Saturday, November 9, 2013

Beware the Movie Of Pity


I watched the movie “12 Years a Slave” with my friend Ginny this afternoon. It was brutal, not a moment of relief from the misery. I’m still trying to overcome the feelings of hate and pity that came from the movie.

I wonder if it will polarize the races, for there was a glaring absence of any decent white Southerners. The white traders and owners were portrayed as men stupid enough to destroy valuable "property" that had cost them hundreds of dollars ($800 to $1200 in 1850s dollars). And the white women were no less vicious.

Worst of all, the slaves were presented as powerless victims, as if they had no influence over their fate. They became pitiful pawns. This approach by director Steve McQueen took away the little integrity slaves were able to create for themselves. They had their ways of resisting their owners—subtle and nonconfrontational. They “accidentally” broke tools; claimed to be too sick to work; “misunderstood” directions; pretended to be stupid; delayed obeying orders. This would have been a better movie if we could have seen some of the clever ways in which they asserted their will. And we could have something to admire. As it is, there’s nothing to admire about either white Southerners or slaves.

To put the book 12 Years a Slave in perspective, the former slave who wrote it did so with the purpose of arousing antislavery sentiment and gaining the support of abolitionists. It is entirely possible he exaggerated his misfortunes. To take it for the literal truth without questioning the writer's motives leads to misguided ideas about our history. Unfortunately, this movie comes across as abolitionist propaganda. This is not to say I excuse any of our slave-owning predecessors, but the “truth” of 12 Years a Slave ignores the shades of gray.

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