
Of course, the withers of Professor Foner and his kind are unwrung by such a charge because they assume that all of history is political to begin with, a Marxist-Leninist war of exploiters against exploited that can only have one outcome as it can only have one “right” side. They don’t care that such a cartoonishly simple-minded view of the vast and fascinating sweep of the past cuts them off from learning anything from it that they don’t already know — just as it cuts off the movie audience, assumed to harbor similar prejudices themselves, from any acquaintance with historical “reality” not pre-certified as politically correct. Yes, there was much cruelty and hardship in the slave-owning South, as there has been in most of the rest of the world most of the time, and Mr. McQueen’s camera is all over that. But it strains ordinary credulity to suppose that there was nothing else.
This is all the more to be regretted because of the movie’s virtues — which, if not numerous, are considerable. In particular, the performance of Chiwetel Ejiofor in the role of Solomon Northup, the free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841, is beyond praise. The historical Solomon’s memoir of the same title as the movie was avowedly and understandably anti-slavery propaganda and was made much of, along with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by abolitionists in the North. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but historians once thought of their art as something distinct from propaganda — or from movies, for that matter — as they seem to do no longer. Several of the other performances are also very good, though Michael Fassbender’s cruel slave owner, Edwin Epps, makes Simon Legree look like Ashley Wilkes. Such a cartoon can be passed off as history only because it is politically correct and therefore dangerous to dismiss or ignore for anyone occupying a place in the culturally dominant élite that runs the universities and the media. Obviously, that doesn’t include me.