Our taste for Steve McQueen’s earnest – and now Oscar-winning – exposé says a lot about our own liberal complacency. In this respect we’d do well to develop a finer appreciation for the not so discrete charms of an earlier classic. Strangely enough, this is far more likely to shake us out of our complacency than 12 Years a Slave.
Surprise, surprise! An Oscar for 12 Years a Slave! Of course, this is by no means the first overrated work to win ‘best film’ nor is it the first to be so earnestly politically correct. What really distinguishes this one is how widespread, verging on universal, the hype has been around its indifferent achievements. Maybe the best way to study a culture is to examine what, obsessively, inexplicably – slavishly even – it loves most. I’m talking about what makes us feel good about ourselves, what distracts us from our own shortcomings.
What strikes me in this regard is how Steve McQueen’s latest work seems to signal both a repudiation of the errors of the past and a celebration of how far we’ve come. In other words, this is a film that plays much too beautifully to the gallery of liberal complacency. Unfortunately this is the same moldering, largely unreformed liberal complacency from which the abomination of racial-chattel slavery emerged in the first place, and which continues to give succour to newer versions of bottom-feeder misery and more or less total servitude. This is the largely ignored reality of our glorious system of market utopianism, and like all utopians we do so love to ignore reality!
I can’t think of a better way to show how little progress we’ve really made than to compare this year’s big winner to an even bigger one of the past. This was a film with a similar regional and historical focus, and it cleaned up at the Oscars in 1940. It was called Gone with the Wind.
The definitive epic of our time and a still unsurpassed blockbuster, the movie has become positively iconic in Western popular culture. To re-watch it, as I did recently (courtesy of Tromsø Film club), is to be reminded of the wealth of erstwhile references back to the lodestone itself. Hence I’m unable to witness the cynical bravado of Rhett Butler without immediately thinking of Han Solo! After all, who can forget that great cinematic moment when Solo assures Princess Leia, as near to Clark Gable style as Harrison Ford could muster, ‘I’m no hero, I’m just looking after number one’ – or words to that effect?
On the other hand, 12 Years a Slave does show how far we’ve come – or does it? To be fair, what we do get is the slave’s point of view, certainly conspicuous by its absence in Gone with the Wind. This does indeed represent a modicum of progress. All the same, based on these two movies, the best we can say about the trajectory of slavery in film from 1939 to 2013 is that it’s taken us one step forward and two steps back. Let’s take a closer look at both movies, starting with this year’s Oscar-winner.
12 Years a Slave
The premise is sound. After all, it’s based on a true story, as recorded in the autobiography by the same name. Unscrupulous slave traders snatch an unsuspecting Solomon Northup from normal life and immerse him in the misery of servitude. It’s quite a story. The story-telling, however, is uneven at best.
On the positive side we get plenty of that light touch we have come to expect from McQueen, where the visually compelling internal logic of events unfolds, unexamined but silently screaming its existential meaning. The scene where Northup awakens from his drugged stupor to find himself in chains, for example, is as powerful as any in Shame, McQueen’s preceding and generally superior work.
What we also get, however, is the odd moment of melodrama, not the sustained variety of Gone with the Wind, of course, which the classic picture needed to bear the weight of its own epic self-importance. This is more of a random smattering of isolated, discordant notes. They don’t dominate the work but they are just enough to ruin its harmony. They represent the intrusion of the voice of the auteur himself and his own scarcely disguised polemic.
The effect is to destabilise the cinematic experience, impeding the viewer’s identification with the characters portrayed. These are the moments when the film is also at its least historically accurate. Anachronism is laid upon anachronism, for example, as, first, a male slave objects so indignantly to the use of a female as a sexual chattel, and is then summarily executed for having dared to resist authority.
The true horror of slavery (like the Holocaust, which followed in its footsteps) lies in its dismal normalisation. This is what Hannah Arendt famously dubbed the ‘banality of evil,’ the routine, unthinking and, above all, bureaucratic horror of our distinctively modern institutions. It is unfamiliarity that sharpens our apprehension and our indignation. Hence we are much more shocked by Athenian drudges condemned to the brutality of the silver-mines than we are by the wage-slavery of Bangladeshi garment-workers who put the very clothes on our backs. Sometimes McQueen’s characters respond too much as we would do, were we unfortunate enough to be transported back to such an environment, that is, with disbelief and indignation. The execution of slaves, summary or otherwise, was in any case almost unheard of. They were much too valuable.
The problem is that McQueen’s slave-masters are not real – or realistic – people implicated in a rotten social system. They are caricatures of the usual and rather clichéd tropes of guilt: the Pontius Pilot figure who looks the other way; the unfeeling, unthinking brute; the unapologetic sadist. Together they create the impression of a conspiracy of moral turpitude, but one from which we might always escape, as we might from a psychotic kidnapper. For the fictionalised Northup, a kinder, gentler world is never too far away, however cruel his – temporary – exile.
The film creates the impression of the normal, liberal world of a burgeoning free America, an El Dorado once inhabited by Northup and to which he will eventually return. The reality was quite different. Even after slavery was finally abolished from American soil, in the aftermath of civil war, the rights of blacks were limited in practice throughout the Union. They exchanged slavery for no more than second-class citizenship and, in many cases, a kind of monetized servitude. It’s hardly surprising, then, that the civil rights movement found much work still to be done as recently as the 1960s.
The clumsy cameo appearance of Brad Pitt towards the end of the film highlights the problem. Never mind the impulse to laugh at precisely the wrong moment, provoked by this sudden reminder of his role as executive producer! How did he get that part, by the way? Did it go something like this? Pitt to McQueen: ‘I paid for the goddamn movie so I’ll goddamn play the white angel of mercy if I want to! Besides, who better to liberate God’s children from the evil of slavery than Brad Pitt himself?’ However it came to pass, this felt way too much like the proverbial arrival of the cavalry.
The problem of course runs deeper than any misguided (presumably by Pitt himself) casting choice. The character in its very conception is another historically dubious cliché: the liberal humanist, from the North naturally, the heartland of true American values and ‘the home of the free.’ As a point of historical information, by no means all – or even many – liberals categorically opposed slavery. Indeed, many self-professed ‘progressives,’ whatever their misgivings, sought with some energy to justify or at least excuse the practice, from John Locke to the so-called founding fathers of America. Indeed, George Washington himself was a successful slave trader and owner.
Active opposition came rather from the Church and other Christian organisations, and even these were remarkably indifferent to the plight of the slaves themselves. What exercised their crusading zeal was the prospect of slave-owners who might jeopardise their own mortal souls by taking sexual liberties with their female slaves. As we turn our attention to Gone with the Wind, we’ll do our best not to dwell on the imperilled soul of one Rhett Butler, that notorious but mercifully fictional womaniser of the ‘Old South.’
Gone with the Wind
There is scant attention to the plight of slaves here, certainly. Our story concerns the masters (and mistresses) of the ‘Old South’ and how some of them lived – and loved – through the upheavals of the civil war. We witness the aristocratic ‘old world’ grandeur of their lives and share the melancholy of their loss as that world is ripped asunder by the travails of armed conflict.
What distinguishes Gone with the Wind is its powerful and memorable characters, however heavily they may be cloaked in the conventions of melodrama. Who can forget, for example, the exasperating self-absorption or, for that matter, the stirring defiance in the face of adversity, of the immortal Scarlett O’Hara? For all its phony epic grandeur there is a powerful human truth at the heart of this movie and one that perhaps sheds greater light on the period and its contradictions (albeit indirect) than 12 Years a Slave will ever do, for all its good intentions and political self-consciousness.
The pathos at the heart of the story lies in the tension between genuine human love and the urge, at times desperate, to be free. Hence Rhett and Scarlett’s love is doomed even, and especially, in the very moment of its full realisation – to powerful ironical effect. This, in other words, is a story of the pathos of liberty. As Domenico Losurdo suggests in his ground-breaking study Liberalism: A Counter-History, it is just such a pathos that lies at the emotional core of liberal (and capitalist) society. Liberalism itself entails no natural egalitarianism or even human solidarity, despite the protestations of the liberals themselves. Indeed, the sense of personal emancipation is only enhanced by its contrast with the degradation of the slaves and drones that make one’s privileged existence possible. These are the indispensable Hegelian witnesses to that success, the ones who make it all worthwhile.
Society’s ‘winners’ simultaneously revel in the thrill of privilege but hate to be reminded of it directly. Theirs is a delicate balancing act: to enjoy a ‘universal right’ whose grandeur is only enhanced by its paradoxical exclusivity. In other words there is a real contradiction here, as dramatized in the story of Rhett and Scarlett. Their personal tragedy is echoed in a social one whose depth and scope defies imagination.
We crush our human love and solidarity, along with the billions enslaved by poverty and want, on the wheel of a self-serving, restless yearning to be free. This is the wheel that makes our world go round. For all its good intentions, 12 Years a Slave, I’m sorry to say, only keeps it turning.