Since the production of The Birth of a Nation, Hollywood has lived with the mythic world imagined by artists who view the lives of people of color as footnotes and props. From Gone With The Wind to Django Unchained, the most difficult type of film for Hollywood to get right is the antebellum story of people of color.
Django, for example used the archetypes designed by Hollywood — “Mammy, Coon, Tom, Buck, and Mulatto,” to quote film historian, Donald Bogle — and exploit them in order to create a hyper-exploitation Western fantasy, with slavery as the backdrop. The film is a remix and critique of exploitation clichés, not a historical drama seeking to illuminate our consciousness. Django is a form of visual entertainment where enlightenment might happen through a close reading of the film. All the archetypes remain in place. Nothing is exploded or re-imagined, only remixed to serve the present age.
Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, on the other hand, sits within and outside the Hollywood fantasy of antebellum life. I say it sits within, because the archetypes forged by the celluloid bigotry of D.W. Griffith are present. But, in the hands of the gifted auteur, Steve McQueen, they are obliterated and re-imagined as complex people caught in a system of evil constructed by the immorality of markets, betrothed to mythical, biological, white supremacy.
The film dares to tell a story America has been reluctant to share and Hollywood has consistently re-imagined as a whimsical romantic era of comical slaves, noble men, and appropriate women. What is so astonishing about 12 Years A Slave is the skill by which McQueen navigates the horror with the complex humanity of Solomon Northrup’s character, played brilliantly by Chiwetel Ejiofor.
The film tells the real life account of Solomon Northrup, a free-born African-American living in Saratoga, NY. As a family man making a living as a violinist he is lured away to Washington, D.C., to perform for several days. He becomes deathly ill after a meal with his benefactors and wakes up in chains and is eventually sold to a plantation in Louisiana. Northrup’s ordeal is heart wrenching and the brutality we witness through his eyes causes the viewer to re-evaluate everything about antebellum lore.
McQueen uses the camera and setting as a character. We feel the pain of each beating and subtle act of cruelty. There are no cinematic gymnastics or quick cuts, only steady slow-framed shots, where we witness the brutality from the perspective of the oppressed.
One subtle area of the film I was taken by was the use of language. McQueen made the conscious choice to cast British, American, and African actors. This choice gives weight to the production, but not for the reason many would suspect. By using actors from different regions, the accents of characters from New England to Louisiana have an authentic feel. Hollywood and America, in general, fail to recognize the diversity and beauty of African-inspired dialect. Northrup’s character and Ejiofor’s pronunciation fit perfectly for a person living in New York influenced by British and colonial communication. Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong'o both speak with a communication style influenced by French and African people. McQueen’s film is devoid of the stereotypical Hollywood accents popularized by Gone With the Wind. We witness men and women rooted in a region who speak with dignity and rhythm. Black dialect, when spoken properly, as playwright, August Wilson demonstrates, is a thing of beauty when given the proper context.
No film supported by Hollywood has dared share this American story from the perspective of the enslaved African. Films such as Goodbye Uncle Tom, Mandingo, and Django, use exploitative stereotypes to send a message but ultimately fail because they solidify the celluloid stereotypes composed by D.W. Griffith and others. Movies, such as Amistad and Glory placed people of African descent as props who need the moral courage and enlightened intellect of a white character to truly set them free. McQueen refuses to engage the paradigms and subtly creates a new space for antebellum storytelling. The most liberal characters are infected by the evil of racialized thinking and subconscious actions motivated by a belief in white supremacy.
I plan to view the film again and rent a theater for my church to watch and learn. We will have panel discussions, lectures, and our Confirmation class will read the story of Solomon Northrup.
Steve McQueen, the writer, John Ridley, and producer, Brad Pitt are to be commended for bringing a portion of our country’s history to the screen. I think our ancestors are grateful. I know I am.
Otis Moss III is senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.