Admired Work Film and Television

Slavery, a film narrative and the empty myth of original intent.


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.


  • Since you are aware of the historical limitations of the time, feel free to actually mention them instead of saying we “codified” slavery into the founding of our nation. The fear of Balkanization so evident in the Federalist Papers is what produced things like continued slavery and the 3/5 Compromise, not the moral ignorance of all; there is no “we” there. Even 2 years into the Civil War an anti-slavery Lincoln would’ve compromised slavery in favor of what he felt was the greater evil and danger of disunification.

    It would then be helpful to throw in the Northwest Ordinance and the fact that, for example, the state constitution of Mass. decodified slavery even before our Constitution was ratified. Lastly, “all men are created equal” is a shot across the bows of the English king and the idea of “Divine Rights” sent from god as opposed to “regular” people, not a broad statement of equality. Why else would such a phrase be in a document of independence? It is not the hypocrisy you suggest.

    There was a fight against slavery, both institutionally and morally, in this nation from the very beginning. Therefore America was not institutionally founded on slavery, but institutionally founded in the midst of a battle for and against slavery. The hope the lesser evil of grandfathering slavery out failed in favor of the very civil war everyone feared in the first place, and rightly so. What happens to slavery, and America, if the Civil War had been lost? Compromise forced by events on an anti-slaver is not the same as being a slaver, so let’s rethink the “we” and the “codified.” Thank you.

    • I am entirely aware of all of that history. We all are.

      And yet slavery — and for that matter the disenfranchisement of women, or non-representational composition of our upper legislative house — are the result of the original intent of our founders. For whatever rationalization or necessary requirement of the political reality, they originally codified these things. This is simple fact. Not enough of the founders were wise enough to end human bondage, give women the rights of full citizenship, or allow democracy to prevail in the composition of the Senate.

      That doesn’t obviate the merits of the founders or of the Constitution or of constitutional republicanism. No. One. Said. It. Did.

      Ergo, the essay says this and this only: I hold the doctrines of original intent and strict constructionism in low regard. Now and always. We, in our time, must interpret our ideals of freedom and responsibility. Looking back to the founders and their work is no meaningful, intelligent or honorable substitute for the hard work of governing ourselves morally and ethically in our time. And future generations must do the same.

      That is the argument. All of your semantics about whether we were founded in slavery or amid the fight against slavery don’t attend to the above. They are merely words that you wish to apply to our founding that mitigate against the fact that regardless of what opposition was already arrayed against slavery, slavery nonetheless existed and was codified in our original conception of the United States. Or worse, you willfully ignore the inate hypocrisy of “all men are created equal” by citing its historical relevance to the British crown. Of course, they meant the King. And therein you display my argument against strict constructionism and original intent in perfect microcosm. I know what they meant when they said it. We all do. The history lesson is unnecessary here, except it allows me to note what we, living today, should think those words mean. That is how our national documents should be conceptualized; as living and transitive. That phrase, written for an America in which slavery existed, is hypocrisy, pure and simple. That the founders meant it in a more limited way is the point of the hypocrisy. For the love of God, hypocrisy almost always involves either the practitioner’s myopia or his exclusion of rationalized special cases. This one, certainly.

      Why do you feel the need to pretty that up, or more directly, to ignore what the essay says and address what it does not say?

  • Yeah I agree with some things here. Especially the bit about liberty and responsibility- a very important observation. But If people romanticize those in the past to a fault- yeah, fine, but the flip side is the summary dismissal of someone’s views because they consulted someone else who happens to have lived a long time ago, and held wrong views about something else (slavery)- therefore has nothing meaningful to contribute anymore. I think that flirts with Ad Hominem as dialectical method.

    • I totally agree. It is nonsensical to toss the accomplishments of an Adams or Jefferson or Madison because of the embedded sin of slavery. That wasn’t at all the intention of my essay. Might as well toss Lincoln’s war leadership because of his suspension of habeus corpus or his prolonged reliance on bad generals in the eastern theater. Or FDR’s accomplishments because of the detention of Japanese-American citizens. There’s no point in going there.

      I’m not tossing out the founders or their great accomplishments with the bath water. But I am calling it bath water and saying that there is no need for us to go back and bathe in the same stink. We can draw a fresh bath in their tub and clean ourselves accordingly.

      I don’t think I came close — except in, say, an ideologue’s mind — to discarding Jefferson or Madison or their work, or even in attempting to dismantle them or their standing. There was no ad hominem logic there. I went after the fundamental fact that the Constitution, as necessary as it is to our political function, is a document that contains fundamental lapses by the standard of our current understanding of moral legitimacy. Slavery is certainly the greatest. And therefore, a strict construction based on the founders’ centuries-old ethos should have no particular moral sway. I doubt think you can go argumentum ad hominem on a legal philosophy or argument, or even for that matter, on a document. You need to use the hominen to trash the argument, right?

      • My gripe is only that I’m not sure Originalists necessarily deny that the bathwater exists. Only that it doesn’t make the Founders’ jurisprudential vision for the Republic, irrelevant. Their position is that the original authorship ought to be consulted when ambiguity arises for the very reasons you yourself confess admiration. That this is important because it anchors the law in such a way as to avoid abuse. Is it flawless or impervious to change? No. Which is why Originalist’s think the amendment process is vital and was put their in the first place by the Founders. They only fear the the Living Constitution mentality sets the law up as a Rorschach for predisposed judges, jurists, scholars and academics to sidestep the formal change process and pursue their own agendas.

        Now, you seem to think this approach is obstructionist to the utilitarian application of the law- that laws need to change or be modified at a frequency greater than the amendment process can facilitate (If I’m understanding you correctly- if not, please correct). This is not a view to which I am entirely unsympathetic. Are you right and are they wrong? Maybe- but if you are, its for reasons unrelated to 12 Years a Slave or the Founders’ allowances for slavery, which I took to be the substance of this piece.

        The clearest sign of an ideologue is someone who presupposes that those that differ from them are motivated by malice or stupidity. While I don’t think you think Originalists have such motivations, I think you do imply their motivations stem from an irrational romanticizing of the past. While I agree this sin is all too common in Conservatives, I don’t see it as the motivation (necessarily) for the positions they hold, so much as a side effect. To open dialogue and avoid the vitriolic skirmishes in the public sphere, its important to make sure the position we respond to, accurately reflects the positions held by the other side. I didn’t feel this piece was responding to a fair articulation of the “Original Intent” school of thought. It was hyperbole directed at the simplicity of a silly bumper sticker, not a serious engagement of another intelligent person’s stance. That’s just the vibe I got anyway.

        • I mean what I say with regard to original intent. For example, I am less than enamored of the reasons and purposes under which the founders constructed a Second Amendment. In their day, a local militia was a reasoned protection against a tyrannical centralized regime. After all, republics and democracies were non-existent in the world at that point; monarchist logic wasn’t merely an existential threat to a nascent republic, it was status quo. Not the same world today; not even close.

          No, I live in an age where death by handgun from a fellow citizen is many, many more times more probable than an American gulag. I’m willing to put my eggs in the purposes and intents of a government of, by and for the people and interpret the Second Amendment to allow for controls on private ownership of firearms. Numerous other democracies have done so and not yielded themselves up to totalitarianism.

          What Mr. Jefferson thought about his neighbors having flintlock rifles in the hills of Southern Virginia, I could give a fuck, sorry. I live in 21st Century America, where school children and theatergoers die en masse.

          There is no intellectual substitute for doing the hard work of governing our society, in our day and age, ourselves. I certainly do not think the founders are any less intelligent than today’s best minds, and indeed, I have doubts about what remains of America’s political meritocracy given the effect of capital on our governing structures. But certainly, I believe we have far more information than was available more than two centuries ago. Wisdom might be in no greater supply, but human knowledge has increased beyond the Eighteenth Century imaginings of the founders. A good many of them, upon a demonstration of how quickly a semiauto handgun can be reloaded to destroy human life, might argue for very different interpretations of a certain document.

  • Mr. Simon,

    Was there anything at all in the two posts from the coward Lawrence Meyers that would have been considered to be of substance and meaningful debate if it weren’t for his other posts?

    • First of all, you owe Mr. Meyers an apology. You’ve engaged in name-calling comparable to his own and doing so diminishes this site as a respite from the usual weakass, lefty-this, righty-that internet horseshit. Despite his prediliction for ad hominem, nothing Mr. Meyers has done or said gives you cause to claim personal cowardice on his part, and more to the point, such a label does nothing to advance any debate or argument. If you want to continue here, you’ll restrain yourself.

      Had Mr. Meyers been able to do so, a further discussion of his original essay would have yielded little that wasn’t obvious, I think. I would have quickly put down his straw-man premise, which was false on its face. I am not trashing the Constitution or the men who wrote it. I am entirely aware of the historical limitations under which they labored — the extant slave culture, regionalism, fear of authoritarian, centralized government, etc. Mr. Meyers writes as if he believes he is the only soul who can get his hands on the Federalist Papers, or the Constitution itself.

      While it does indeed highlight the codification of slavery as a prima facie argument against regarding original intent or strict constructionism as polestars for judicial review and decision, my essay also directly acknowledges the considerable wisdom in the Constitution and its construct, and the understanding that a personal judgment on slavery from today’s vantage is anachronistic to the era of the document’s inception. Phrases indicating such are embedded in my essay and Mr. Meyers ignores them, either willfully or in his zeal to manufacture an argument that he can master.

      The crux of the matter is the moment when Mr. Meyers rightly notes that the founders created a means of amending the document. This of course is entirely obvious and is no revelation to anyone. But whereas Mr. Meyers utilizes this salient fact to return the founders to the pedestal of infallibility or all-saving insight, I use it for another purpose entirely.

      Article V, to me, signals that the founders were themselves entirely aware of the confines of both their notable abilities and their flawed historical age. They understood that the document was being written as a means of process, not as a Biblical screed. They expected to be wrong, or found compromised or wanting at points by future generations, and Article V is wholly suggestive of that. It is, in my mind, the codification of human progress hoped for and implied, and it is suggestive that many of the Founding Fathers themselves might have had little patience with both originalism and the doctrine of original intent and strict constructionism that some conservatives and some libertarians rely upon as a constitutional crutch.

      I no more believe that the Constitution should be interpreted through the human condition of the late Eighteenth Century than I believe the Old or New Testaments or the Koran should be acquired in strict adherence to the belief system of whatever priestly caste of six-thousand-year-old Bedouins penned Leviticus or whichever two-thousand-year-old scribe conjured the Gospel of John. Shellfish is good eating. And the earth revolves around the sun. Jesus and the fig tree is just bad parable. And slavery, non-voting women and a bicameral legislature in which 40 percent of Americans elect 60 percent of the upper house can all be improved upon, not to mention the Moloch of our gun culture. How is this done? By careful self-governance and utilitarian address to the issues and essentials of our society by our executive, legislative and judicial branches. There is no substitute for the hard job of governing ourselves, for better or for worse. Certainly not a rigid idolatry around the original codification of an earlier society. Either the national code evolves and responds to human progress or it risks becoming a vulnerability, if not a moral affront at points. Strict constructionism gave us Roger Taney and Dred Scott. Lincoln, a brutal war and the 13th Amendment allowed us to progress all the way to Plessy, sadly. It required Earl Warren and Thurgood Marshall and the fresh insight of a more enlightened age to give us Brown and the first full taste of honor in our race relations.

      That the founding fathers left room for human progress is not in dispute. Mr. Meyers expends himself claiming unique insight into the existence of constitutional amendment, though again, it is referenced directly in my essay. Do I wish that Article V referendums were easier for the nation to express its overwhelming populist will? Surely, to an extent. I don’t want a tyranny of the majority, but it would be nice to contemplate a process that relied simply on a three-quarters or possibly even four-fifths national referendum, rather than a process that further highlights the anti-democratic margins of Senate representation and statehood. Hard to think that the most basic moral questions allow for the legislature of state with 300,000 humans to speak as loudly in the process as a legislature representing 40 million. I don’t think the standard wears well, but then, I hold state’s rights under the document of lesser import than the idea of one-man, one-vote, for a whole variety of reasons. That’s a debate that might have progressed from an honest, collegial discussion with Mr. Meyers or others.

      Point is, I don’t think it is un-American to acknowledge the Constitution for what it is, but critique it for what it isn’t. Or for that matter the thinking of the Founding Fathers. In saying so, I have “trashed” exactly zero. And where Mr. Meyers might have addressed my arguments in their actual proportion, his essay manufactures something else entirely as a target, and then heaps on the ad hominem as a further, embarrassing self-indulgence. Had he boiled his invective down and produced a constitutional argument for originalism or strict construction, then we might have proceeded somewhere. But suggesting that I am opposed to the Constitution, or oblivious to Article V, or to the Federalist Papers, or to the historical dynamic that allowed slavery to be maintained and embraced in our original codification of nationhood are non-starters — that’s straw-man shit. And the name-calling is just bad garnish on a weak meal, and on this site, unacceptable.

      Which brings us back to you. If you can’t reflect on why calling those who you disagree with cowards or centipedes or bullies or whatever is unacceptable here, then like Mr. Meyers, you won’t be around for long. This site is here for argument and debate and banter. You can be profane. You can be combative. You can mock the arguments you dislike soundly and with dollops of snide and sarcasm. You cannot denigrate people, certainly not without citing evidence that said people have actually disgraced themselves in the manner that you claim. That is a distinction that matters here.

      Mr. Meyers, having supped elsewhere on the internet. apparently couldn’t help himself. Perhaps, from this point forward, you can.

      • Gosh. I obviously did go out of line. I honestly did not believe that was the case when I wrote my last comment. First of all I should mention that I was not motivated to call him what I did by his political views at all. I too read his entry and I felt very much the same way about it as you. But it was what you pointed out about his posts (much better than my own I concede) that angrily motivated me to call him what I did. I think you know what I mean so I won’t elaborate.

        I am a general admirer of your writings in general Mr. Simon and as such I have read many of your own comments as well as your blog entries. I remember reading one of your comments to a certain person on your post “Barack Obama and the Death of Normal,” where you stated “On rare occasions an insult is indeed earned by someone else’s dishonest or dishonorable tack and at such instances allowances may be made.” I felt exactly that way about Mr. Meyer’s postings but clearly I didn’t think before I wrote. I should not have referred to him as a “coward,” and I’m sorry.

        I promise it won’t happen again.

        • I don’t find much in his arguments, but garden-variety name-calling doesn’t usually provide enough justification for seeking the same level with your own commentary. And cowardice is very big word in our culture, is it not? One doesn’t toss that one lightly, I don’t think. Yes, as I’ve acknowledged, every now and then comes someone whose intentions are so low and whose rhetorical demeanor is so purposed, personal and offensive that a fine fuck-you seems wholly earned. The trick, I suppose, is reserving that moment of surrender for that point at which you are certain that you are not engaged with anyone who has any interest at all in the substance of the debate, and someone who you’ve failed to wean from the habit of personalized ad hominem. I like to believe that most people have the capacity for manners and collegiality, if not actual change. And hey, it’s hard for all of us to be Solomonic about this shit when someone really pisses us off. Being as imperfect as any soul. I try my best, hope for the best, and let fly when only when you just can’t fucking bear it anymore. Admittedly, all we can do is try.

          But when I read the comments on other sites, it affirms for me the value in trying to hold all of us to some standard, at least. For me, as the owner/operator here, this is a priority, and absent such, I would likely have disabled the entire comment function here long ago, despairing that any worthwhile dialectic could long endure.

          But no worries. And forward.

        • In reference to the rest of my original post I was actually referring to the two posts Mr. Meyers referred to as having been censored, not to the original two links to his article…assuming of course that they were meant for the blog and not sent to you privately.

          • Apologies. The additional posts were certainly his arguments in his Brietbart missive, shorn of ad hominem and personalization. They read better that way. Had he sent those and not accompanied them with the full-of-shit remark, they would be up and subject to discussion. You can have your cake, and you can even eat it here. But you can’t sit at the grown-up table if you don’t have grown-up manners.

            I am in an opposing time zone currently and when I called up the site to review the mailbag, I was ready to post him in his entirety until I read through he last post. And then, nevermind.

            • Sure, I completely understand why you wouldn’t want to look back on it. Neither do I, so I’m done with all that. And now I’m off to “The Charles Theater” to see the film, having been inspired to do so by nothing less than your original article.

              See you around Mr. Simon.

  • Let me add: you seem to give yourself an awful lot of leeway for attacking someone when they tell you to leave the country. If that’s where the requirement for civility ends, then you hold a double standard.

    Your article insulted Conservatives and Libertarians for holding views they simply do not hold. To criticize you as I did is no different that responding to your own lack of civility.

    • No Mr. Meyers. My article was critical of the views of some conservatives and some libertarians for holding to the specific arguments that they have offered ever since Ed Meese was attorney general. Criticizing someone’s arguments is the only means of functional debate. Criticizing, or praising someone because of their perceived background, activities, associations, affiliations or applied labels is argumentum ad hominem.

      If you can’t understand that the latter is uncivil and fallacious rhetoric, and the former is debate, then there is no hope. Creating a false equivalency here, by the way, is equivocation fallacy. But that’s a lesson for another day, I suppose.

    • I know it may be hard to fathom but what you nonchalantly dismiss as a trivial thing… asking someone to leave the country or questioning someone’s loyalty or patriotism for the simple act of expressing dissent or questioning certain parts of the bill of rights, happens to be a big deal to some (no, many) people. That, in my opinion, is as cheap as one can stoop to. As an immigrant that has had his share of “go back to where you came from”, and someone that has to put up with that nonsensical and jingoistic rhetoric anytime I refuse to pay obeisance to a certain group of people or document, I can attest to the cheapness. So before you or your true patriot comrades spring to the defense of someone that stoops to that level of rhetoric, please spare a thought and understand that nobody has a right to ask another fellow citizen to leave the country because they are not American enough for your patriotic tastes.

  • Your essay clearly shows that you have a rather exceptional capacity for understanding a multitude of the darker and seemingly more well hidden subtleties connected to slavery and race in this country’s history. And to have learned such things, to such a degree, without having had the inescapable motivation of it literally being a matter of life and death (ala most blacks), makes your level of understanding of these things even more profound!

    Now, somewhat, to the point of all the “skirt blowing”.

    I mentioned before that this particular film, as phenomenal as it is, is still only addressing half of the truth about slavery (and actually, almost nothing about white supremacy). The truth of “What”. But not yet the truth of “How” and “Why”.

    …Still getting to the question…

    There was an unprecedented and downright stunning national phenomenon in 1977, called “Roots”. Nonetheless, it took us another 36 years to finally get a somewhat realistic screen representation, that began to answer the question of “What” slavery was really like.

    So here is my question…finally!

    Since you now have clearly shown a capacity for understanding the internal mechanisms of the American entertainment industry (as a show creator and producer), do you foresee it taking another 36 years before we see the same types of “pull-no-punches” imagery that we saw in this film, with regard to finally answering the “Hows” and “Whys” of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade? And, of course, please elaborate.

  • By this theory, all liberals must now denounce planned parenthood as it’s founder, Margaret Sanger was an enthusiastic promoter of Eugenics, the theory of racial superiority that inspired the Nazis to exterminate 6 million Jews.

    • No, by this theory you’d have to live in non-hyperbolic rationality and declare that while the Founding Fathers had many insights and constitutional republicanism is a notable achievement, they had no perfect insight into human affairs and like all people were prisoners of their epoch’s prejudices and ignorances. And so strict constructionism, in light of what we now know of their moral failures, is a ridiculous premise.

      Wait, that’s what the essay actually says.

    • Wait, what? He didn’t denounce the Constitution, simply said that the intentions of its creators were not perfect and do not necessarily need to be respected in all cases. I’d say the same is true of Sanger, so in that regard you’ve got a sound analogy!

  • No one would argue the Founders were perfect. As all humans are, they were flawed. However to suggest that the Constution and all who revere it are racists who’s views should be consigned to the ash heap of history is as offensive as it is foolish.

    The founders, many of whom opposed slavey, created a form of government that has done more good for more people than any other system in history.

    Many fine writers and artists (Alan Gibsberg comes to mind) were deeply flawed people. That doesn’t make their work any less valuable. The Constitution would not have been ratified if it abolished slavery. Would that have been a preferable outcome?

    And these men you demonize put their careers, fortunes, honor and lives on the line to win freedom for their nation. Be careful dismissing them from your comfortable seat behind a computer.

    • I’m suggesting that strict construction is wrong on its face and to pursue that reasoning in the face of the original codification of slavery is absurd and ignorant.

      That’s my language, not your hyperbole. Address the argument, not your straw-man version of the argument you think you can best.

    • I don’t understand people who take this sort of commentary personally and get defensive as if someone has just insulted their mothers. Or maybe more aptly, their religion.

      Mr. Simon didn’t trash the Constitution nor its writers. Nor the nation. Nor Americans in general. Nor people who believe in the Constitution. Nor did he lionize Margaret Sanger, excuse African slave traders, or centipedes.

      What I hear is Simon criticizing people who continually hearken back to what our Founding Fathers intended as the final answer to everything.

      The problem is not Simon or anyone else pointing out their shortcomings – the problem is the attempt to deify this group we call The Founding Fathers. People tend to pardon these men’s sins by saying they were a product of their times. At the same time, people today lift up bits and pieces that support their own point of view as Essential Truth of our Founding Wisdom.

      I believe that embracing the whole truth of our founding – all the great stuff and all the really, really horrible stuff – is the only way we can continue to perfect our union. Spending time trying to make our founders into icons squanders our limited opportunities to actually help make this country better.

    • You flatter yourself in calling that a rebuttal.

      Mr. Simon, you have a new label per the comments. Narcissistic communist.


      • Actually, framing such an astronomically life or death issue for so many hundreds of millions of people, in terms of petty political differences, renders pretty much anything after the salutation a standard stereotypical exercise in basic identity politics, and not much else. Even the choice of insulting names is pretty standard and predictable. Basically dismiss-able, like background noise.

    • Normally, I enjoy when an argument is engaged and you have engaged one here. I have to tell you that I can’t take yours seriously. From the ideological name-calling (never mind the ideas, lets get to the argumentum ad hominem of sneering and inveighing at Simon’s imagined temperment whenever possible) or to the circular-argument fallacy and fundamentalism (The Constitution or the Founding Fathers, wise as they are at some parts, are too sacred to the American experiment to be worthy of reconsideration and revision at other points, ergo such reconsideration or parsing of our history is affront), to the ridiculous hyperbole (calling the Constitution wise at points, but shameful in its original sin of slavery = “trashing” the Constitution), what you are offering in that essay brings the level of discussion down to the left-right juvenility of our national political demeanor. You aren’t arguing with me or the actual content of my essay, but with a straw man of your own limited construction.

      I would recommend that you bring this stuff to the comments at the Fox News site, or maybe Brietbart. Oh, wait. You have. Well done, then. Your water has reached its natural level.

      • Wow, that’s some rebuttal, Mr. Simon!

        Oh, wait. It wasn’t a rebuttal. It was what I expected from a segment of the Human Democrat Centipede.

        The fact is, you haven’t addressed the substance of my article at all. I did argue the content of your essay, pointing out that it’s entire premise is false.

        You aren’t claiming mere “reconsideration”, but have asserted a fundamentally obtuse argument.

        Tell me you didn’t make it through all those years of television without actually having a real argument where you were forced to actually defend your position.

        • There are rules of rhetoric that ensure that the substance of an issue are addressed. The fallacies of logic used to be taught in schools and were prized for their rigor and utility. If you don’t get it, Mr. Meyers, you don’t get it.

          But life is short. I attend to the serious arguments and leave the ideological name-calling for other websites. Either raise your game or stick to the likes of Breitbart. You will notice that nowhere in my original essay or in my reply to you do I stoop to characterizing any opponent personally. I attack arguments. Calling someone a Human Democrat Centipede doesn’t advance your argument or make me reconsider mine. It embarrasses you and makes your effort seem entirely juvenile. Also it’s just a dumb phrase. Unclever. Bad writing. Even if you prefer your rhetoric in the gutter, surely you can do better than that.

          • Additionally, Mr. Meyers, I don’t wish to have you writing long missives to little effect, so let me be clear that you might consider reading the introduction before continuing to post here. You went off the charts with regard to the framework by which this site operates — a kill-file reckoning which has zero to do with your opposing views, and everything to do with your failing temperment and rhetoric.

            Characterization and personalization of all participants, not merely myself. here is frowned upon, and those who can’t raise their game, or continue to rationalize such behavior without apology, are consigned to the kill file. You can retrench, reconsider and offer your substance without ad hominem, or labeling, and agree directly to proceed on such basis — namely by asking me to take down the link to your Brietbart screed and posting the same arguments, without any personalization, and merely as a substantive disagreement. And we can begin again. Or you can leave that link to stand for your best efforts, which again, are not seriously to be considered here for the reasons of logical fallacy cited in my original, brief reply. It’s your call.

            But this is not Brietbart. Or the comments section to Fox News or MSNBC or any other ideological jerk-fest. If you have arguments, present them in good fellowship. Or understand that you have ventured into a small domain of the internet where civility and substance are given great sway and where the usual partisan and ideological name-calling is held in deep contempt. Those are the house rules and participants here either learn to embrace and appreciate them, or they soon enough depart.


            Segment 46, the Human Democrat Centipede.

        • Oh dear God. I am going to start a list of insulting yet non-sensical invectives I’ve read on this blog. No banal “douchenozzle” or “asshat” to be found here.

          Even after I award points for cleverness, turns out the more obscure insults are equal in stupidity to the ubiquitous one.

        • Hey everybody,

          If you think our honorable friend Mr. Meyer’s article is bad, look at the comments section underneath. Or rather do yourself a favor and don’t. Never mind whatever political views everyone there has but let’s just say that the majority of the comments would never find a place on this blog. And Mr. Meyers himself has already taken Mr. Simon to task for “liberal hypocrisy,” or in other words that he is “censoring my posts arguing the substance of this article…because I refused to apologize for attacking him personally in my article. Yet he responds to my other posts regarding his own lack of civility.” I cannot believe this! I know better, as do all who followed their exchange of words I am sure. It is so upsetting just how far a person is willing to go to deliberately misrepresent another person.

          Best of all is that Meyers claims that he is now writing another article that ostensibly exposes how Mr. Simon operates. All that I can say is, he’d better not upload the links to that article here assuming he actually writes it. And if he does they will almost certainly be better off ignored.



          • — the Vegas of ideological closets. What happens in there, stays in there.

            Enjoy it for what it is, and isn’t.

    • Your so-called “rebuttal” tells us far more about you then it does Mr. Simon or his argument Mr. Meyers.

      And just for the record, Mr. Simon is not Hollywood. He has claimed just as much. If you had enough decency to look past your warped view of the man, you would see how much he detests the word and what it represents today.

      You have a lot of nerve going so far as to claim Mr. Simon being “liberal” decreases his credibility and raises yours. We know better. You can believe what you want I guess, but the irony of you referring to him as a “bully” when he did not personally target anyone in particular while you yourself use harsh (and frankly silly) put-downs against his person-hood is rich.

      By the way, your links to your original article are still here. Now what did you mean when you claimed your whole argument was censored here again?

      It’s nothing personal.

  • So looking forward to seeing this movie. It just opened in our small-ish city. Thank you for making this connection to original intent. Whenever someone brings up what the founding fathers intended, I always reply, “You mean the guys who believed that freedom applied only to white, male, landowners?”

    • Just home from the theater. Powerful doesn’t even begin to describe it. Storytelling at its most profound.

      To those of you who would rather bicker or try to one up Mr Simon than take a hard look at yourselves and the founding myth you’ve venerated? You’re hopeless and not worth the keystrokes.

  • Mr Simon:

    Thank you for such a wonderful piece. May I ask that you provide as much insight as possible on the behind the scenes inner workings of the entertainment industry on how a film or television show gets made? I think how 12 Years gets made is important.

    It seems that Brad Pitt being who he is and the power he has is why. He moved to New Orleans after Katrina. He is the father of kids of varying ethnicities including a young black girl. In my parts, he would be considered a ‘down ass white guy”. He makes a gazillion from blockbusters which probably allows him to fund his production company and because he’s a down ass white guy his perspective would allow him to best no matter who they are and empower them to tell the stories they want to tell. As I see it, that’s the only way this film is made. Weinstein nor Tyler Perry or anyone in between could or would have.

    Furthermore, why in your estimation is this the first slavery movie to as you said “dared the entire emotional journey”? Did it take black individuals of great talent and experience to be empowered within the process of making a film? Is it the business of Hollywood not wanting to offend or scare white moviegoers?

    It is worth asking those two questions when you compare the obvious differences between 12 Years and Django. Compare the writer-director of both. Compare the budget. Compare how each is accepted. Django was the FANTASY of Tarantino, which was funded upwards of 100 Million that provided an entertaining and quite often comical look at what it meant to be a slave. Here is a fantasy: a nigga kills his owner, enslaves an entire town of whites, cuckolds all the white men and assembles an army of well spoken yet armed Samuel L Jacksons who yells “yeah boy, you deserve to die and I hope you burn in hell” before he kills them. Point is, that would never get 100 million in funding and that story would NEVER be told (as it shouldn’t) , unlike the unchained slave who dresses in mariachi get ups and have comedic punch lines.

    Im just worried that the only time stories like the Wire or 12 Years can get made is when a down ass white guy who understands not just black stories but all stories based off a gained knowledge rooted in interaction and open heartedness, that white guy has connects who would enable him to add to the entertainment landscape a rich soulful variety beyond profit and awards. If my assessment is wrong, I ask that you please correct me. Thank you.

  • I watched it twice and think that it’s a great achievement. I agree with all the accolades with respect to the fairness and narrative style. It’s brutally honest, graphic, and, despite the subject matter, a visually beautiful film. I hope it wins best picture at the Oscars.

    There’s something about the nature of the film medium that one cannot escape though, and it’s the same instrinsic quality that makes the device both incredibly powerful and, sometimes, slightly dangerous. I heard Steve McQueen on Smiley and West the other day, and after hearing their careful evaluation of both the film and of McQueen’s purposes behind the project, it’s tough to find anything wrong with “12 years a slave,” its driving philosophy, and its underlying purposes.

    Still, we live in life and not in film. In film, there’s a beginning and end that almost always makes sense. Solomon endures tremendous pain and repression, and eventually reunites with his family. In reality, the American prison-industrial complex is but one aspect of an entire system of repressive sociological realities that still bare the mark of slavery. Systemic racism and institutional repression still need remedy from those inside the American republic, who need to act–on the streets, in their Rep’s office, or wherever else.

    My fear is that the film’s power, a product of the emotional rollercoaster that McQueen takes us through, may inadvertantly help the viewer conflate the fantasy with the real. Solomon has a relatively happy ending, which may become conflated with the happy ending that everyone must have got–history is history and the present isn’t history. So if the purpose of the project was to have the past inform the present, the ironic weakness of such a strong film is that viewers may become so emotionally drained that they’ll come to feel–perhaps unconciously–that watching the film is the same as taking action against injustice.

    Furthermore, the film’s graphic nature is sometimes so extensive that I think people will become desensitized toward such things. It’s hard for me to explain because I think it’s hard for human beings to recognize and come to terms with the non-rational aspects of our nature. I think it’s our nature to become desensitized to graphic violence if we watch it enough. It stops having an effect on us. A severred limb or whipped back stops looking like a severed limb and whipped back–despite us taking in the same kind of data. My millenial generation must suffer quite a bit from thi, given how much violence we see on screen. I don’t have the stomach for super-graphic violence and I want to stay that way.

    I often remind myself that an unusual experience or scenario doesn’t need embellishment. It’s abdurb enough in itself that no further exaggeration is needed. Adding “spice” to it will bring its depiction from effective to cliche. I think for learning the history of slavery, a sober documentary can be just as powerful and as a moving as a fictionalized film with actors who specialize in emoting through screen. Docs are also more effective when it comes to dispelling myths and spreading facts. Granted, McQueen probably had different motives and purposes in mind and wanted to have the audience feel instead of just know. There’s of course nothing wrong with that in and of itself. I just think “in and of itself” isn’t enough.

    I’m not trying to poke holes in McQueen’s remarkable cinematic achievement. Nor am I trying to give film-makers pointers–I don’t even know how to edit film. But I think a word of caution won’t hurt: too often we confuse art with activism. We go to a movie/poetry-slam/play/etc. and leave feeling as if having a dynamic inward experience is the same as doing our part for a better world.

    • You know, I heard the same thing about The Wire or The Corner. Watching is not the same as acting, or, poverty porn and voyeurism are the wages of such storytelling.

      Problem is, are you actually suggesting that we don’t need stories about these subject because the narratives themselves offer any catharsis at all? The Greeks wrote grevious tragedies in which the protagonists suffered and died, often uselessly. And still, there was catharsis in the dramatic exchange.

      Ridley and McQueen are storytellers. That’s their job. What human beings do with an honest story is another question, and frankly, it isn’t on them, or their narrative. A world in which this story doesn’t get told isn’t any better at curing racism or making people more responsible for others. It’s worse.

      • I already referred to the film as a tremendous achievement. I liked it and recommend it. There’s nothing in my comment about this story not having to be told. Nor am I referring to this type of story-telling as “poverty porn” or as “voyeurism.” A film is just a film, but what we do with it, and how viewers respond to it, is what I’m trying to get at.

        We give a lot of attention to entertainers, and the projects they’re involved in. Too often we ignore people who do what’s necessary, but get no camera time. And if they are profiled, it’s in addition to, or on the periphery of our massive entertainment industry. It’s not on McQueen or whoever else as story tellers to do anything other than tell stories (though it’s always commendable if they do), but it’s certainly up to the viewer who purports to be sensitive to the subject matter to rise above his or her catharsis in order to act.

        I feel that The Wire and The Corner are much better ways of getting this across to people because of the shows’ documentarian quality. There’s not even any music (as far as I can remember), and not as easy to follow. It forces you to be more than an average viewer. There’s a place for films like “12 years a slave,” but I don’t think that place should be the forefront of America’s struggle with itself. It should be on the periphery.

        • One of two common criticisms I have heard of the movie are. a. That it is “nothing but a bunch of torture scenes spliced together. You are better off re-watching Roots. and
          b. The torture scenes so desensitize you that it negates any good that could have resulted from the narrative.My response to a. is that the movie depicts what it should. It doesn’t try to romanticize or otherwise exalt characters to more than they should be. The reference to Chicken George and Kunta Kinte in one of the previous posts that was made to explain this crucial difference was spot on. The movie depicts what a monumental task it was to get the simple act of delivering a letter was, for example.

          My response to b. or the claim that this narrative belongs in the periphery is this. It doesn’t. It belongs in the mainstream precisely because it needs to be seen and heard by anyone that chooses to and the more people that have access the better. The simple minded will dismiss the movie as something that happened in the past. History is history, like you have mentioned or that Lincoln freed the slaves a 150 years ago, get over it. There is no telling a complex and nuanced story for them. They don’t go on to challenge existing and accepted norms. By making something like this available on such a large scale we increase the possibility of reaching as many people that can potentially challenge existing norms and policies. That in my opinion is reason enough for this to be a mainstream discussion.
          As for me personally, stories like The Wire or this changed how I thought about the problems of urban poverty or to challenge notions such as “we are a meritocracy” or “pulling oneself up from ones bootstraps” or “my grandfather came here three generations ago with ten dollars in his pocket”. That, and the fact that I can bring the courage to challenge pre conceived notions of people in my own culture and race about another race or how I have been unwittingly complicit in the evils that my own race has perpetuated. Evils that I didn’t challenge because it was not “wrong” in that day and time but was wrong morally, was accepted and I did nothing because it would be impolite to do so.

    • Personally, for me, one of the most haunting images in 12 Years A Slave was the out-of-focus and slightly out-of-frame sight of Patsey collapsing to the earth as Solomon “escapes.” I suspect I’m not the only person who found it hard to forget her and the myriad others like her, even when Solomon reached his happiest of possible endings.

      • The film was laced with imagery of all the lives destroyed in contrast to the one saved. The two young runaway slaves lynched before Solomon’s eyes. The slave stabbed to death and dumped in the sea. Patsy. The slave who dies suddenly in the cotton field. The entire movie was doing all it could to acknowledge the unlikely outcome for its narrator.

        Schindler’s List, from beginning to end, was so modeled.

        • “The two young runaway slaves lynched before Solomon’s eyes.”

          Thanks for reminding me of this scene. I really love how McQueen utilized music in this film and built tension. Even while rooting the narrative in realism, he managed to incorporate stylized moments of terror that echoed Kubrick: that first shot of the steamship paddle-wheel churning up water, and then the second view with the corpse bobbing up and down in its wake. Horrifying.

  • Mr. Simon,

    What’s your rebuttal, to what is already becoming a bit of a common refrain, that this film is nothing more than simply another in a growing industry of “torture porn”? Made to simply whet our ever growing appetites for more graphic and extreme film violence. And also, the use of “Passion of the Christ” as a consistent companion-piece when this particular line of argument is put forth? It’s obviously a great tool for “plausible deniability”. But what else jumps out at you?

    • My reply is this: If a viewer gets off on this story, they are sociopathic and sadistic. And no storyteller can worry about how their story will be perceived by a sadist or sociopath. He or she writes for sensate human beings as an audience.

      There were racists who viewed The Wire through the prism of their preconceived notions of the black underclass and found much to support their point of view. To argue, therefore, that The Wire was serving that viewpoint is not made credible by the fact that such people do exist. A human being so corrupted as to see torture porn in this film cannot be reckoned with when you tell any honest story. There is no honest story that can be delivered about the human scale of slavery that they will not pervert.

      • I must confess, I can scarcely begin to imagine the litany of derogatory names that those same sadists and sociopaths would have for you, for describing them as such.

        …something about twisted people seeing everyone as twisted BUT themselves.

        • You can’t be responsible for how people interpret things. People who would compare a depiction of slavery in its entirety to porn are pretty much beyond the scope of any sort of reason. Same goes for people who chose to view the world through the prism of racism.

          This isn’t about what you label others. Personally, if people who see this movie as anything remotely erotic or exciting, I’d consider it an honor if they included me in their litany of repulsion. .


  • …exactly why I simply cannot, for the life of me, take the hard right Tea Partiers at their word, that they are concerned only with FREEDOM. Unfettered capitalistic freedom, perhaps, and what is the purest form of capitalism other than human slavery? Sometimes it does in fact take a concerned central government to create, or at least nurture, the general consensus of a people.

    • Blaming capitalism for slavery is like blaming the moon for the sun. Slavery existed long before capitalism or even mercantilism.

      • There’s an equivocation in your logic, not his. Capitalism and mercantilism — certainly, in a more general sense, market forces and economic imperative — are all indeed present and active in the slave trade. And he is correct in presenting the argument that forces other than market freedoms were necessary to end slavery — namely, the mitigation of economic considerations by a moral social compact and, ultimately, government fiat. That is our history of slavery and its abolition. Open markets didn’t end slavery, a great war by a government willing to legally abolish the practice of slavery did.

        Claiming that capitalism didn’t cause slavery is disingenuous. That isn’t what he was saying.

        • I find one of the most “life or death” consistent aspects of that logic is the “relativeness”. It absolutely, unequivocally always HAS to be relative to others! You would have an easier time taking a steak from a rabid wolf, that to separate such people from that particular aspect of their “logic”! I have yet to have an individual coming from that perspective surrender so much as even “an inch of ground” in that particular direction!

        • Thanks for clarifying. There are definitely arguments to be made about instances where the government does unnecessarily involve itself, but I’m just so sick and tired of hearing of the freedoms and liberties we have been losing (since approximately January of 2009) when, by most actual fact based accounts we have never been less regulated. The same people who lament these manufactured tragedies seem to want to roll us back to a time when, ironically, there actually was an entire group of enslaved people living here.

        • David,

          One question that arose for me after viewing “12 Years A Slave” is the extent to which the institution of slavery impacted America’s capitalist economy. Certainly, slavery and Jim Crow helped to institutionalize racism in this country and to establish the “other America.” But do you think slavery has also led to a more exploitative version of capitalism in this country in general–for all races? I’m ignorant as to whether any economists or sociologists have posed this question in academic studies.

          – Max H.

        • Your claim “Claiming that capitalism didn’t cause slavery is disingenuous. ” is patently false. Social norms and societal practices allowed slavery for thousands and thousands of years. The Incas and Aztecs both kept slaves. Egytpians kept slaves (they were the Jews of the Exodus). Ghengis Khan – no capitalist at all, but a totalitarian – kept slaves. Druids had slaves. Norsemen had slaves. Africans had slaves, for the reason that they were just of a different tribe. Spain didn’t blah slavery until 1898. Claiming that 20,000 years of a darker aspect of human behavior was somehow caused by capitalism is just a completely ignorant notion.

          If you remove – as hard as it is, just try – the moral component of slavery, then you could see that it was capitalism that actually led to the freeing of the slaves. The North was at a competitive advantage for many material – no plantations and small growing seasons in the North were compounded by the “free” labor slavery brought – so it was the emerging industrialization who advocated for a free and fair labor market to be competitive with the South. The Industrial Revolution would never have happened – or certainly not been as widespread – had the South maintained slave labor in factories, a practice the North for various reasons abandoned. So in the quest for a fair and free market, an effort was born to eliminate an unfair advantage so that people and states could compete on the basis of output and innovation and fair trade.

          Now that is not didactic. It is an argument of a single component of a horrible period, but blaming capitalism – even to this day – for slavery shows a less-than-complete appreciation or understanding of history.

          • Allow me to be specific rather than fall back on generalism:

            The American Southern slavery of the plantation system, made plausible by international trade and investment in the cotton and tobacco markets inextricably involved both massed capital and mercantilism. To suggest that the slave trade was some sort of sociopolitical endeavor alone is empty of purpose and insufficient to the history.
            White people created mass wealth by capitalizing on free black labor and creating an international market for cotton and tobacco.

            Are you also one of those who claim the Civil War was a bloodless little dispute about state’s rights? Or does human degradation have a role in that tragedy?

            • So you wanted to be specific… but to what? Certainly not to what I actually wrote.

              Sir, you pollute my words. Your postulation is inherently dishonest – you IMAGINE why I would say and then critique that, yet chose to ignore what I did write. Please reserve that tactic for White House staffers.

              Your retort was as disingenuous as it is inaccurate. I presented one progression on one facet of conflict and sociological progression – with clear declaration and caution that segmentation – with the clear admonition that it was in no way a complete summary. It was simply one element – and historical fact – that you have continually ignored in your recounting of history, perhaps because those facts do not fit with your thesis. I never once said, or even suggested, that it was a sociopolitical endeavor alone – my writing is just a few inches above yours, so your mischaracterization is inexcusable – but one facet of an incredibly complex calculus that you choose to ignore.

              Second, you continually fail to acknowledge the historical impact, reasoning and practice of slavery. You present slavery as a short period of just white people taking black people to work on plantations. Thousands of years of history show that is simply not true. You just simply limit your gestalt and see things only in racial, and racist, terms. Native Americans kept slaves, of other Native Americans, for centuries and even millennia before Columbus showed. Africans enslaved Africans. None of this excuses any of it, but the application of today’s morality to ancient times – or even 200 years ago – is inherently unfair, every bit as blaming sufferers of polio in the 1800s for not getting an immunization that was not invented until 1950. Progressing past those practices is something society learns to do.

              Some abolitionists were still white supremacists; others believed in full and equal rights. Some blacks back then even owned slaves. Nearly every single slave sold in Africa were actually captured by other Africans, not while folk with nets; even recently documentation presents evidence (yet to be completely vetted) that Joseph Cinque was involved with the slave trade, invading his ancestral enemies’ villages to take slaves once he found his family was taken (as he himself famously was). The world has not always adhered to the morality or social trends of today; such mentality is the greatest folly of the American Left. The Left fails – and even refuses, I believe as evidenced by your reply to me – to acknowledge the chaos of life, and instead relies on three-word bumper stickers and bold headlines rather than actually educate people about the past… or even prepare them for the present.

              You seem preoccupied with a mentality that all is racial (this despite an astounding lack of attention to the consistent racism from the Left), and that capitalism causes racism, or even that racism causes capitalism.

              You also unfairly broaden your argument to stereotype “whites” as being the beneficiary of slavery. Some were. Most were not. Even your castigation reeks of your own racism or self-loathing. There is a chain to break here, not just in the poverty and pathetic education in far too many cities, but the people who rationalize for it.

              • That’s a lot of words to avoid the critique that basic capitalism and mercantilism are indeed both present in American antebellum slavery. And claiming that slavery might have been extant in other ancient societies prior to the industrial revolution and mass labor was a direct effort on your part of absolve capitalism. That is clear. I challenge that.

                Further, I don’t understand why you would read what I wrote and feel the need to avert your gaze at the actual and fundamental racial dynamic of American southern slavery by rushing to the boards here to mention Arab and black slavers. Are you attempting to suggest that because other races debased themselves in the mercantile chain, or that there were whites who did not embrace slavery, that there wasn’t a racial component to the institution of American slavery, that this component wasn’t fundamental to the spread and maintenance of slavery, or that this movie wasn’t precise and exacting about that dynamic?

                You had no interest in discussing what the film did correctly address about American society — and mark you, no narrative is about everything, this was not about the capture of East African slaves by Arabs and their presence in the Middle East and Levant, or about slavery as it was practiced in Middle Kingdom China, it was fucking about what it was fucking about — the lives of West African slaves, captured by white slavers, once they were living life in the American South. Yet rather than be direct and honest, your sum contribution was to mitigate the truth in this film by rushing in to absolve both capitalism and the performance of American whites who engaged in slavery, or to implicate people of color in other wrongs.

                What does that say to the readers here? About your purpose and intent? And what does it say about your capability for averting your gaze from the hard, emotional truth of what it meant for African-Americans to be enslaved in the Southern states of our country?

                Slavery was racial. Our slavery was, at any rate. That’s not me being preoccupied with race. That’s me, facing up to the fundamental. And your reasons for bringing up fringe issues about other epochs of slavery, or the participation of others in other cultures in the manifestation of slavery are curious to me. I do not wish to assume any motivation, and I am sure you can explain why, from your comments here, you are not interested in the story that 12 Years A Slave tells, but in other stories about other cultures and epochs that it does not tell? What is the point of going there and not remaining to deal with the actual core value and argument of the film that was made, or my essay about the film that was made? I am genuinely curious. Perhaps there is some purpose I am not seeing. But right now, it just seems to me that you are indeed averting your gaze from what American Southern slavery was and a couple of the basic elements that allowed it to flourish.

                • See what I mean about the absolutely uncontrollable need to always make it all “relative”?

                  And I also repeat, you will not EVER get the acknowledgement of having gained even an inch in this type of debate!

                  Be forewarned!–LOL

                • I’m not sure that it was racial. If slavers had been legally able, I’m sure they would’ve had white slaves. That lack of legal and cultural constraint is what produced black on black slavery in Africa in the first place. Why would they be any different from white slavers? Does that mean African slavers weren’t racists and white slavers were? Maybe. Maybe not. Seems like pedantry in the face of the act of slavery itself.

                  • You’re not sure that slavery was racial? WTF?

                    Have you read anything about the Southern mind as it existed with regard to the human value of African-Americans? To their capacity for intellect? Or citizenship? Or caring for themselves? Do you not understand that this stance continued in that region of the country (and elsewhere) long after the 13th Amendment and justified Jim Crow and an additional century of economic and political exploitation? Human beings did this to other human beings because they had first accepted a moral grounding that made black folk inferior to white folk.

                    This is the silliest thing that anyone has posted here thus far. Sorry. Was it also a lack of “legal and cultural constraint” that produced the Holocaust? Germany was the most civilized society in central Europe. It didn’t marginalize its Jews as a merely mercantile act, or because it had insufficient cultural constraints against mass murder, or because the law required such. It did so because a significant portion of its populace came to be convinced that Jews were less human.

                    And that was a precise prerequisite for American slavery. Citing African slavers is akin to citing Jewish sonderkommandos or ghetto authorities. It says nothing about the overall racial and power dynamics. It is, frankly, a rather desperate attempt to rush small, mitigating details into a logical breach that such morsels can never fill. Why are you looking away from the fundamentals here with such passion?

                    And what does this have to do with the power of the movie — if you’ve seen it and wish to comment on it — or the fact that the film raises a direct question about original intent and strict constructionism as a means of interpreting our national code? Or is this all about making white people feel better at all fucking cost?

                    • Or Randy Roberts’ “Papa Jack,” about the first black heavyweight champion of the world, Jack Johnson, first crowned in 1908. It’s as much a treatise on race relations between whites and blacks post slavery as it is a sports biography. It illustrates the national white attitude towards black people by showcasing their prejudices and overt racism (no “coding” during that time period). According to most whites, blacks were not “made of the same stuff” as a white man. They had “thick, hard skulls but soft stomachs,” a perceived trait white fighters thought they could exploit to their advantage. Even Jack London hopped on that bandwagon (read his fight coverage for the New York Herald during those times). It eventually became a self-fuifilling prophecy: by looking at black people as less human, and by assuming the belt naturally “belonged on the waist of a white man,” they underestimated an entire race, and thus one of its members utterly dominated inside the ring. And this was after slavery. To even suggest racism might not have played a part in the time of actual human bondage is a brazenly ignorant statement on the part of a historical apologist, revisionist or fantasist. Or all three.

                  • Mr. Simon covered it, I’d only add some specific references – look up the Dred Scott decision, or read up on pretty much anything John C. Calhoun ever said. Taking the racial aspect out of American slavery…it just can’t be done. And this movie is about American slavery.

                    • And it is not all antebellum, by any means. I recently read “Lanterns on the Levee,” a memoir by the scion of the famous Percy family of the Mississippi Delta, written between the world wars. Even sixty years after the end of slavery, the calm assurance with which whites of education and affluence could characterize African-Americans as less than sentient human beings is notable. It is still residual today, albeit no one would write as Mr. Percy did and expect not to be savaged. To speak so, they would require coded words to express their racism (i.e. Trayvon Martin as not an American teenager, but a hoody-wearing thug).

                    • Not to mention Plessy v Ferguson, Richard Russell, Strom Thrumond all the way to Ronald Reagan with his t-bone buying, cadillac driving, welfare queens, and John Roberts disastrous gutting of the voting rights act (followed by 6 of the 9 covered jurisdictions immediately passing restrictive voting laws).
                      Of course, it’s never about race.

  • So here’s a question. An ignoramus (yours truly) is looking to rectify misjudged, misinformed history classes on founding fathers or any important historical subject, but does not know where to start. I hopefully ask for a thumb in the right direction, good reading material to illuminate and invoke, please and, no matter the response, thank you.

  • This movie obviously has a fantastic cast and uniformly terrific reviews, but I admit I’ve hesitated to see it for one reason, and I’m hoping those of you who have viewed might weigh in (mild spoilers below, I suppose, if the fact that slaves were whipped and otherwise tortured is news to you):

    Several reviews described the scene of one female character being whipped as particularly brutal and focusing in on the mortification of flesh…I must admit, this provoked a kneejerk reaction in me, as certain lingering depictions of violence in cinema are a pet peeve of mine. It’s hard to describe what I mean, but basically, I sometimes feel that depictions of torture or sexual violence, etc. — while certainly true to life, and only fair and right to portray — are dwelt upon in order to titillate the viewer. (Sometimes this might be subconscious on the part of the director, sometimes it’s a little more obviously deliberate, as in DJANGO UNCHAINED, parts of which I could not watch).

    Essentially, I do not like to see violence done in a way that is visually attractive to the camera.

    Can anyone who’s seen the movie give me some reassurance that this scene (or other similar ones) aren’t gratuitously sadistic? Be honest — it won’t necessarily stop me from watching the movie — after all, slavery itself was gratuitously sadistic. But I do want to brace myself for it.

  • That scene where the camera focuses on Solomon’s face for what seemed like an eternity is when I grasped what the movie was trying to convey. I thought that scene was boring, but as I was sitting there watching is when I realized that the movie wasn’t trying to deliver your the Hollywood narrative. The changing of Solomon’s name to Platt, the making the child jump up and down as one would make an animal do, the counting of the teeth, the sound of glass hitting the face when what’s her name throws the whisky decanter at Patsy, the dehumanizing aspect of slavery. The dehumanizing aspect, the turning of people into animals, because in essence that’s what slaves were, humans turned into animals, so it won’t hurt your conscience, was captured perfectly to where all I wanted was to exit the theatre. The fact that all slaves had only first names was something we all knew but how it actually came about and instituted was perfectly captured as well.

    • I sense the equity and honor in the movie in this sense:

      African-American viewers must struggle to watch the supplication and humiliation of their race, and become at points uncomfortable and affected White viewers must struggle to watch the sadism, savagery and moral cowardice of whites throughout the film. And so the ending, with its simple moment of comity and freedom, feels like an astonishing release. No one — save for sociopaths and racists (and there’s no telling a story for them) — comes out of the theater without being wounded. No one comes out of the theater clean or satisfied. And slavery, true to that, debased owner and slave in different ways. The film got that very right.

      • And don’t forget the sadism and savagery of the black slave raiders and arab slave traders. The white man bought what they were selling. No one was innocent. Both the US and GB outlawed the slave trade well before Lincoln. Both fielded fleets to stop the trade. Like the drug war it was ineffectual. Just as white men rationalized enslaving others white men died to end it.

        • What is your point? Are you actually trying to mitigate the behavior of slave owners and the tolerance of such under the law by citing others who were either complicit or opposed? How does that change the implications of the story that this film tells of the American condition?

      • The best part about watching the movie in a packed theatre is that you can feel the audience. The loudest gasps were from black folks. I am neither black nor white so I got to watch the movie and thinking about my own complicity in the evils that my race has perpetuated. The caste system and every time I looked away or shrugged. When a relative of mine didn’t allow the barber to enter from the front of the house, or when my father died and another relative of mine wouldn’t let a good friend of ours to handle his ashes because he was from a lower caste. Every single time I knew it was wrong but I didn’t say anything because it would have been impolite. The cliché about the worst part of evil is not the people that perpetuated it but the inability or complicity of people that let it happen. I wonder many times how my kids and their generation would view and judge what we have been complicit of.

      • It’s comments like that where you lose me Mr. Simon. Do I have a race? And furthermore, one I must answer for in regards to what every Caucasian did throughout history? If so, how much more compelling the argument that black people must and should cringe when watching news footage of black flash mobs or black robberies in the here and now. Must I only cringe for what white people do, or simply cringe more than if it’s a Sikh or Mayan? Conversely, should I then take racial pride for what a white invented 200 years ago? Should black people feel miserable for a lack of black innovations throughout history? This is a road of logic I feel sure you don’t want to go down, since it throws principle to the side of the road in favor of racial identity. From there it’s a short hop for us all to decide right and wrong based on race, rather than what people actually do. I do not cringe for what “white” people do or did nor do I accept the least racial responsibility in the least sense.

        • Are you an island, Mr. Burton? Or are you a part of a society?

          It says nothing to note that in every continuing crime against humanity — of which American slavery most certainly qualifies — there were those who were active participants, those who resisted, and those who didn’t give a fuck but were tacitly complicit. Read Hannah Arendt. And maybe see this film and what it depicts before you expend so very much energy trying to distance yourself — or, perversely, trying to take the racial component out of American slavery.

          I have very low regard for the manner in which some Americans feel the need to avert their gaze from a fundamental injustice that is at the core of our national narrative. I predicted it in the essay. And the lengths to which some will go to avoid having any communal notion of responsibility — not for personally engaging in slavery, but for not carrying forward an honest narrative of our country or honestly reflecting on its meanings — is astonishing.

          I’m not losing you, brother. You’re already lost, apparently.

          • I think the knee-jerk defensive reaction some white Americans have stems from being lumped together by virtue of our skin tones as though we are a monolithic group whose ancestors are responsible for slavery when we come from vastly different cultures and ethnic groups, and have had vastly different experiences in America. I have that knee-jerk reaction, too. When I read a line like, “White viewers must struggle to watch the sadism, savagery and moral cowardice of whites,” my first thought is, “wait a minute, my family didn’t step off the boat from Southern Italy until 1913 and 1915, don’t try to pin that shit on me.” To me it sounds vaguely accusatory, like, “this is what your people did.” When in reality, my family, and Italian-Americans in general, have about as much in common with 19th century WASPs as you do with David Duke. Shit, we still refer to non-Italian Americans as “medigons.”

            I agree with the essay, and I find those politicians who treat the Constitution as a sacred, immutable document as ridiculous as you do, but I can’t get down with the whole white guilt thing.

            • Fuck “white guilt.” That’s a phrase made up by self-absorbed people who want to bum rush the door and opt out of any academic or even theorist discussion about why crimes against humanity happen. No one is asking you to feel personally guilty. No, they are asking you to for once avoid deconstructing big questions about the national narrative without collapsing in a heap of personal and petty discomfort. If everything comes down to whether individual people feel bad or guilty or whatever, then it is fucking impossible to have a sociological discussion about anything.

              White guilt is the biggest cop-out phrase since separate-but-equal.

    • You are extremely accurate in your depiction of the scenes. I shared this experience with my northern born daughter who is 30 years old. (I spent every summer in segregated North Carolina). She finally realized what I could not fine the words to articulate in watching that movie. No one comes out of the theater without being wounded!!! Your description: ‘the dehumanizing aspect of slavery’ works on the tormented and the tormentor. What would posses any ‘human being’ to do those things to another human being. God help me to understand this type of evil.

  • Does this film haunt you like it haunts me?

    From the moment I stepped into the lobby of the theatre to two days later as I write this, the heavy, haunting memory of this film colors my thoughts. As I walked out of the movie, I felt like apologizing to every single African-American person I saw standing afterward. I knew this would be a dumb thing to do, but I just felt that there needed to be some sort of reconciliation for these oft-forgotten atrocities…So I turn to you. What can be done now by a single white male like myself to somehow make up for this. I know I can’t change the past, but I can change the future. Would it be working to right the wrongs you pointed out in The Wire? Drug trafficking, failing school systems, a governmental system failing its own youth?

    I don’t even know where to turn here but I know I want to do something about these passions that you and Steve McQueen have brought up in me.

  • Mr. Simon, I’m rather curious… with your appraisal of the film’s authenticity in it’s portrayal of America’s darkest hour which is very seldom in the contemporary Hollywood framework. I’m rather quisitive about what you thought of Red Tails? Which does obviously involve talent you’ve worked with before. It’s not relevant to the discussion, just thought I get your take on it. Red Tails is certainly along the lines of Django in that it’s an escapist feel-good adventure film based on touchy subject matter. Though perhaps the comparison is superfluous since Red Tails is based on subject matter that’s symptomatic of what both 12 Days and Django use as the basis for their stories.

    • I was quite proud of Anthony Hemingway’s direction of Red Tails. The script was unsubtle, to be sure, but the camera moved well. But allow me a pass on becoming a film reviewer in any sense. 12 Years moved me to think not only about film narrative, but about the political debate that still surrounds American racial history. And it moved me as historical narratives seldom do. So consider it a one-off for me.

      I don’t want to be a film reviewer. I scarcely want to be a filmmaker at points.

      • Eh, never asked you to be a film reviewer I just inquired on what your opinion on the film was because Red Tails shares not only a director you’ve worked with before but also some cast members as well.

        Another question: Did the film emotionally affect you to the point where you could no longer hold back those man tears and you just let it out?

        • I didn’t cry at either film. I haven’t cried at a film since Old Yeller. Although I did tear up a little when Kevin Costner had a catch with his dad in Field of Dreams, but that’s really a cheap tug at American male heartstrings. I just let my guard down for baseball movies.

  • After reading this article I am now going to make sure I see this film first thing tomorrow. I would say I’m looking forward to it, but I do not really think anyone “looks forward” to this kind of movie. Seeing it is more of an obligation.

    Also i’m sure the final season of Treme is mostly finished but I wish you the best of luck with it and can’t wait to see it in December!

  • When I say this in any “mainstream” discussion or forum I am called out for being a race baiter or a left wing nut case. But in essence you have captured much more articulately what I say to these people that argue against gun control or affirmative action or any manner of other progressive reforms. That they would have been the very same people, if transported 150 years ago would have been arguing that slavery was a moral good. The “constitutionalists”, as they like to call themselves.

  • I realize that this film and Django Unchained are completely different but they do nonetheless deal with similar subject matter. Did you see Django? What do you think about it? I have a very strong feeling that you probably either hate it or refuse to see it but I could be wrong.

    • I see the entertainment value of Django. I don’t see it as a particularly honest assessment of American slavery or the actual possibilities of resistance or revenge against such an institution. Not every shard of storytelling has to be realist or honest to have value or be deserving. But when a film does meet that standard, I’m likely to hold it dear. I think 12 Years A Slave is a careful, restrained and thoughtful attempt to capture the actual degradation and human costs — to black and white both — of American slavery.

      • Yes Django was fantasy, 12 Years a Slave brutal reality. I was very annoyed with Tarantiono’s comment that his film was more authentic than Roots. Very glad 12 Years a Slave was made and can dispel these illusions surrounding slavery. Steve Mcqueen captured how slavery as a system of evil – its systematic destruction of black people and within a society that was too weak, greedy, selfish, and spiritually and morally bankrupt to fight against it.

  • My reply, as posted on IMDB:

    Absolutely powerful and eloquent reading!

    BUT, make no mistake about it! Until we return to the other side of the Atlantic, for the rest of the truth. To the royal courts and capitals of England, France, Portugal, Spain, Denmark, etc. (and especially, the Vatican). No matter how high of a triumph a film like this is, AT BEST the real truth of our nation’s founding will still remain only half told! Until the part of the story regarding WHY is also told, this victory will still remain “just a start”. We are still yet to be sure whether THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA sprang forth from cradle or cauldron! We are still yet to be fully sure which parts need to be dug up and replaced, because they’re built on incomprehensible lies, and which parts need to be built onto, because they’re based on TRUTH.

    So, should “12 Years A Slave” be considered a long awaited first triumph of opening a long forbidden door? Unequivocally! Should we all revel in the collective distance we’ve traveled that such a film could even happen at all? Absolutely! BUT, getting to the bottom of WHY such mechanisms have been allowed to flourish for the last 600 years, in the first place, will be a far bigger, and far more “heavily defended” door!

    Nonetheless, I personally believe that (akin to the story of Joseph in Egypt) oftentimes what we plot and plan in the darkness for purposes of evil, God eventually uses for good in the light of day. So I very much believe that day WILL happen!

    But for now, let’s enjoy this film for what it is: A magnificent symbolic statement about where we currently are, and also, about how far we’ve come! …but there’s more…


    237 years later, the unspoken question still remains incompletely answered: Did we, and do we???

    • “American Slavery, American Freedom” by Edmund S. Morgan would really go a long way toward answering those questions.

      • Thanks for responding.

        However, huge chunks of the answers have been readily (and quietly) available for 240-odd years in the public and private writings of the founding fathers themselves! It’s not an issue of finding the truth, it’s an issue of PUBLICLY acknowledging it (somewhat akin to Martin Luther’s treatises on the Church doors). It’s an issue of FINALLY being relieved of the burden of a HUGE white lie, so as to finally be able to move forward with “clear conscience”. Instead of continuing to outwardly proclaim ourselves to be “the world’s model melting pot”, while subconsciously always wondering when “our dirty little secrets” are going to cause the other shoe to drop.

        I’m talking about catharsis! And I believe that catharsis lies in confession. Public confession. And here’s the most important distinction that I’m making! Not just confession regarding the effects of slavery (which this film has done–and which is monumental, to say the least), and the “strange and bitter fruit” it produced. But, much, much more importantly, confession about THE ROOTS of slavery. And why the tree was planted in the first place. As unquestionably abhorrent as the PAIN of slavery (and it’s legacy) has been to blacks especially, I believe the LIES of slavery is “the gift that keeps on giving” FAR, FAR more of a “poisoned legacy to everyone!

  • Wouldn’t it just be easier, more honest and less painful for you to just leave the U.S. and try hating it from the outside?

    • It would not annoy the likes of you nearly enough for my tastes. Dissent is the most American characteristic there is, which makes your unwillingness to entertain so much as an acknowledgment of the human cost of slavery or the moral compromises inherent in our constitutional premise, well, un-American. So while there are obviously fundamental reasons for me to maintain my allegiance to this country and to continue my participation as a citizen, the fact that it grinds the asses of simplistic, binary-brained, America-right-or-wrong bumpkins such as yourself is all just bonus.

      • So your real intent is to annoy? Ah, a lofty ambition indeed. For a brief second I thought perhaps that you might really believe in all that tripe.

        I get it now,..this is just your routine, your hook. Thanks for the clarification dave.

        • Really? That’s what you’ve got left in the tank? Embarrassing.

          What part of ‘bonus’ do you not understand?

      • Why did you insult Just Al in your response to his posting? He asked a fair question.

        Your anger on certain topics is noted, even admired by me. But why don’t you start walking the walk instead of just talking (er, writing) the talk? You’ve taken no stands that I’m aware of — other than wait around for Jury Duty so you can nullify. Some of your television work is entertaining & noteworthy, but none of it has moved the needle toward any progress in areas you purportedly care about. Therefore, you often come across as someone who does, in fact, hate this place. Your whole “love letter from a conflicted lover” validation makes little sense. Either do something about it, or politely live your life and say “thank you” to people like us who gave you a 2nd career.

        But a 1%’er blogging about his/her anger is not inspirational.

        • A fair question? Are you actually attempting to suggest that making a supposition that I hate my country merely because I criticize its policies and behavior at points isn’t an uncorroborated, unevidenced claim, embarrassing on its face? Or that then proceeding from that unevidenced allegation to suggest it would be better if I practiced such criticism after abandoning the country isn’t an ignorant and un-American attempt at ad hominem?

          Either way, Brendan, it’s charity enough for me to answer your question without insult, because your premise is insulting.

          You and Mr. Al do not seem to understand either the role of dissent in a republic, nor the boundaries of logic and rhetoric. Criticizing my country is in no way indicative of hating it. Quite the opposite, in fact. I am an American. I love my country and hope for it to behave honorably and not shamefully, and for citizens to know the difference. America, right or wrong. When right, keep her right. When wrong, make her right. And an open discussion of the issues at hand is a fundamental first step in that process, for all of us.

          Much of my storytelling is predicated on a belief in that process. Much of my rhetoric as well. Numerous political “stands” have been undertaken and argued. And if engaging in the marketplace of ideas doesn’t move the needle sufficiently for your satisfaction, then no matter, you can go elsewhere to engage, act or even consider and assert for ideas and argument. But that marketplace is being serviced here. That is my vocation, and I take it seriously. If you do not, then there is no need to remain here venting, is there? Further, you are, of course, wholly ignorant of any less public and more personal ways in which I engage as a citizen, aren’t you? Yet you arrive at a forum for civic debate and complain ridiculously because I am here, engaged in civic debate. Really?

          But enough about me. Can you forgo the dumbass ad hominem and address yourself to the substance of a specific issue? Or do you find more relevance in chasing a narrow caricature of David Simon around the room?

          • I wasn’t responding to your original post; I was responding to your response to a reader’s response. Therefore, I don’t think I went ad hom on you. I haven’t seen the movie and don’t consider myself an expert on the original topic so I didn’t address your original post. I enjoy reading your opinions on certain things, which is why I come here. But just because I visit doesn’t mean I can’t chase you around the room when you deserve it. I thought that was the intent of a blog / message board. The entire model of an online chat is built for one big ad hom fest if you insist on being so stringent about it.

            And yes, I can address ssubstance. I would love to debate you on certain topics and try to debunk some of the hypotheses you’ve hatched as a citizen economist and citizen criminologist.

            I enjoy your work (mostly) but your ideas are not above critique just because you used to write newspaper articles. There are other ways to gain knowledge in life.

            • Okay to all of that.

              But if you can’t understand why one American asking another to leave this country over any political views is offensive and ignorant and deserving of my contempt, then, Brendan, I am obliged to hold your own understanding of American citizenship in extremely low regard. There are many, many moments in our history when dissent is the more American attribute and indeed the more patriotic course.

              The OP’s suggestion was cretinous. It deserved all of my reply and your suggestion that it did not touched on argumentum ad hominem.

              • DS –

                I wrote you an apology email via this site’s Contact page. I hope your webmaster is able to get it to you. No strings attached, not pitching you anything. Just a concession/admission of guilt on my part after some reflection.


        • Upon being asked to leave the country by a fellow citizen, I am certainly entitled to be equally blunt. Or did you think the question about me relinquishing citizenship because I disagree with the questioner’s political views was a legitimate one? If you do, the myopia is yours, I’m afraid.

          Even so, given the offensive nature of the query, I was entirely civil. And direct. I replied that I would remain an American because dissent is still the most American of traits, and further that if it annoyed the sort of people who question another American’s right to maintain citizenship and dissent, that was a bonus. I mean every word of that, quite civilly. Flag-waving, unconditional jingoism and poitical self-righteousness needs a burr in its ass at all points. I have said so, civilly, and in precise proportion to the offensive nature of the original query. Tellingly, Brendan, who took up the mantle of the original query, has indeed rethought his position and apologized for even attempting to defend that query.

          You on the other hand, have seized upon the same weak-ass argument, mistaking it as an opportunity to roll once more in the rhetorical gutter. Thanks, I suppose, for responding so definitively to the request that you raise your game or depart. Based on performance only, and no reflection on any assumptions about your person, you clearly lack the will, the ability, or both.

          You can lead them to water, folks, but if they can’t manage a thirst…

          • Actually, David, what I did was to send you TWO messages addressing the substance of your article, as you requested.

            What you did, fine defender of dissent that you are, was to censor them…yet not censor this.

            So please don’t pretend to your audience that an attempt to push us back on substance was not provided. Are you really being that juvenile?

            What that looks like to me is that the two posts you chose to censor were killed because they made points you were unable to respond to.

            So I offer them again to you, if you so wish to post them, and elevate YOUR game, by responding.

            • Honestly, Mr. Meyers.

              I sign on, I see that you have penned three replies and I read through all of them. At no point do you acknowledge the incivility of your prior posts, or agree that any uncivility occurred on your part. You did, however, go scrolling through more than 100 comments to find the one instance in which I replied to a post that was not only uncivil, but un-American — a post that asked me to leave the country because of dissenting political opinion. And you saw nothing uncivil with that commenter’s offering, incredibly, but instead you leap upon my reply that while I have many reasons to remain loyal to my country, it is an extra benefit that in doing so and continuing to dissent, I aggravate such folk as would offer such commentary and question the patriotism of others. Take a breath and think about how overextended you are at this point, logically: You have the myopic nerve to see nothing morally untenable and uncivil in suggesting that political opponents eschew their citizenships, but rush to righteousness when those abused by such affronts assert for their right to dissent, or even offend — as American a right as ever existed, seeing as among our Amendments, it is indeed the First.

              This is embarassing enough.

              But then, having revealed yourself as an incompetent arbiter of what is and isn’t incivility, you then proceed to declare in the next breath that I am “full of shit.”

              And now, you write yet again, fretting that I declined to embrace your participation on this site because, having read to the full-of-shit comment, I have concluded that you are incapable of civil rhetoric and viable debate and I have declined to allow you to engage on whatever other fronts you wish. Sir, the case is prima facie and the evidence is your own words. If you want your arguments fully processed, you need only ask that I remove the link to your original essay, and supplant that ad hominem-laden nonsense for some better and more civil form of what you consider substance. We will then proceed to strafe without pity your arguments, such as they are. You will also apologize for the full of shit comment, of course. Profanity is not frowned upon here, nor is bellicosity, or volatilty, or Perelmanesque slaloms of staggering vocabulary. Extremes of opinions are often in evidence, though these are usually quickly surrounded and demolished as hyperbole. Occasionally, people here actually achieve agreement and even insight. All things are possible when a debate is moderated not to limit the spectrum of ideas, but to enforce an honorable decorum.

              But in this very post, you have just said, in effect: Yes, I know I just walked into the parlor and shit in the punchbowl. But hey, I managed to offer two other posts in which I didn’t behave like a petulant, unmannered fourteen-year-old, so why wouldn’t you let me hang at the bar with the other fellows? Are you serious? Sentient? Self-aware? Or do you think the standard for engaging here is that you manage not to reduce yourself to a Tourette-like spasm on every other post?

              I can only repeat: This is not the ideological echo chamber of Breitbart, or the lowest common denominator of the Fox or MSNBC comment columns. Raise. Your. Game. Or take your weak shit to some lesser sandlot. The rules are basic and everyone else here manages to abide; you, on being asked to behave as an adult, simply assert for greater immaturity with every subsequent post.

              It’s been a delight engaging with you on this singular point of introduction in that it has allowed me to restate for others here the standards that we all accept in maintaining this site as something altogether different from the wastelands of the political internet. That has some value, and I thank you for providing such a paradigm example of how not to engage in civil and interesting debate. But understand, your false equivalencies are ridiculous on their face: Name-calling and labeling of your living opponents is rank ad hominem; criticizing the arguments and behaviors and theories of the Founding Fathers, long dead, is not ad hominem, nor does it cause Mr. Jefferson, or Mr. Madison et al to revolve in their crypts. Their theories and the historical results of their theories and actions are the precise issue here; criticism of such is no ad hominem. Capice? To argue at the behavior and the argument is debate; to argue at the man is ad hominem. Similarly, to suggest to someone that they renounce their citizenship because of political views is un-American and vile. To reply that there are myriad reasons that I will not emigrate, and that my continued citizenship is in itself a worthy affront to such intolerance and those who practice such intolerance is no comparable offense. It is not even remotely uncivil. Indeed, it is also arguing not to the man and his standing who made that affront, but to his behavior.

              You seem genuinely at sea with the Aristotlean boundaries here. Once internalized, they are not complicated and they make this site servicable for meaningful debate. But they require some greater intellectual application on your part before we can proceed. Because right now, your offerings have descended from fallacious and personalized rhetoric to nothing more or less than an unthinking and wearying tantrum.

              • Thank you, Mr. Simon. You have provided me with everything I need. The best thing about a megalomaniac is he never realizes when he’s hung himself.

                • Mr. Meyers,

                  Based on your peformance thus far, you don’t need me to provide you with anything actual in order to “hang me” in those quarters in which you operate. Some name calling, some selective quoting, careful omissions, and outright distortions about “trashing” the entire Constitution, and you were good to go without having to seek me out. I have no doubt that you remain fulminant and can discharge accordingly in your ideological echo chambers.

                  Giving a shit about it will be another story. I honestly can’t. Life, as I’ve said, is short. And there are better arguments to be had with more collegial, if equally combative adversaries.

                  If you wanted the core of your argument examined and debated on this site, all you had to do was come correct and forsake the dumbass name-calling. That did not occur. My regrets. But I gave you repeated chances, and each of them ended in an almost compulsive resort to ad hominem.

                  With sincerest regards,

                  “The megalomanical, lefitst bully from that certain segment of the Democrat Centipede,”

  • David,

    Agree about originalism and the constitution but…

    What about 12 Years narratively? By the second hour, I found it dramatically inert. Solomon specifically. The movie basically refuses to characterize or dramatize him. Beyond the horrors he endures, and his nobility, what is there about him? About how he negotiated slavery?

    I see it in the secondary characters. I know Patsy. I can feel her nihilism, her dread. I know Epps. The cruelty, the taste for power. I know Alfre Woodard’s mistress. Her pragmatism. They’re all revealed through action, and through them slavery comes into view. Not just as lynching and rape but accommodation and domination and madness.

    But Solomon. He’s almost an empty signifier. At best a witness to and representative of the blanket horrors of slavery. His speechlessness, it’s a survival tactic, I understand, but didn’t he form relationships? Was slavery so total to make that impossible? It’s not that he should be Django, an avenging angel. Or devious and accommodating. But something more than a noble, impassive sufferer.

    “I don’t want to survive. I want to live,” he says, and the movie is most alive when he’s pursuing something. Asking the white foreman to deliver his letter, or denying Patsy her mercy killing. But these moments are rare, and the secondary characters dramatize, while Solomon watches. The movie mostly reduces him to victim or bystander.

    Not arguing that it should shy away from the violence and brutality of slavery. But like McQueen’s other movies, there’s more spectacle and virtuosity than psychology and emotion. Wouldn’t it be more effective if Solomon were more characterized and psychologized? If, in addition to the violence he endured, the relationships he formed, the accommodations he made, a loss of faith?

    Thinking of Edward P. Jones The Known World or Bresson’s A Man Escaped as counterexamples…

    • I found an Everyman engaged in a human-scale, credible and precisely rendered nightmare. I also understood that the non-fiction source material was being objectively addressed. The fact that a true story, absent a Hollywood-sized protagonist, was being told about American slavery — this was the source of the film’s great power.

      Then again, I make television as I do. Generation Kill was one of the most accurate and best executed efforts in which I was involved. It says exactly what we intended about young men and modern war. And your precise criticism was offered by many who viewed that effort and found those Marines undefined, and, in many cases, compared the arc of the piece unfavorably to Band of Brothers. They wanted the reality of Iraq to be more satisfying emotionally, kind of like the mythic journey of the 101st Airborne in World War II. They were evaluating the respective wars as entertainments to be delivered.

      I believed entirely that the characters of 12 Years Slave existed and that they behaved as depicted. And that was a credible tool in accurately accounting for the essence of slavery. And that — not building a perfect fictional character or narrative arc — I understood to be the purpose of the film. With me, it achieved that purpose entirely.

      By another standard, the depictions of Kunta Kinte or Chicken George in Roots were more rounded and their arcs more deliberate and gratifying. Regardless, when my brain is asked to conjure filmic imagery and storytelling to accurately represent my understanding of American slavery, there is now something far more powerful, more emotional and more disturbing than that miniseries. That’s the victory here, and it is an important one.

      • Thanks for saying this. I tire of Hollywood’s tendency to sensationalize narratives and to try to hit predictable “beats.” European films have long embraced “dramatically inert” characters in films; we Americans can’t stomach protagonists who lack agency. But that’s what slavery did: it stole people’s agency. And there wasn’t a cathartic, happy ending for the majority of people who suffered under its tyranny.

      • Thanks for the replies David and Max. You know, it’s funny, I really liked Generation Kill. On its own terms. But…

        A Hollywood sized protagonist, a hero arcing towards redemption, European cinema. That’s all a bit of false dichotomy. Maybe I haven’t explained well. It’s not that Solomon needs to be heroic, with a hackneyed saccharine struggle for redemption, an emotionally satisfying and cathartic arc. Just think the movie would have been more interesting, and more accurate, if it spent more time depicting his interior life. It does with Patsy, Epps, the house mistress.

        It’s telling another commenter walked out of 12 Years thinking slavery robbed enslaved Africans of their agency. Freedom, humanity, dignity, control.. yes, of course. But Denmark Vesey, Vodou, Blues… there’s a ton of historical evidence it didn’t completely rob them of agency. However, if you’re just going by the Solomon Northrup of 12 Years…

        And that’s my biggest concern with the movie. 12 Years is essential in showing a system of control and domination that used and destroyed bodies. And that’s important and unprecedented. Just think the movie could have depicted what slavery did to the Solomon’s interior life.

        And though Hollywood always does this badly, in pat, neat, self satisfied ways, doesn’t mean we can’t conceive the jagged, arbitrary, unsatisfying and accurate ways 12 Years could have.

        • I think you may be conflating insight into the character with agency. I felt that I knew enough about Solomon Northrup to embrace his humanity and his story. And I don’t think there was any additional agency they could have provided to him that wouldn’t, in effect, cheat the truth of the story they were trying to tell. Solomon Northrup had sufficient agency to bide his time and tell the lies and endure the indigities and brutalities and, finally, find a way to achieve his freedom. But he did not have agency to be anything more than enslaved until then. And such was the reality.

          His interior life is not agency. And there, I was sufficiently transported to the point where I cared deeply about the outcome for this man. The scene of him smashing his violin was as fulsome for me as if Mr. Ridley had written eleven voice-overs exploring his state of mind, or if the character had vented his feelings to a dozen others. The circumscribed and restrained caution with which he was obliged to venture his own emotions — that, too, was part and parcel of the tyranny depicted.

          For me, he was utterly, convincingly human. And yet enslaved. But our mileage simply varies, I suppose. That said, I cannot get the story and its imagery out of my head.

          • To clarify, I’m arguing for more interiority. Agree about the problems in giving him more ‘agency.’

            Really I’m trying to parse why I didn’t have the reaction I expected. And you had. It didn’t haunt me. Felt sympathetic but always at a remove from Solomon. Stylistically, I’m not arguing for VO or confession, but maybe a more constrained POV, Dardennes style, tracking his caution and withholding.

            In any event, it didn’t quite devastate and haunt me, in the way Frutivale or a certain show set in Baltimore did. But I may not have been subtle enough, or ready, to accept 12 Years on its terms.

            Thanks again for the dialogue. Will have to see it again this weekend.

  • This essay reacts to the myths surrounding the founding fathers, not to the real men they were. Reading their own words shows they clearly understood how terrible slavery was, and how impossible it was to create a nation if they solved the problem of slavery first. They knew they could not get the Southern colonies to form one “united” states if they insisted on abolishing slavery first, so they made a strategic decision to set that question aside for future generations to gain the greater good of freedom from England. The Declaration of Independence is also a vision statement, not just a statement of current (1776) conditions. Please disregard all the movies and marble statues about the founding fathers and read their own journals to understand why they did what they did.

    • Disagree. It relies on no myths. Nor does it fail to acknowledge the wisdom inherent in the form of a constitutional, representative republic, or in some of the codification of that ideal produced by the delegates to the Constitutional Convention.

      But it is one thing to note the exigencies of revolution and the resulting moral compromises required for union, and another to call the result of that reality perfect or pristine. That is the target of this essay, your comment notwithstanding.

      Two points:

      First, many of the Founding Fathers were not only slave-supporting, some of the most notable among were in fact slave owners. For men who, as you put it, “clearly understood how terrible slavery was,” they nonetheless profited from its maintenance. Secondly, and more fundamentally, the essay is not an argument against the obvious achievements or humanity of the founders of the American state. It is, instead, an argument against looking upon their imperfect and, at points, morally compromised codification of that state as the be-all and end-all of sociopolitical thought and endeavor. The strict constructionists have been arguing a pristine view of the Constitution for decades now. In the light of slavery, not to mention, say, the denial of the vote to women and the indirect election of the upper house of a national legislature, such a logic is an intellectually empty and morally debased exercise.

      For you to address the humanity and angst of the founding Americans, some of who personally hewed to slaveholding for their entire lives, is noted. I can easily stipulate that even some of the Virginians were troubled by the hypocrisy of a slave-owning republic dedicated to ideals of liberty. To read Jefferson’s excised tangle of words from the Declaration of Independence — rambling verbiage that sought desperately to blame King George III for the continuation of American slavery — is to understand how conflicted such men were. Tellingly, the men around Jefferson took a red pencil through his weak rationalization, seeing that even referencing slavery in a document proclaiming for liberty exposed the rebels as being hollow-hearted when it came to human liberty other than their own. Still, I can certainly stipulate that many, though not all of those at that convention and then one that achieved the Constitution were deeply conflicted by slavery.

      That stipulation, however, leaves my critique of strict constructism utterly intact. It’s one thing to acknowledge the historical requirement for compromise at the founding of the republic, or for that matter, the humanity of those who compromised. It’s entirely another to then turn around and embrace their codified version of American republicanism as being perfect, or pristine, or worthy of singular devotion or perpetual authority.

      The Torah is said to have come down from Sinai, writ by a divinely inspired Moses. Yet I still think shellfish is good eating, and I have no need, at this point in human history, to demand that menstruating women be isolated from the rest of their tribe. Leviticus aside, there is considerable wisdom at points in the Pentateuch and the Prophets, and in portions of the New Testament and Koran as well, for that matter. But anything written by men in one age is subject to necessary review and reconsideration by men abiding some distance along human history’s arc. The American Constitution is no exception, and the maintenance of slavery — if you look plainly at what human slavery entailed, as this film does — is a defining example of such.

  • At long last, 12 Years a Slave is a welcome answer to both Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind’s false propaganda and romance for the Old South.

    12 Years a Slave is also a welcome answer to Django Unchained’s false reality of vindication for torture, rape, and forced labor. The true reality is closer to Solomon Northrup’s experience that despite evidence, corroboration, and witness testimony, he nor his family never received financial compensation for having twelve years of labor stolen and twelve years of physical health removed from his lifespan.

    Instead of the fairy tale of guns blazing and dynamite and riding off into the sunset on horseback, Steve McQueen effectively shows with the end notes on 12 Years a Slave that the economic debt and dishonor and criminality and immorality of slavery were never fully settled legally or financially.

    Instead, came Jim Crow and another one hundred years of subjugation.

    • “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.”

      As far as I can tell, no one argues for the sanctity or perfection of the Founding Fathers, and even you seem to say the American Constitution contains wisdom later in this piece. This seems a tad hyperbolic.

      I don’t think its controversial to say positive law can come into conflict with morality, as in the case of slavery in America. It may be controversial to say that law is, in a sense, conservative by nature. It places individuals within a binding social context that is slow and skeptical to change and prone to the prejudices of the current social climate (As I think you masterfully illustrate in The Wire). It is, nevertheless, important for a functional society, and so maintains the presumption of legitimacy.

      Unless there is a legally binding notion to which positive law can be subject, such as natural law (also a conservative notion- also held by some Originalists), its difficult to see how to get around this. But then I think the liberal is left in the awkward predicament of fleeing the abuses of one conservative idea by taking recourse in another. I witnessed this paradox first hand in college, with a brilliant liberal professor who taught two different types of classes: feminist political theory and Aquinas.

      • The emphasis on strict constructionism and original intent, both, in conservative and libertarian constitutional arguments has been an elemental force since Ed Meese was attorney general. I find no favor in the notion that the insights and intentions of the Eighteenth Century authors of the document are given any greater precedent than those living in the current societal construct that is the United States. It is this hierarchy of idealized political and legal theory — from Meese to Bork to Palin to Rand Paul, it has become little less than doctrine to many conservatives and libertarians — that I’m calling out as sanctimony, and dangerous sanctimony at that. I don’t think it hyperbolic at all to take aim there, sorry. And further, The characterization of legal codification as conservative or liberal doesn’t provide me with much in the way of illumination, I’m afraid.

        Are the drug laws in America conservative or liberal? Both and neither, depending on which principles are invoked.

        Good laws, bad laws. Moral ones, amoral ones. Those that place property over people, those that give the greatest value to human life….

        You can claim that these standards are subjective, and I will readily concede as much. All governance, in its day-to-day application, is subjective. And yet, standing back and staring at slavery from our present moment, I am comfortable saying that its codification was a stain upon the United States, and its maintenance was a vile compromise, necessary at the point of nationhood and shameful at every instant thereafter. That the founding fathers at best passed the buck forward for what would prove to be nearly a century on this brutal, genocidal institution — and in some cases profited from it — is easily acknowledged by anyone sentient. This doesn’t undercut their great achievements inherent elsewhere in the Constitution or in representative governance as a unique American experiment. But it mitigates entirely any need to stick bumper stickers on your car asking what would Jefferson do.

        He was a great mind for his time. But even he knew that slavery, from which he profited, was degrading to us as a people. He wrote as much in the Declaration of Independence, in rationalized, convoluted language that sought to blame King George for the proliferation of slavery on the new continent. His fellow delegates, reading his weakest shit, excised every line, knowing that Jefferson was not tarring the British crown for our original sin so much as tarring a revolution that was arguing for human liberty in its earliest breath.

        Which is a long way of saying, right is right and wrong is wrong. And there was plenty that puts the founding fathers not merely on the wrong side of history, but on the wrong side of humanity. It’s not a critique that invalidates the American experiment or the founders or their document. But it does make me entirely indifferent to worrying about what they intended more than two centuries ago, or trying to achieve judicial decisions that consider only their dated interpretations and purposes of their efforts. I’m interested in the utilitarian application of the law amid the society and culture that now exists and is likely to exist going forward; we must govern ourselves, not allow the ghosts of some idealized American history to speak for us. It is hard work, and imperfect work. But it is the only chance we have.

        And again, we would do well to lose the whole useless debate about whether law in any form is conservative or liberal. I’m uninterested in liberty alone. Liberty without responsibility is no formula for building any lasting society. And I’m uninterested in responsibility alone. That’s tyranny, and it was what the Constitution according the three-fifths men and women who helped build the nation uncompensated and grandly brutalized. It’s in the tension between the competing but essential attributes of liberty and responsibility that great nations are built. Both were in evidence in America in the middle portion of the last century. Now, not so much. Now, there are ideologues of all stripes who cry for only liberty, or liberty for themselves and responsibility for others. And the utilitarian ideal and metric is scarcely considered. What follows will not be an American century, to be sure.

        Both the left and the right claim to love liberty. Both claim to be responsible for the society as a whole. And a lot of people seem to be lost in argument as to who is telling it true. All I hear is empty rhetoric and people who are very quick to employ political labels. It’s pretty useless, honestly.

    • Great reading this.

      One of the things that struck me upon first viewing was the economic aspects lightly touched upon in the film, but tastefully done. We’d like to think racism is over, to lie and say that the abolition of slavery somehow ended it and the big bad monster is gone. One of the things I left thinking about, however, were systems of economic oppression and class disparity still in place today. Wealthy white people still manipulating these systems. The ways in which religion is used as a coping mechanism to justify everything.

      We still have a lot of things that need fixing.

    • Huge Simon fan asking an honest question.

      Regarding the excellent move to free the slaves: does Lincoln deserve such unqualified credit? it’s his signature on the order, but not because of saintliness, if i know a thing about politicians. i remember some quote from him, saying if he could win the war without ending slavery he’d do it.

      great article. i only ask because Simon said “It took Lincoln, and a great war…” to end slavery…putting Lincoln first.. Was it his saintly vision at work, or would anyone with a similar ideology have done the same thing? was he merely the man in the oval office at the time, or could ONLY Lincoln have produced the Proclamation?

      it’s just a nit-pick. and i genuinely don’t know the answer…i didn’t see Daniel Day Lewis act it out…

      as a parallel, suppose the federal government takes way too long to legalize gay marriage nationwide. you BET the president who signs it will take tons of credit (similar to what people give Lincoln)…while the rest of the activist community says “what took you so long” and sees the credit go to that canny president who was calculating, not a moral visionary

      • why not “it took frederick douglass, and a great war…” or “it took john brown”

        unlike Lincoln, John Brown didn’t wait until a prudent moment came. He saw a wrong and went after it without compromise…

        nothing but nit-picking, sorry!

        rather than unlimited superlatives for lincoln, maybe the FDR perspective is more appropriate. ‘I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it’. credit goes to the countless ordinary folks who made it possible for lincoln to take up his pen. (that ‘s Howard Zinn)

        • Understood that Lincoln’s first priority was union. But with regard to emancipation, he led the country at the moments when the country was ready to be led. Much as FDR did so in rearmament, lend lease and ultimately, war.

      • Well, knowing what we know of the two men on either side of Lincoln, they were not equipped to preserve union and eliminate slavery. Buchanan was an empty vessel, and Andrew Johnson was completely alienated from the black cause. Lincoln had to bring a North that was divided on emancipation, much less full citizenship, to bear on an insurrection using the populist sentiment of the moment. It was a delicate, high-wire walk, but by degrees he held the North together, left room for the South to reconcile in the event of defeat, and still managed to foster a transformation of war aims from mere union to emancipation, citizenship and indivisible union. Quite an extraordinary feat.

        A more ideologically pure fellow might have been devoured and the war itself rendered unsustainable. Mr. Zinn is a fine critic and I agree with him often. But he has, of course, never had to lead a vast nation to great goals in real time. For that you need not the ideologically pure. You need the clever and pragmatic soul.

        It is much my critique of ideological politics in this era. I am less interested in whether we can categorize someone as a capitalist or socialist, or a liberal or conservative. I am intensely interested in what does the most to solve a given problem.

  • I remember when we learned about slavery and the Civil War in the 4th grade and all of that information distilled in my mind to this: slavery was a horrific and inhumane way for one group of people to make and control money/power. It was also very clear to me that the idea of democracy as set down by our founding fathers was meant to apply only to one particular group of people – white men.

    Those guys wrote it that way. That was their intention.

    In our short history what is great about this country are the changes have been made by great statesmen like Lincoln. Sadly great statesmen in our political system seem to be the exception rather than the rule. In my opinion the rest are a bunch of frightened white guys fighting to get what they consider to be their birthright no matter what the cost is to the greater good.

    It’s a simplistic view formed by a 9 year old but I havent’ seen anything in the 4 decades since that makes me see it any differently.

  • Thank you for this, David. I have not seen the movie yet. Will soon. As a lifelong Kentuckian, living just outside the capital city now, the irony has never been lost on me that both Abraham Lincoln and Jeff Davis were born in this state. Both men have statues in the Capitol rotunda. Mr. Lincoln’s is far more prominent, but acknowledging the reality of the other’s role provides for teachable moments. Mr. Lincoln faces north from the rotunda. I liked learning that in the sixth grade. More than one working journalist has noted that Kentucky remained neutral through the Civil War and then chose the losing side after.

    We’ve got more flavors of crazy than many places. Willful crazy has to be the worst, as evidenced by our election of Rand Paul to the Senate to join Mitch McConnell. We have 120 counties for a little over 4 million people. I tell people it is because we don’t like each other very much. Of course one always smiles when stating a truth like that.

  • Great piece. I wish we would stop assuming slavery ended after the Civil War. Please read Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon.

  • Steve McQueen & much of the cast are English. Chiwetel Ejiofor is English of Nigerian parents. Lupita Nyong’o is Kenyan. So, not really an American film; which I think is crucial not only in the unblinking way the story is told but also in the pacing and focus which allows time for thought.

    • Agree it is a multinational achievement. But American producers and backing were essential as well. Some of this comes out of Los Angeles, too. That said I amended my language.

      I have no interest in disrespecting the influence and work of any nationality here.

    • I disagree. The man who wrote the screenplay is not British but African-American — the very well accomplished John Ridley. He’s from Milwaukee, to be exact. It all starts with a script, doestn’t it. No script, no film. He also executive-produced the movie. As a matter of fact, most of the producers are American, including Brad Pitt, who’s Plan B production company was all over this.

      There are as many Americans – and in come cases African-Americans – in the cast as there are British, if not more, like Dwight Henry, Alfre Woodard and yes, Brad Pitt. But that’s not what the public gets to hear about when this film is discussed, so that’s that.

  • Steve McQueen’s film left me speechless. It is as visually sophisticated as it is politically brave. He uses the film rhetoric developed by Griffith and mastered by Ford and Hawks to show images that subvert the comfortable — often beautiful– myths of an American dream. It is the other side of the coin, and in its own fierce way as patriotic as a film can be — same as can be said for THE WIRE as television. Well said.

  • Sounds like a “must see”.

    I remember watching Roots. it was a good story that I felt scraped the surface of slavery. But it was not just about slavery it was more about Alex Haley’s family history.

    I might try reading the book first before watching this movie.

  • Surprised that amongst all the praise there is no mention that this film was actually made by a British director with a British lead actor, which may explain why it’s a much more honest and open portrayal of the slavery issue. Sometimes it takes an outsider to illuminate the truth.

    • Those details are things that the media doesn’t fail to mention, while conveniently ignoring the fact that African-American John Ridley (an accomplished screenwriter and director) wrote it and executive produced it. As a matter of fact, most of the producers are American. And it’s filled with more African-American actors than British ones.

      Perhaps what makes it a much more honest and open portrayal of the slavery issue isn’t that outsiders made it but that we had to get that far away from Hollywood to tell our story,

  • Great blog, David. If you have a moment, take a look at Part 3 of my coverage of the New York Film Festival 51 on Antenna Blog (just put those words into your browser). I’ve paired 12 Years a Slave with All is Lost and some interesting comparisons have emerged much in sympathy with your POV. In any case, thanks for a penetrating contextualization of McQueen’s film.

  • Sorry, but I don’t buy it. Very eager to see this film, but I find using it to attack libertarians just bizarre. One of the reasons I enjoy Simon’s work is because he makes it clear that there are no pure good guys, just different levels of accomodation and corruption. The folks who signed the Magna Carta were angry thugs trying to defend their lands with their slave-labor from other thugs. The English guys who gave the world the modern idea of representative democracy in the 17th century were a mix of the guys who started the trans-atlantic slave trade and a Christian version of Al Queda. The fact that the folks who made a particular advance were assholes does not mean that their advances should be discarded. This sense of absolutism is just as childish as that maintained by any House Republican.

    Slavery was horrific, and if this film knocks our founding fathers off their pedastals a bit, that sounds good to me. Trying to expand that into a wholesale condemnation of a modern approach to governing is just silly.

    • I was careful to modify my critique to hardcore libertarians and conservatives, a strain of which is indeed strict constructionist. These are some of the same yahoos that argue against a federal income tax because it isn’t referenced or addressed by the Founding Fathers. Or the Federal Reserve. Or federal environmental protection. Or indoor plumbing…

      As if Jefferson and Madison and Co. scaled the backslope of Sinai with their own tablets.

      Fundamentalist thoughts on American democracy are about as useful as fundamentalist thoughts on theology. And the stain of slavery exposes the myth of strict constitutional constructionism for any sensate being to see. But of course, they have to look.

      • Maybe strict constructionists are just being contrary for the sake of it. I would assume that many of the regular people (non politicians) who are “strict constructionists” are the way they are because it gives them a sense of identity that they can “own” and make their own. They feel left out and see the world around them changing into something they don’t recognize. After all, I bet a decent number of of today’s “strict constructionists” were hippies in the 60s.

        Maybe this is an equivocation, but you, me, and everybody else will get passed by at some point and we will feel just like them.

        As a bit of a tangent, maybe you’ll have time to look at this page:

        The “major holders” of private prisons are overwhelmingly mutual funds. This means that many people today, not 200+ years ago, are benefiting from a milder form of slavery through their retirement accounts. That’s pretty disgusting.

        • Very well noted. It would seem that we are in the same place, morally, as when American retirement and pension funds were so heavily invested in South African assets at a time when the ANC was banned and Mandela was waiting in a prison cell. Capitalism has no answer to any moral equation. It only has the quarterly report.

  • Having read the book a while back, I was concerned when I heard they were making a movie, that they would pull their punches and destroy the truth of the story. I’m glad to hear from a reliable source who would scream “bullshit!” if that had happened, that it didn’t. I’ll definitely be seeing it now. Thanks.

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