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Overseer Artayou Carrier whipped me.  I was two months in bed sore from the whipping.  My master come after I was whipped; he discharged the overseer.  The very words of poor Peter, taken as he sat for his picture.  Baton Rouge, La., April 2, 1863.  (War
Surely, this had to be a joke. Surely, there is no person on earth who would sniffle that the problem with the movie 12 Years a Slave is that it failed to show any slaves being sufficiently happy about their slavery. That it was not, as the phrase goes these days, sufficiently fair and balanced on the whole question of whether slaves were mistreated prisoners or merely servants engaged in the alternative lifestyle of being treated as property by their owners, to be bought or sold, bred or beaten, captured or freed in accordance with the free market notions of the time.

Certainly, no doubt, there would be people thinking such things, because in this nation you can find people who think nearly anything you can imagine, including that Jesus rode dinosaurs and that aliens live among us and often disguise themselves as farm-road mailboxes—but surely a person who was passing himself off as a critic of movies or of culture would have the general awareness to stop the thought somewhere between noggin and pen. "Your movie needs to show happy slaves being happy in their slavery" is one of those statements that will land with a heavy thud no matter where you dispense it. It is not a question of being politically correct or politically incorrect, but a question of not making yourself a laughingstock. "Your movie needs to show happy slaves" is not, objectively speaking, movie criticism. It is your own brain giving your own ideological preferences a soggy tongue bath while you force the rest of us to watch.

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?
Given that real chattel slavery lasted longer than a 134 minute running time, I will stipulate that it quite probably does not. Nothing could, and people who look for the truth in any bit of art, as if staring at that particular canvas will reveal The truth about some singular aspect of human history or the human condition, no further study needed, no further attempts sought after or solicited—those people are pretentious imbeciles. Proposing that even the most thorough-minded film does not convey the truth, all-encompassing and complete, about any given sizable fraction of a continent or any few hundred years of time is not exactly the stuff of bold critique.

Let us continue in gory detail—but below the fold.

You would not say, "I do not like this painting of water lilies because it does not convey that sometimes a duck might swim by," or "I dislike this photograph of the River Thames because it does not have a full accounting of every boat to have plied its waters." You would not say that because it is so obviously stilted and pretentious as to make you look foolish. Couple the same thing with a political opinion, though, and people seem to lose their ability to self-censor.

And there is the problem.

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.
No, the word "real" does not jump you out of history and into politics. Nowhere in the history of the globe has the word "real" been associated with politics, and anyone who claims that calling something "real" is a political opinion instead of an academic one is selling something. Calling climate change "real," as a pointed example, does not render it political; asserting the factual declaration of it being real to be "political" is "political." Supposing that one movie gives a more accurate depiction of a particular historical time and place than several other movies might, i.e. is more "real," in the colloquial sense, is probably something a "credentialed historian" might be able to weigh in on. If you wanted to ask whether a movie did or did not accurately portray the general "real-ness" of a historical era, in fact, you would probably be better off asking a "credentialed historian" (the credentialed part seems to drip with resentment, as if the historians have been flashing their badges around the movie theater, mad with power) than, say, a movie reviewer or a "cultural critic."

If you've asked a credentialed historian to judge the foley work on the film you're likely beyond their body of expertise, but asking a credentialed historian about the history seems a safe enough line of inquiry. Whether you choose to interpret their responses as a declaration that the subject is now forever closed is entirely up to you and the bees in your particular bonnet.

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. He is 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!

We're going to skip that part right there.

I will defend your right to scribble a foggy pseudo-defense of slavery, no matter how much I might make fun of it afterward, but when it comes to the collected revelations of one Richard Cohen you can burn that particular rhetorical house down all you like. Go on, we will wait for you here.

Done now? Feel better? Fine. I would dare posit that Cohen is far from the first and is certainly not the best proponent of the notion of art as tool of revelation and self-reflection, or even the first to use the mirror analogy. Or even the first to use the mirror analogy on any given Tuesday. Nor is he the first philosopher (I jest) to note the inherent ugliness of mankind. It is a bit of a theme, in art. In religion, too. We won't even talk about history.

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.Which would be an insightful rebuttal had McQueen been arguing anything of the sort, but for someone who prides themselves on making elementary distinctions about things, it is a bit too loose in conflating a direct comparison with slavery, which McQueen was not arguing, with the manner in which the long-abolished institution of slavery has molded the small and large particulars of the nation we see today.

The dramatic racial components present in imprisonment and in poverty statistics are by no means things that any cultural critic should be surprised at, not at this late date. The historic line from slavery to Jim Crow to lingering racial distrust to profiling and suspicion and continuing violence is not, and has never been, something a decent mind should find themselves stumped over. These are among the easiest things in the culture to tease out, from the history of a hundred years ago to fifty years ago to last week. The supposed inherent inferiority of darker-skinned humans that was used as justification for slavery was still invoked a full hundred years later in the very same towns as rationale for literacy tests and poll taxes, for mandatory segregation, for business-enforced segregation.

Even during the still-vaunted Reagan years the thought that an inherent laziness among the Darker Races—the name welfare queens was given as shorthand for the collection of layabouts—was to blame for minority unemployment, poverty and crime, and was used to justify further cuts to the programs meant to combat those very things. The same suppositions continue apace; when a political mind today grumbles about the shiftlessness of "inner city" men it is a ripple born from fifty years of post-civil-rights resentments and animosities, themselves birthed from the currents of a hundred past years of repression and intimidation and violence, themselves the remnant forces of long-traveling waves of upheaval and civil war, themselves the destined wakes of those very first slaving ships, and from a devil's bargain to reduce human flesh to a commodity for purchase so long as the price is right.

McQueen was making the case that the multiple recent anniversaries of civil rights advancements had provided an atmosphere in which we were ready to talk about these things with a less self-deluding eye. Or, apparently, not:

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.
Oh, dear. I think that may be the finest example of self-delusional pomp the genre has seen in some time, or at least the most honest rendition. To take all of that American history, from the moment the Civil War ended to now, and toss it into a dark sack—to take all those threads from past to present and presume them cut, to presume Jim Crow and segregation and the beatings endured by still-alive men who can still point to the spots where it happened are pertinent to our culture now only because certain black Americans insist on using them as moral cudgel—now that has gone a bit off the rails from the usual movie criticism.

If we are to talk about which things may or may not be political, it is hard to make a pronouncement more political than that the documented historic links between things must no longer be noted when describing them lest the beneficiaries of the presumptive moral debt of those things demand recognition or authority on the matter. Forsooth, indeed. Forsooth and then some.

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.
So that, then, is really and truly to be the complaint against the film. That this single film did not show a single happy, singing slave being looked upon by a kind and generous owner. That it therefore is an incomplete and fatally flawed picture of the 250-year, continent-spanning institution it purports to enlighten us upon, or at the least is exactly as flawed as any of those other tittering films that portray slavery as a genteel institution of happy but sub-literate house servants always singing songs and baking pies, never worried that they might be beaten or sold off or hung by the neck near the front gate if they are caught being insufficiently appreciative of their pie-loving master. That by showing the capture, enslavement and barbaric treatment of a man,as taken from his own memoirs, slavery is shown too roughly as a cruel institution, as opposed to showing a balanced picture in which slavery was portrayed equally as a cruel institution and as a happy summer camp. Were there no water slides? No trust falls? How can truth be manifested in art if we do not insist that all artistic works show the precise portions of truth we most want to see? How can historical scholarship claim to seek reality if historians criticize Gone with the Wind for its characterization of slavery while criticizing some other film less than that?

Our movie critic has, true to his word, begun with a complaint that credentialed historians praising the film have demanded nothing more to be said on the subject, and fleshed it out with assertions that, by golly, he will thwart them and their credentials by bravely saying things regardless. But the things he has then gone on to say have been vapid.

He mentions the people who have praised the film for a willingness to show the brutalities of slavery in a way that past art on the subject have dodged; he then asserts that praise to be demonstration of their politics. He cites the moviemaker's supposition that he was able to get away with showing those brutalities when past movies could not because recent events have conspired to make the public willing to look back on that history in a blunter, less timid fashion; he declares it an obvious political agenda. The movie, the movie makers, the historians, the public—it is all the result of a political agenda. The only one without an apparent political agenda is the movie and cultural critic of The American Spectator magazine, just under the pop-up advertisement soliciting funds to stop Hillary Clinton and her Clintonian scheming—but no, I do suspect our sly author has an agenda in mind. He had one from the first sentence, and it has so overwhelmed him that all pretense of critiquing the movie has so far been for naught, so wrapped up are we in critiquing the motives of the people surrounding it. Keep at it, my man, you'll get to it sooner or later.

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.
Or not.
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.
People giving the hoariest of all defenses of American slavery, to wit in some cases it probably wasn't so bad, ought not bring up cartoonish views. If anything, the movie is getting praise for not taking the politically correct path of whitewashing the institution has been done time and time again. We already have dozens of movies in which slavery is portrayed as probably not so bad, I do believe that point of view has been well and truly covered. Yes, yes, and Schindler's List did not portray all the Jews that did just fine, and Saving Private Ryan dwelt too strongly on soldiers being shot at and not strongly enough on the European club scene of the time, and Soylent Green was entirely unbalanced because it failed to convey the inherent reasonability of corporate-sponsored cannibalism in an overcrowded world. Still, somehow, we filmgoers manage to muddle through.
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.
This may be the first sentence to directly reference the actual content of the movie. It was a long time coming.
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.
I wonder at the wisdom of asserting an autobiographical account of being a black American captured and sold into slavery as "anti-slavery propaganda", whether understandably or not. Words mean things, as we have just seen from the mighty hullabaloo arising from ones like truth and reality being tossed about; calling an actual historical account of slavery "propaganda" on the part of the kidnapped and enslaved man who wrote it seems a bit much.
Nothing wrong with that, of course, but
Stop there, please.
historians once thought of their art as something distinct from propaganda—or from movies, for that matter—as they seem to do no longer.
Sigh. Well, I don't know how to reiterate the point any more times than I have, other than to just say it again outright: Critiquing the portrayal of historic content in a film is, indeed, probably something a historian can feel qualified to do, and probably is more qualified to do than most critics of art. It doesn't make them propagandists, and claiming they have a political agenda does not demonstrate that they do indeed have a political agenda, although it universally demonstrates that the accuser has one.
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.
Slave owner portrayed as too cruel, probably because of politics: check. All right, there we are.

You are probably wondering, right now, why I have taken you on this long slog. Why I have spent perhaps more words critiquing the critique than the critique itself contains. Why any of us should give a damn.

Here is the reason. We need to stop being, to be blunt, stupid.

We need to stop praising people for the ability to say stupid things smartly. We need to stop elevating "opinions" that are, in fact, only better-manicured presentations of crass, much sillier suppositions from which all of the non-embarrassing people have moved on. We need to immunize ourselves from the constant editorial jabber always premising itself on the declaration that history or geology or physics is wrong because the all-wise editorialist knows better than them all, knows for a plain fact that the history or geology or physics is wrong because a man they once met who shares their own ideals told them so once and that is good enough for them.

If you find political agenda in every interaction, nine times of ten it is because you brought it there. if you sniffle at a work of art and call it propaganda, nine times out of ten it is because you would prefer the propaganda of the piece to be pointed in a different direction. And finding a story about slavery grating because it did not portray happy slaves is, truly, among the dankest crevices in the cave of stupid discredited arguments. Whether you present it with pomp or merely drool it out the side of your mouth, it is the same supposition.

What our critic seeks here is that the movie teach the controversy. This is an opinion almost entirely rendered by people demanding there be a controversy where there is no credible one to be had. Examples include the supposition that fossil evidence might all be wrong because Some Guy supposes the fossils were planted there, or the supposition that the climate is not warming because Some Guy does not know how statistics work.

In this case, Some Guy is the entire collection of individuals who have staked their pride and personal identities on the notion that slavery must not have been all that bad or their—our—predecessors would not have engaged in it. Our critic does not fess up to being among them, heavens no, not in all those paragraphs of beating meticulously around that bush—he merely finds the absence of their opinions conspicuous, and entirely political, and says that it strains ordinary credulity for that point of view to be absent. It is an essay in which the logic is applied in reverse: we start with the conclusion, that the movie is political "propaganda," and end with the actual content of the movie presented as shoehorned-in afterthought. It even reads better if you reverse the paragraphs:

—The slave master in the movie is portrayed as too cruel.

—But surely not all slave owners were cruel.

—And Gone with the Wind is a movie about slavery, too.

—But was not similarly praised by historians.

—So those historians must have an anti-ante-bellum agenda.

—And are basing their praise of the historic accuracy of this movie on that agenda.

Very nice. Almost poetic, if exceedingly and excruciatingly shallow.

If you believe that not all slaves were treated as monstrously as Solomon Northup was treated, state so directly, don't meander around always at the cusp of proposing it but never quite committing. You will find very little argument against it. Yes indeed, I imagine some slaves were treated better than other slaves. I imagine some slaves were more content in their legally mandated and enforced occupations than others were. We all imagine that, because it is not even remotely a controversial supposition to suppose that some people who owned other people were made of better moral fiber than other people who owned people. Some slaves were killed for insubordination, after all—but others were freed on their owner's deathbed! (Whether the "free" part would stick was sometimes a more touchy subject, it being dependent on everyone except the dead once-owner for enforcement. But we digress.)

Even with all of that, however, I would argue that our critic has badly missed his mark. He forcefully premises the quality of the movie itself not on whether it expresses a truth about American slavery, to use his own words, but whether he supposes it to show the truth. The truth, full and complete. He chafes that it does not.

He is still wrong.

The movie portrays the true story of a black American who was kidnapped off the streets of the nation's capital and turned into human property. He was kidnapped, brought to market, sold to an owner, and sent to work on the Louisiana plantations. When he protested that he was a free man he was tortured and threatened with death if he ever again claimed so. When he defended himself against assaults by a white owner, he was beaten and presumed a troublemaker and sold to a worse owner. He was freed over a decade later, and that he was freed instead of killed when he eventually again dared confide his "free" status should be considered an outcome based in equal parts on his judgment and his luck.

Even though it neglects to show better treated slaves, does the account express the truth about slavery? It does. It does because even if somewhere among those very Louisiana plantations there was a happy, willing slave, there was also a Solomon Northup. The institutions of American slavery had no particular concern for whether an owner was a kind owner or a vicious one. If you were not tortured or not beaten or not starved or not chained to a table it was your luck, not because the Institution disallowed it. If you were owned by a kind person but they fell on harder times, you might find yourself owned by someone worse in short order. And if you were a "free" man, a "free" black man with all the papers to prove that you had become your own owner—praise the modern enlightenment of it all!—you could find yourself a slave nonetheless by walking down the wrong street at the wrong time, and there would be not a damn thing the Institution would deign itself to do about it.

The truth about American slavery is that human beings were owned. The truth about American slavery is that as a slave, you were a non-human bit of property to be used and traded. How you were fed depended on your owner. How you were housed depended on your owner. Whether you were strung from a nearby tree depended on your owner. You might be well treated, or you might be treated monstrously, so monstrously that audiences one and a half centuries hence would still wince at the retelling, but there was not a damn thing you could do about it because you were owned. That is the truth about slavery.

The movie depicts the Institution with accuracy by portraying only a scant few of the very many ways you were allowed to treat a fellow human as a matter of law and genetics and heritage, and by portraying only a scant few of the many ways the Institution swept without thought over whatever begrudging laws might purport to mark what the limits should have been. Once you have declared that some human beings may be owned, there is no but that can redeem it. Once you have institutionalized the notion that any man of a certain skin tone can be tortured, or beaten, or starved, or rendered nearly insane via abuse, or put down like a dog that had gotten too dangerous, you do not get to puff up with a protestation that, well, some were not. The worst of those things is what the Institution allowed, either by explicit force of law or by turning a blind eye as required. This is what American slavery was, a process and tradition of dehumanization that was elevated from raw genocide not via any higher-minded morality but by the desire to turn a profit. You cannot point to a convenient minstrel in the corner and say look, it was not so bad—that minstrel might be "sold down the river," to use a phrase that exists solely because the Institution made it so, if he so much as waves back at you.

This is why we must continually gird ourselves against being stupid. It is human nature to dismiss the uncomfortable and substitute a better fiction in its place. We insist that each horrible thing cannot be so horrible, because all those other humans would surely not have been able to stomach it so easily. We insist that we are free from all past sins because we are more enlightened, and then go to dramatic lengths to un-enlighten ourselves.

There is no common thread from slavery to today—really? The institution of treating a vast swath of humanity as the precise equivalent of farm stock is redeemed in part by the knowledge that not all owners treated their stock as viciously as the Institution allowed them to—are you sure? A film that portrays a true story of an actual American man in an actual place at an actual point of time and garners praise from historians versed in the era is too political because it does not balance that single grim story with a show tune?

We should be insulted. We should be insulted because we are insulted, every day, by teach-the-controversy blowhardism that masquerades the same stubborn insistence to dismantle inconvenient thoughts and facts and replace them with more fluffy things. We are told by countless propagandists that everything is propaganda, then are told what propaganda the propaganda should have been replaced with.

Slavery, like all of the rest of human society, every nook and cranny of it, should be judged on its worst behaviors, not its best. If the worst is abominable to us now, we should be grateful we have changed at least that much. Spending each new tedious decade re-pondering whether it was so bad, or crafting new explanations for why the substance of the streets around us now have no possible historic links to the recent then, is a declaration of precisely where we find that line between abominable and reasonable to have resettled itself.

If your mind finds slavery redeemed at least a little by the thought that some owners were kind, that is your mind's declaration that one human owning another is perhaps not that horrific, so long as certain standards are upheld. If your mind can see no link between generations of stubborn attempts to keep the descendants of slaves in poverty and the generations of poverty that ensued, that is your mind's declaration that all of that history was so banal and expected as to not even require thought. We hear about school dances that are segregated to this very day—but some wags profess to be baffled as to how that ever could have happened, much less have continued. We look at a picture of the now-congressman being beaten for demanding his rights in his younger years, a black and white picture of the very same man that you can meet and shake hands with and talk to directly today, and wags will tell us to dismiss what the man says, because he has an agenda. Because the problem, whatever that was, has been solved.

We are that afraid of our history, and of ourselves. Not just the "cultural critics" among us, but all of us, as products of human nature and human pride and deeply human attempts to justify ourselves to whatever judge may be watching. We would rather look for the happy slave than visit the sites of the old slave auctions and feel the heavy weight of the shackles that bound the ones that were not happy enough, or at the least we are oh-so-eager to tell ourselves that the mere presence of the first might redeem the second.

We would rather look for the happy slave, and find him, and point at him triumphantly than let ourselves contemplate whether the happy slave might tell a story that damns us as completely as anything Solomon Northup once wrote down.

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Sun Mar 16, 2014 at 11:15 AM PDT.

Also republished by Barriers and Bridges and White Privilege Working Group.

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