A new historical drama, 12 Years A Slave opens in cinemas this Friday. It’s an adaptation of an 1853 autobiography written by Solomon Northup who was born in New York State as a free-negro but was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Historians have validated his memoir as being remarkably accurate – and film lecturer, Steven Benedict came in to tell us about the film.
Steven Benedict's verdict on 12 Years a Slave:
A superb film that, given its brutal subject matter, is remarkably restrained. You can’t sugar coat the story but it would be very easy to run an assault on the audience in order to convey the inhumanity of the practice. The film avoids that dangerous trap, but it is nonetheless an enormously distressing and upsetting film. I saw it the day of Mandela’s Memorial Service, and McQueen’s telling of the story rings so true. It is not exclusively about slavery. It is about dignity and the denial of it.
Other Slave Movies released over the Years
by Steven Benedict
The film focuses on the parliamentary campaign to end the slave trade in the British Empire. The thing about films that focus on slavery is that they are very noble in intent but sometimes, their noble aspirations result in films that fail to gain dramatic traction. It was made to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the British Parliament’s ban on the slave trade. Ioan Gruffudd stars as William Wilberforce who led the campaign. Gruffudd holds the centre of the story very well but of course is aided and abetted by an issue that comes loaded with big speeches and the weight of history on its side.
Steven Spielberg’s account of the true story of the Mende slaves who mutineed aboard the ship, Amistad in 1839. An international legal battle ensued over who ‘owned the cargo’. It resulted a United States Supreme Court case in 1841. The film is uneven, but has some very good moments in it, not least of which is the utterly shocking sequence that depicts the middle-passage, where the captives are held in chains below deck, and then, when it becomes too difficult for the crew to hold them there, they simply hurl them off the ship and into the ocean. In that moment, I think the film conveyed the complete indifference to human life that lies at the heart of slavery.
Interesting if unsuccessful adaptation of Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel inspired by the true story of Margaret Garner, a slave who fled to free state Ohio. Slave owners arrived to recapture her but she killed her two-year old daughter rather than be taken back. This was produced by Oprah Winfrey and directed by Johnathan Demme who was on a very hot streak at the time having won an Oscar for directing Silence of the Lambs and then guiding Tom Hanks to an Oscar in Philadelphia.
Demme is a great humanist and Thandie Newton delivers a very strong performance, but for some reason the story does not ignite on the screen and consequently the theme of psychological repression never solidify. What Morrison was addressing was that most slaves repressed their memories in an attempt to forget the past and so, while descendents of white slave owners would have denied their ancestry, so too were the memories of slaves themselves wiped away. So what you have is collective social, cultural and historical amnesia. It is ghostly in the book; terrifying to think that such atrocities can be so blithely denied, but the movie doesn’t capture the… spirit.
The Birth of a Nation made in 1915
This is one of the most important films ever made. It is also regrettably a notoriously racist one. D.W. Griffith’s US Civil War epic does many things that are, on a technical level, quite extraordinary. The battle scenes are enormous, the family relationships very well drawn and he cross cuts between several scenes to create intense dramatic tension. The thing is that the film is avowedly in favor of the Ku Klux Klan and such was the film’s success at the box-office (est. $50m… back in the days when tickets were $2) its popularity helped revived the membership of the Ku Klux Klan. By the 1920s, they were the third biggest party in the US.
It has long been claimed that when Woodrow Wilson, the US President at the time said of the film… ‘it is like writing history with lightening. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.’ But in all likelihood, the quote was made up by Thomas J. Dixon, the author of the book from which the film is adapted.
Slavery’s long and brutal silhouette held sway over every aspect of American society, its politics, religion, economy and culture. That slavery was criminalized at all is without doubt one of the most momentous global shifts in the last thousand years.
The abolition of slavery redefined not one but two entire continents of people. And yet, when it comes to Django Unchained, the entire issue serves as a mere backdrop for Tarantino, a canvas onto which he can project and impose, not his view of history, but about Quentin Tarantino. Admittedly, as a piece of cinema it is alluring if not beguiling.
But in a wider context it is reckless post-modern trash. Because Tarantino’s films are so loaded with pop-culture references, everything comes with quotation marks and everything is flattened out with irony. No matter which way you look at it, it is NOT about slavery. He doesn’t so much dramatize the past as trivialize it. The slave owners are depicted as ignorant if charming, buffoons. They were anything but. The uncomfortable truth is, such people were not stupid; ignorant, bigoted and sadistic yes, but not stupid. They were clever enough to know how to manipulate and oppress others. But by presenting the villains as a set of buffoons dilutes their brutality, makes light of their crimes and by partaking in the fun, by laughing at the jokes, we the audience, further mock the victims who were so brutalized.
12 Years A Slave is a brilliant antidote to Tarantino’s ego trip. As indeed is Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. It reverential but, it so marginalizes the black characters that they are rendered all but invisible and silent. In other words, it is once again the story about white people. Yes. But it’s a noble picture.
Going further back into history, we have Spartacus, Stanley Kubrick’s telling of the slave who took on the might of the Roman Empire. Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Tony Curtis and Jean Simmons star in a film that works best in the early sequences when you see Spartacus as a slave.
Then there is the animated story of Moses, The Prince of Egypt that was released by DreamWorks, Steven Spielberg’s company. It’s a very good movie, told with flair and invention and interestingly, the filmmakers there consulted quite closely with religious leaders of the Abrahamic faiths; Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Something that Mel Gibson singularly did not do when he made The Passion of the Christ… but that’s a whole other story.
And speaking of Moses… The Ten Commandments, the 1956 blockbusting epic from kitch-meister, C.B. DeMille? The only thing that is worth keeping from that film are the special effects. Parting the Red Sea is still a great spectacle. And it makes you wonder how Ridley Scott will visualize it next year in his film, Exodus that stars The Dark Knight himself, Christian Bale.