Ever watch the ending of “The Wild Bunch” and think, ‘suppressing Kronstadt or the Vendee was probably even more fun’? At the end of “Braveheart,” did you think, ‘Whatever the history says, William Wallace being a neoconfederate, he should have been castrated, flayed, and kept alive until a confession is extracted, because structural Anglophobia is real and these messages need to be reinforced.’ I think Jonathan Chait has:
I understand it not merely as the greatest film about slavery ever made, as it has been widely hailed, but a film more broadly about race. Its sublimated themes, as I understand them, identify the core social and political fissures that define the American racial divide to this day. To identify 12 Years a Slave as merely a story about slavery is to miss what makes race the furious and often pathological subtext of American politics in the Obama era.
He goes on to dissect a column by longtime Washington Times editorialist-turned-Alabama congressional candidate Quin Hillyer, whom he doesn’t think is racist (Hillyer worked against David Duke) but he thinks repeats a lot of racially charged tropes about Obama.
White supremacy, to Chait as with most similarly-minded liberals, is a pervasive, subtle and miasmatic “residue,” (his word) embedded in all sorts of nondeliberate and subconscious contexts. And to the degree that it can be interrogated and rooted out, I’m all for that.
But I think Chait would admit that the vast majority of art that attempts to tackle race is extraordinarily self-conscious about it. As evidence, witness the changes to the original Solomon Northup story, and the previous screenplay, both of which are more or less the same, just far shorter on the brutal violence:
12 Years A Slave is a remake. What’s more, the original television film was directed by the celebrated Gordon Parks. Why no one seems to remember this is a mystery to me, yet all too typical of what I’ll call media amnesia. It first aired on PBS in 1984 as Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, reached a wider audience the following year when it was repeated as an installment of American Playhouse, and made its video debut under the title Half Slave, Half Free.
Steve Sailer digs up a portion of Northup’s ghostwritten memoir that undercuts the portrayal in this year’s movie of Northup as a bourgeois pillar of the community:
"Though always in comfortable circumstances, we had not prospered. The society and associations at that world-renowned watering place (Saratoga, the home of American horseracing), were not calculated to preserve the simple habits of industry and economy to which I had been accustomed, but, on the contrary, to substitute others in their stead, tending to shiftlessness and extravagance.”
In McQueen’s often baffling movie, this upper-middle-class family man suddenly decides to run off to join the circus with two fast-talking white men without even leaving a note for his wife. While dining in an elegant Washington, DC restaurant with his new friends, he suddenly takes ill (perhaps from being slipped a Mickey Finn) and wakes up in chains.
I saw the movie and enjoyed it, but it’s full of distortions like this: Solomon Northup speaks like Cicero, all slaveowners are Calvin Candie sadists, and so forth. The best one can say is that it’s a very, very pious take on Northup’s memoir.
Consider Chait’s outsized praise in comparison to the suspicious, if not outright hostile coverage of “Copperhead” — a view Alyssa Rosenberg helpfully summed up before she even saw the movie. (My interview with the screenwriter and director here.)
What explains the suspicion, if Rosenberg and Chait agree that “Copperhead” is not a racist film?
To sympathize with Ron Maxwell’s subjects, and to be skeptical of the pious mythmaking of “12 Years a Slave,” is to violate the egalitarian dogma to which Chait subscribes. Race is part of it, but it’s not the only part.
It’s as if they want a chance to (re)play the part of emancipators.
Edit: Sonny Bunch on this whole stupid thing