I’m fresh out of a theater in Santa Monica, California where I’ve watched 12 Years A Slave for the second time, having seen it several days ago on a laptop screen through a dedicated download. I’ll be honest. I wanted to write something after absorbing the narrative and the imagery the first time, but I was so wrought that I didn’t trust myself.
Had a film with American participation actually addressed the original sin of our nationhood so bluntly, so honestly? Was the film really as careful and delicate and dispassionate with the historical reality? Was the restraint that i felt in the telling really there, or had the punches been carefully loaded as Hollywood is so apt to do?
On first viewing, I was simply startled by how genuinely fair the storytelling had been with the subject matter. Sadism and soullessness was balanced by moments of regret and conscience on the part of white characters. Accomodation and supplication on the part of Southern slaves was punctuated by moments of desperate courage and dignity.
On second viewing — with me in a darkened theater with a big screen, looking for the rough seams and filmic dishonesties — I emerged thinking precisely the same about this remarkable work. This film didn’t cheat our national history. It didn’t allude to horror, nor did it revel in it. It marks the first time in history that our entertainment industry, albeit with international creative input, has managed to stare directly at slavery and maintain that gaze.
Everyone who had anything to do with this film getting made — from the producers, to director Steve McQueen, and the committed, talented cast — should sleep tonight and every night knowing that for once, the escapism, bluster and simple provocation that marks a good 95 percent of our film output has been somehow flanked, and subversively so. These people have told a hideous and essential story about our nation’s great and longstanding sin with such calm and clarity that if we accept the film on its actual terms, rather than through the cluttered prism of our own racial and political sensibilities, only two kinds of folk will emerge from theaters.
The first will be at last awakened to the actual and grevious horror in which the black experience in America begins. Efforts to achieve this in the past — The “Roots” miniseries on television, or a few halting and veiled attempts in feature films to imply the desperation of terrorized human chattel — came down the road a piece, but none dared the entire emotional journey. For ordinary Americans willing to confront our history without equivocation and vague allusion, this film will prove a humanizing and liberating journey. This much truth can grow an honest soul.
And for those still desperate to mitigate our national reality at every possible cost, this film will be an affront. It is not intelligently assailable by anyone, though the racial divide and resentment that still occupies our national character a century and a half after abolition will prompt certain creatures to pull at threads, hoping against hope. Mostly, those who want to pretend to another American history will just avoid the film or the discussion that ensues.
The second screening did leave me with one additional thought, something distinctly political that could not fight its way through the more fundamental human reckoning produced by the first viewing. It’s this:
Anyone who acquires the narrative of 12 Years A Slave and finds it within his shrunken heart to continue any argument for the sanctity and perfection of our Founding Fathers, for the moral wisdom of their compromised document of national ideal that begins the American experience, or for their anachronistic or historically understandable tolerance of slavery — they are arguing from a desolate, amoral corner.
If original intent included the sadism and degradation of human slavery, then original intent is a legal and moral standard that can be consigned to the ash heap of human history. Hardcore conservatives and libertarians who continue to parse the origins of the Constitutions under the guise of returning to a more perfect American union are on a fool’s journey to decay and dishonor.
There is some considerable wisdom in the American Constitution, and more found within many of the 27 sanctioned efforts to amend and improve the weaknesses and moral lapses that were allowed to co-exist with the adoption of the original template. There is, at some key points in our history, even more wisdom in some of the liberalizing and rationalizing assessments of the U.S. Supreme Court in adapting the improved morality of a later age to constitutional language and code. We have journeyed far, and by many metrics, we have acquired a greater claim to our own humanity.
But for anyone to stand in sight of this film and pretend to the infallibility or perfect intellectual or moral grandeur of a Washington, a Jefferson, or a Madison is to invite ignominy from anyone else sensate. Slavery was abomination, and we, in our birth of liberty, codified it and nurtured it.
It took Lincoln, and a great war, to hijack the American experiment from its original, cold intentions by falsely claiming, a century and a half ago, that the nation was founded on the proposition that all men are created equal. It was founded on no such thing. It required blood, a new birth of honor and a continuing battle for civil rights that is still being fought for this nation to be so founded.
In the echo of this film, the continuing call for a strict construction of our national codes and a devotion to the precise, original ideas of the long-dead men who crafted those codes in another human age, rings hollow and sick and shameful.