I’m presently in the US on holiday. Seeing a movie a day. And since I don’t feel like writing about politics at the present time, I’ll write about movies. This one I saw last week, catching it at the very last theater in the area where it’s still showing. As it’s at the end of its US run—sortie en France le 22 janvier—presumably everyone who has had any interest in seeing it has done so by now. I don’t have anything original to add to what’s already been said about it. It is quite simply the most powerful film ever made on slavery in the American South. It entirely merits its 97 score on Metacritic—and is the best American movie of the year IMO.
Two things that went through my mind during the film and thinking about and discussing it after. One was the terrorist regime in the American South—where I happen to be at the moment (in a civilized part)—and that persisted for a century after the end of the Civil War. The American South was the most politically reactionary, violent, quasi feudal, and least democratic part of the Western world into the mid 20th century. And the entire white population was complicit. There may have been a few relatively kindly or benign slave owners—and one sees two in the film—but they were still slave owners. During the post Civil War century of Jim Crow, no sector of white society, not even a small minority, challenged the existing order. Practically no Southern whites participated in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s or openly supported it. Cf. South Africa, where a minority of whites did oppose apartheid (some even joining the ANC). And also unlike South Africa, there was no Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the post-Jim Crow South. The federal government imposed the change on the South via legislation, court rulings, and even troops, and that was that. The South had no choice but to acquiesce. Of course there’s been accommodation, some at least, and life for black Americans in the South today bears little resemblance to what it was sixty years ago, but there’s still a direct line between the white Weltanschauung depicted in the film and that of the current Tea Party GOP, which dominates (white) Southern politics. How else to comprehend the GOP’s determination to restrict the suffrage via undermining the Voting Rights Act (America being the only country in the Western world—or even among non-Western democracies—where there is a concerted effort by one of the parties of government to effectively deny eligible citizens the right to vote, or to render it as difficult as possible)?
Second thought. In the scene in the film where the slaves are chopping trees with axes, one can almost feel how tempted they are—and particularly Solomon Northup/Platt—to swing around with those axes and use them on the slave owner and his overseers. White Southerners lived in permanent dread fear of slave revolts, which is one reason the violence meted out to the slaves was so extreme. If one was whipped for not meeting the quota for picked cotton, then the penalty for killing a white man could only be a slow, hideous death following torture and mutilation, and which the slaves knew well (and not even the slave owners had law on their side if they tried to shield their slaves from the wrath of whites of lesser standing; e.g. the scene of Solomon Northup/Platt being told by his first owner that he couldn’t protect him after the altercation with the overseer and the latter’s lynching posse). Thus the Second Amendment and the “right to keep and bear arms,” here the white population forming armed militias to control the slaves. The Second Amendment was demanded by the Southern states to this end, so explicates law professor Carl T. Bogus in his 1998 article “The Hidden History of the Second Amendment,” published in the University of California at Davis Law Review. America and guns: it was all about controlling slaves.
UPDATE: Jonathan Chait has a quite good essay, dated December 4th, “12 Years a Slave and the Obama Era,” on the New York magazine website.
2nd UPDATE: The Guardian has an interesting and informative article (January 4, 2014) on the film’s director, “Steve McQueen: my hidden shame.” The lede: “His new film 12 Years A Slave is an unflinching look at human brutality. But director Steve McQueen’s childhood contains a painful secret he has never confronted.”
3rd UPDATE: The Smithsonian magazine has a most interesting article (April 4, 2016), “Inside America’s Auschwitz,” by writer Jared Keller. The lede: “A new museum [in Louisiana] offers a rebuke—and an antidote—to our sanitized history of slavery.”