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12 Years a Slave
October 20, 2013 8:33 PM   Subscribe

"I'm here because my family went through slavery" - Steve McQueen on 12 Years A Slave, the story of Solomon Northup. ‘12 Years a Slave,’ ‘Mother of George,’ and the aesthetic politics of filming black skin. Before Solomon Northup: Fighting Slave Catchers in New York. The final fate of Solpmon Northup remains unknown. (Previously)
posted by Artw (56 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
The Onion's film review team did a fine one on 12 Years A Slave
posted by AaronRaphael at 9:09 PM on October 20, 2013 [3 favorites]


His grandson, Solomon N. Stanton, in the meanwhile, wound up in Omaha, where, in October 1893, at 43 years old, two months after marrying a woman named Elizabeth Adams, he died. He's buried here, too, at Forest Lawn.

I just looked at his death card last week. I also stumbled on the story of Lewis Washington, who died here in 1898, claiming to be 130 years old, and who had spent years as a Wisconsin-based speaker on the subject of abolition, as he himself was an escaped slave, and even said he was one of George Washington's slaves and was with the president when he died. I can't confirm that part of the story, and it is unlikely, but I have found a paper trail for Lewis Washington confirming his long history of speaking at abolitionist meetings about the horrors of slavery.

I mention this because this is a lost piece of Omaha history -- prior to this movie, nobody remembered Stanton, and, while Lewis Washington has had some historical work done on him elsewhere, nobody locally has any memory of him (I have never seen him mentioned in a local history book, despite the novelty of his claims about his age and life experiences.)

I suspect there are a lot more people like this buried in Omaha cemeteries. Maybe I'll do a project about it one day. In the North, we like to pretend that we were on the good side of the slavery story, but it's messier than that. In fact, Lincoln, Nebraska was originally called Lancaster, but Omaha, then the capital, renamed the city.

Why? Because Lincoln is south of the Platte river, and Kansas was annexing much of the lands south of the Platte. But Kansas was heavily pro-Confederate, and Omaha figured that if Lancaster were renamed after the recently-assassinated president Lincoln, who had ended slavery, Kansas wouldn't want the city.

Worked, too.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 9:15 PM on October 20, 2013 [16 favorites]


Madonna 'banned' from cinema chain after 12 Years a Slave screening row
posted by Artw at 9:16 PM on October 20, 2013


Thanks for posting this. I wonder if this film will have an impact on people who romanticize the pre-Civil-War South?

From the "filming black skin" link:

As “12 Years a Slave” director Steve McQueen said in Toronto after the film’s premiere there, “I remember growing up and seeing Sidney Poitier sweating next to Rod Steiger in ‘In the Heat of the Night,’ and obviously [that was because] it’s very hot in the South. But also he was sweating because he had tons of light thrown on him, because the film stock wasn’t sensitive enough for black skin.”

I know nothing about filmmaking so this was new to me. It strikes me as a metaphor for racism and white privilege in general: racial bias is built into the technology, it's part of the machinery we use every day.
posted by medusa at 9:32 PM on October 20, 2013 [10 favorites]


racial bias is built into the technology, it's part of the machinery we use every day.
You're not the first to notice this, as this fascinating article points out.
posted by steganographia at 11:01 PM on October 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


I have got to say this looks much better than Butlering Mr President
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 12:48 AM on October 21, 2013 [5 favorites]


It's odd that McQueen would say that, because it's actually the opposite -- Wexler and Jewison chose a more subdued lighting scheme for Heat partly to save money, partly to create a deliberate murkiness to match the moral quandaries of the story, and partly because Wexler felt that Poitier had been over-lit in the past. [source]

I recently rewatched it and gained a renewed appreciation for the talents of both Steiger and Oates.
posted by dhartung at 1:09 AM on October 21, 2013 [6 favorites]


12 Years a Slave: heroic, yes – but is it definitely necessary?


....

I have got to say this looks much better than Butlering Mr President

How so?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:13 AM on October 21, 2013


I hesitate to condemn without seeing, but I sure hope this isn't more
prurience masquerading as art, such as the shocking indignities that
Tarantino has (remuneratively) foisted upon us, or pretty much anything by the auteur Mel Gibson.
posted by Chitownfats at 4:24 AM on October 21, 2013


I wonder if this film will have an impact on people who romanticize the pre-Civil-War South?

Prrrrrrrrobably not?
posted by liketitanic at 5:44 AM on October 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


The indignities, beatings and whippings are almost unbearable to watch and will stay with people for a long time.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out in Europe where there are pretty strict laws against racial and ethnic intimidation. An artist in Poland was recently arrested and questioned after placing a statute depicting the rape of a pregnant woman by a Red Army soldier in a public park in Poland. The statue (Komm Frau) was removed by the authorities. There's not much dispute about the facts or the brutality of those events either, but in modern Europe you are not permitted (for bloody good reason) by law to stoke hatred towards racial of ethnic groups regardless of the reason.
posted by three blind mice at 5:47 AM on October 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


I doubt the images in this film stoke hatred of black people. I would imagine it plays out the same way that the mandingo scenes played out when Django Unchained came out -- I don't recall anybody fighting a legal battle to keep them from playing in Europe.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 5:55 AM on October 21, 2013


I wonder if this film will have an impact on people who romanticize the pre-Civil-War South?

Don't know, but I was reading a Slate article yesterday that included this poll cite:

"A recent CNN poll showed that when asked about the Civil War, around 1 in 4 Americans sympathized more with the Confederacy than with the Union. And 42 percent believed slavery was not the main reason the Confederacy seceded."

The first statistic doesn't shock me, I guess, but the second one really does. Even if the whole South as a block still believed "states rights" or what-have-you was the primary reason for secession, that still doesn't come to 42 percent of Americans. Who are all these people, and why DO they believe the Civil War happened?
posted by torticat at 6:00 AM on October 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


three blind mice, are you suggesting the violent scenes would stoke hatred toward black people or toward white people? If the former, why? Sorry if I'm missing something. I'm having a hard time envisioning the audience that watches a person being whipped and feels anger at the victim.
posted by torticat at 6:03 AM on October 21, 2013


there's an idea that goes around that's like, thinking the civil war was about slavery is intuitive but wrong, really the causes are a lot more complicated (plus, still slaves in the Union until much later, etc.). I'm not an expert but I think ideas like this have been put forward by reasonable historians. people who think this or have heard about it might account for the non-Confederate part of that group.
posted by vogon_poet at 6:35 AM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


there's an idea that goes around that's like, thinking the civil war was about slavery is intuitive but wrong, really the causes are a lot more complicated (plus, still slaves in the Union until much later, etc.).

Those complicated causes are related to slavery and the desire by some to continue doing it.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:49 AM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Sure, and the reasons for the war were complicated; I mean there were people on the side of the Confederacy who opposed slavery. But the poll asked about the main reason for secession, and there's no question that preservation of the southern economy, which relied on slave labor, was the primary motivating factor for the South.
posted by torticat at 6:54 AM on October 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


I wonder if this film will have an impact on people who romanticize the pre-Civil-War South?

What makes you think they'll see this film in the first place?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:54 AM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


But the poll asked about the main reason for secession, and there's no question that preservation of the southern economy, which relied on slave labor, was the primary motivating factor for the South.

Yes, it's been established that slavery was indeed the cause of the American Civil War.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:56 AM on October 21, 2013


Oh god are we really going to have this stupid discussion again? Every war is multicausal; no one cause is decisive, nor is any one cause removable. What was the "cause" of the Spanish-American War and WWI?

Anyway... It's interesting to hear these cinematographers talk about the value of digital technology in making shooting black skin easier. It's not racism that makes it hard for celluloid to pick up detail in dark objects---celluloid just needs a lot of reflected light to get much detail---but the new technology makes it much easier to shoot dark-skinned people without a lot of expensive lights. I do wish they'd included some discussion with older cinematographers; I'd be really interested to hear how relatively cheap movies like "Foxy Brown" handled skin tones, given how little gear they had.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 7:26 AM on October 21, 2013


Oh god are we really going to have this stupid discussion again? Every war is multicausal; no one cause is decisive, nor is any one cause removable. What was the "cause" of the Spanish-American War and WWI?

This isn't true at all. Moreover, the stupid discussion we are having is because people believe stupid things. No one is arguing that the civil war was caused by one singular thing and nothing else had any effect on it whatsoever, what many are saying is that slavery was by far the most important cause of the civil war, and to deny this is to apologize for the confederacy. And yes, slavery was the decisive cause of the civil war.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 7:33 AM on October 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


back to the topic at hand, I'm afraid of seeing this movie, because both Hunger and Shame made me feel so much. Although, surprisingly, this movie seems to have a happy ending.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 7:34 AM on October 21, 2013


Oh god are we really going to have this stupid discussion again? Every war is multicausal...

Yet oddly enough, all the causes of the American Civil War are rooted in the practice of and the desire to continue slavery.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:42 AM on October 21, 2013 [8 favorites]


If you say the causes were economic, well, that WAS their economy.

I wonder if this film will have an impact on people who romanticize the pre-Civil-War South?

My wife just got back from a wedding in Charleston. She says that plantations there generally have two tours - a "Black History" one and one that's, well, NOT Black History, where presumably you can do all the romanticism you want gawking at the proceeds of an economic boom without any consideration of the cause of that boom getting in the way. I suspect people taking the second tour are fully capable of ignoring the first and movies like this.
posted by Artw at 7:45 AM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Apu explains the Civil War.

But, yeah, the suggestion that the Civil War was not primarily about slavery is just a southern/Republican propaganda campaign to defend the motives of the South in the war.
posted by obscure simpsons reference at 9:16 AM on October 21, 2013


Yet oddly enough, all the causes of the American Civil War are rooted in the practice of and the desire to continue slavery.

Hi! Historian here! Yes, this is correct and worth saying over and over again.

"I'm not an expert but I think ideas like [other complicated causes] have been put forward by reasonable historians. "

This is not correct. If anything, the reverse is true: reasonable historians have abandoned the idea that there are other substantive causes. Whatever other causes you might imagine--the growing economic divide between an industrializing north and an agricultural south is a popular one--usually drive back to slavery in some way. So one excellent book, Calculating the Value of the Union, does in fact argue that the Civil War caused by the South's need to defend extremely valuable property. But the "property" we're talking about was enslaved people. Likewise, the value of Southern agriculture relied on slavery, so there, too, another economic argument drives back to slavery. Historians have discarded the idea that slavery was predicated solely on ideological/moral concepts, rather than ALSO an essential capitalist structure, one that the Southern economy could not persist without.

But, yeah, the suggestion that the Civil War was not primarily about slavery is just a southern/Republican propaganda campaign to defend the motives of the South in the war.

Yes, but it wasn't "Republican" at the time, of course, and drawing a line to the present-day GOP is far more indirect than you're suggesting. Likewise, northerners were fully engaged in this propaganda campaign. The 50th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, for example, was a celebration of white Civil War veterans. (David Blight's Race and Reunion is essential reading on this topic; his Yale lecture course through iTunes U is also good. I also think that Ebony & Ivy is not unrelated.)

And it's not "just" a propaganda campaign. It's a propaganda campaign that began at the war's conclusion, one that required subjugating, among other things, the war's moral and racial causes to a "Lost Cause" narrative and a "brotherhood of men" narrative. The latter was predicated on bringing white men together through memorializing the "shared experience of war."

That narrative reframing was so successful that for years, white Americans, including historians, have forgotten and ignored the presence and agency of African Americans in fighting the war, framing its meaning, freeing themselves, and struggling to set a different national course that delivered the fullest emancipation. And that's why it has been so easy to talk about the war as being about something "other than slavery," that slavery was merely some sort of related or collateral issue, and why well-educated people are susceptible to that idea even now.
posted by liketitanic at 9:53 AM on October 21, 2013 [24 favorites]


I have got to say this looks much better than Butlering Mr President

How so?


I've seen clips and trailers and read about them... and 12 Years A Slave seems to have higher aspirations than The Butler does in that it's not so obviously pure Oscar bait. And whilst I've not a Lee Daniels film I've have seen Steve McQueen's Hunger and it just blew me away.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 10:00 AM on October 21, 2013


I got to see this about a month ago at a film festival, and I wound up walking out about 15 minutes before the end. I had two very major problems with the film, and many, many smaller issues.

First, and what drove me out of the screening, is that it's torture pornography. The way the violence is staged and shot is erotic. It's the Saw movies for people who listen to NPR. I do not deny the importance of looking at human brutality in its ugly and terrifying face and confronting the darkness within, and in fact I respect and honor the strength required to do that. But that's not what I saw reflected in the cinematography of this film.

Second, there is absolutely zero critical analysis of the text and its historic context. For example, the way the movie opens suggests that race relations in the north have really deteriorated from some idyllic perfection in the 1850s. Now, that served a very real purpose when the autobiography was published and distributed, but a failure to examine that now does a disservice to the telling now. Same with many of the hero characters. Same with some potentially ambiguous but unexamined characters.

I do think there is real value in drawing attention and conversation to the absolute brutality and violence of US slavery, and how that brutality, and our tendency to use the passage of time to distance ourselves from confroting it, continues to inform our culture and institutions. I don't think overly simplified torture porn does it justice.

(And if this doesn't qualify as blatant and unadulterated Oscar bait, nothing does).
posted by amelioration at 10:47 AM on October 21, 2013


The opening scene of The Butler sounds surprisingly harsh, but the hole thing does have a vibe of "Forrest Gump x The Help" to it.
posted by Artw at 10:47 AM on October 21, 2013


As “12 Years a Slave” director Steve McQueen said in Toronto after the film’s premiere there, “I remember growing up and seeing Sidney Poitier sweating next to Rod Steiger in ‘In the Heat of the Night,’ and obviously [that was because] it’s very hot in the South. But also he was sweating because he had tons of light thrown on him, because the film stock wasn’t sensitive enough for black skin.”

The movie he references (mostly) wasn't shot in the South and it wasn't shot in the summer. Apart from one week of scenes shot in Dyersburg, TN, it was filmed in various locations in Illinois -- Sparta was was the stand-in for the fictional town in the film -- and it was filmed in the winter, not the summer -- there were times that the actors reportedly sucked on ice cubes so their breath couldn't be seen while filming in the cold.

A big part of the reason that the film wasn't shot in the South was that Poitier refused to shoot below the Mason-Dixon line given past abuses he'd experienced in the South. The Dyersburg scenes (I remember hearing an interview in which he said this) were some of the most unpleasant experiences of his long llife, not least of which was because only one motel in the entire burg -- a Holiday Inn -- would agree to house the crew because of the black man amongst them.
posted by blucevalo at 11:23 AM on October 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


Odd to pit The Butler against 12 Years a Slave.

Yes, they're both "based on a true story," but such different times/tones/tales.

I haven't seen either, but I'd like to see both.
posted by MoxieProxy at 11:29 AM on October 21, 2013


Odd to pit The Butler against 12 Years a Slave.

Yes, I don't like how it comes off as one is authentic and the other not, particularly by someone who hasn't seen both.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:40 AM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


...reasonable historians...

That does tend to come off as "historians whom I agree with".
posted by IndigoJones at 12:28 PM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't think very many people romanticize antebellum plantation owners, even Southerners. I've lived in the South my whole life, and I've never met these people. Some people show up annually and lay wreaths at monuments to Confederate heroes in Richmond. So they exist, but there aren't very many of them.

The issue here is that white Southerners don't like to talk about slavery – or think about it. People in the 'we don't want to talk about that, let's change the subject' camp will mostly just not go to see the movie, because it's about [the thing we don't want to talk about].

liketitanic, thank you.

amelioration, it would be very difficult to realistically depict what slavery was like for a lot of slaves without verging into torture porn, and rape porn. I haven't seen the movie yet, so I can't comment about how Steve McQueen handled it.
posted by nangar at 12:33 PM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


My wife just got back from a wedding in Charleston. She says that plantations there generally have two tours - a "Black History" one and one that's, well, NOT Black History, where presumably you can do all the romanticism you want gawking at the proceeds of an economic boom without any consideration of the cause of that boom getting in the way.

God this country sucks.
posted by mdn at 1:05 PM on October 21, 2013


The Butler is not an accurate biography, other than a very rough outline. It's based on a short newspaper article. The scenes and dialogue are pure fiction. The real guy didn't see his father killed by a white man, his (only) son was not a civil rights activist or politician, many historical inaccuracies in how Presidents and staff are portrayed. Whatever, fiction, they added conflict to make a story.

12yas is a book-length memoir published in the 1850s by a black man from upstate New York born free and educated. It's as if he was a skilled journalist on an undercover 12 year assignment to the deep south. It was written right after he returned home so is fresh and has literary qualities. The movie appears to stick close to the book. Alex Haley used it (and others) to learn what slavery was like for writing Roots. It's in the top 5 or 10 best-known slave narratives (there were a couple hundred before the war).
posted by stbalbach at 10:25 PM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh god are we really going to have this stupid discussion again? Every war is multicausal; no one cause is decisive, nor is any one cause removable

Yes we are going to have this "stupid discussion" again until people like you actually read the source doccuments rather than attempt to fall for a spin that makes Fox News actually seem fair and balanced. Source doccuments such as the reasons stated by the state of Mississippi for seceeding from the Union. This is not Union propoganda - it is the actual reasons the Confederates themselves are giving for secession.
A Declaration of the Immediate Causes which Induce and Justify the Secession of the State of Mississippi from the Federal Union.

In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin.

[19 short paragraphs expanding on just how the North was doing this snipped]
Are we clear or do I need to pull in other states declaring their causes? The comparison of the Constitution of the Confederacy with that of the USA? The Cornerstone Speech? Newspapers at the time?

there's an idea that goes around that's like, thinking the civil war was about slavery is intuitive but wrong, really the causes are a lot more complicated (plus, still slaves in the Union until much later, etc.). I'm not an expert but I think ideas like this have been put forward by reasonable historians. people who think this or have heard about it might account for the non-Confederate part of that group.

Yeah, there's been a propaganda campaign to claim that and even some historians have fallen for it. A massive and ongoing propaganda - that started after the Slaveowner's Rebellion was crushed. It is, however, flatly contradicted by primary sources at the time of secession. Which means that no reasonable historian who knows the period believes it was other than slavery - but not all historians know the period.
posted by Francis at 3:36 AM on October 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yes we are going to have this "stupid discussion" again until people like you actually read the source doccuments rather than attempt to fall for a spin that makes Fox News actually seem fair and balanced. Source doccuments such as the reasons stated by the state of Mississippi for seceeding from the Union.

Do you always take the aggressor's word for why they are starting a war?
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 11:28 AM on October 22, 2013


Do you always take the aggressor's word for why they are starting a war?

No. I consider that the aggressor's word for why they are starting a war is them putting things in the best light possible. I consider that the best moral framework they can provide is what they make their case as - and that their real reasons will be no better than the ones they are presenting (and are frequently worse).

In this case it means that the best moral case the Confederacy had at the time was slavery. Which means either they were telling the truth, or the real reason they started the Slaveowner's Rebellion was something actively worse than slavery.

Possibly you'd care to enlighten me as to the real reasons there - given that they have to be actively morally worse than slavery.
posted by Francis at 3:00 PM on October 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Like most wars---like most historical events---the Civil War was not "about" one thing, it was about a bunch of things, happening at once, many of them quite petty.

The major source of friction was not whether the South would own slaves. It was whether slavery would expand into the Western territories. The Northern states weren't thrilled about having to respect the idea of slaves as property, but they tolerated Dred Scott and other "slavecatcher" laws, so they pretty clearly were not willing to go to war over that either.

The North, in fact, seemed willing to tolerate just about any expression of slave power, until the South actually seceded. Lincoln had made clear that he would tolerate quite a lot of compromise on slavery, but not compromise on the political status of the Union. He won the Republican primary specifically by separating himself from the abolitionists, who were genuinely anti-slavery and couldn't win political power.

Why did the South secede? They claimed it was because the North threatened their right to keep slaves, but as the North had been pretty passive on the question, that seems implausible. What had the Southern elite angry was the refusal of the North to see slavery expand into the Western territories, which was both a gesture of disrespect and a warning that the South was on its way to becoming a sort of internal colony, good for resource extraction but nothing else. The Southern politicians' claim the North was about to take away the slaves was used as a recruiting tool because it was easier to convince Southern men to die over a threat to white supremacy than over a threat to the plantation elite's political power.

It is certainly true that it's hard to imagine another issue so fundamental---culturally, economically, and politically---that it could provoke this kind of political rupture. But given that the North was repeatedly willing to allow slavery, it seems grossly oversimplified to say the civil war was "about" it. The political rupture---and the resulting shelling of Ft. Sumpter---was what convinced the North that war was called for. All the brutality of slavery did not.

tl;dr: The North was willing to tolerate slavery, but not secession. The South seceded not because slavery in the south was threatened, but because slavery's expansion into the West was blocked. Slavery was cited because that was more relatable to Southern whites than political squabbles in Congress.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 3:38 PM on October 22, 2013


If the question of the war was secession, and the southern states seceded because the northern states wouldn't accept slavery's westward expansion, then wasn't the war still about slavery, though in a more nuanced way than the oversimplified version would have it? Obviously, the Union didn't go to war to end slavery, but, from your own account, it looks like slavery still lay at the bottom of the differences between North and South.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 4:46 PM on October 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


It is! But to say "The war was about slavery" implies that the North went to war to end slavery, which is not true.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 5:58 PM on October 22, 2013


And really, even saying "The war was about secession, which was about the Western territories" is too simple. The war was caused by the economic differences between a slave economy and an industrial economy (slave economies tend towards technological stagnation). The war was caused by a culture of honor that was willing to sacrifice vast resources over perceived slights. The war was about long-simmering arguments over Congressional representation (which nearly derailed the original constitutional convention). The war was caused by profound differences over how much tax money should go to the central government (a cause so intense it provoked the original revolution). The war was caused by England's eagerness to convince the South that they could overtake the North, so that England could finally avenge the Revolution. The war was caused by the South's conviction that they were about to be hemmed in by states that their slaves could escape to (a baseless fear, judging from all evidence, but a real one to them). The war was caused by lots of things. Wars are rarely about one thing to the exclusion of all others.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 6:03 PM on October 22, 2013


But to say "The war was about slavery" implies that the North went to war to end slavery, which is not true.

It's true that the North didn't go to war to abolish slavery - even the most ardently pro-Union historian wouldn't deny that - but I don't agree that "about" implies what you say it does. Not sure I could argue my position. Happy to let the disagreement stand.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 6:15 PM on October 22, 2013


But I'd be much more interested in discussing how the hell *do* you light a scene with both Sam Jackson and Julianne Moore on screen at the same time?
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 11:19 PM on October 22, 2013


It is! But to say "The war was about slavery" implies that the North went to war to end slavery, which is not true.

It only implies that if you've already drunk a lakeful of swill (such as the "War of Northern Aggression"). The alternate explanation is that the South went to war to preserve slavery. This is true.
posted by Francis at 5:29 AM on October 23, 2013


ThatFuzzyBastard,

Why don't you consult experts on this issue? They overwhelmingly agree that the primary proximate and fundamental cause of the Civil War was slavery. Why don't you believe them?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 7:45 AM on October 23, 2013


Grantland: The Song of Solomon- The cultural crater of 12 Years a Slave
posted by Artw at 4:24 PM on October 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


The South seceded because of slavery after the election of an anti-slavery President from the anti-slavery Party. The North didn't want the South to secede and was willing to compromise on slavery to prevent them from seceding. The South wouldn't have any of it, and seceded anyway. The North went to war to prevent them from seceding and in the process abolished slavery. There doesn't seem to be much disagreement on specific causes of the war, but there is a severe aversion to sweeping statements like "the war was about slavery." I don't quite understand why, it seems perfectly adequate to me. Maybe the problem is Americans don't really like talking about slavery at all and would prefer to just sort of erase it from history and talk about "State's Rights" or something instead.
posted by Golden Eternity at 4:39 PM on October 25, 2013


Nah---it's just that "The war was about slavery" strikes me as being rather like saying "WWI was about Russia's relationship with Serbia" or "WWII was about Japan's desire to prevent the US from achieving naval supremacy."

Anyway, getting away from this ongoing derail, here are some interesting reactions to 12 Years a Slave.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 5:16 PM on October 25, 2013


Artw, that's a damn good article. Choice bit:
The indictment of the racial power dynamic in that cotton bale–weighing scene might as well be an indictment of the same dynamic in the movies. 12 Years a Slave is an easy landmark. It's a rare sugarless movie about racial inequality. McQueen doesn't even give you any orchestral elevation. The score is hard and churning and sparingly used. The movie is about Northup, and at several points an audience is free to remember that most movies about the Civil War and slavery have been appeals to our higher, nobler selves. They've been appeals to white audiences by white characters talking to other white characters about the inherent injustice of oppressing black people at any moment in this planet's history.

This is how we get movies in which white lawyers defend innocent black men (To Kill a Mockingbird, A Time to Kill). It's how we get romances — Jezebel, Gone With the Wind, Cold Mountain — that use the antebellum South and Civil War as backdrops but feature either the most entertaining black slaves or almost no slaves at all. It's how you get Mississippi Burning, a thriller about three murdered civil-rights activists in which even the one-dimensional racists have bigger speaking parts than any black person.

It's how you get Cry Freedom, a thriller about Steve Biko (Denzel Washington) that mostly locks Biko into flashbacks while a white journalist (Kevin Kline) tries to flee apartheid-era South Africa; a movie about the death of Medgar Evers that's focused on his assassin; Steven Spielberg legislative historical dramas about white men fighting over who owns black people and what it means to do so. It's how you spend 35 minutes hearing Christoph Waltz talk and talk in Django Unchained and get nervous that Quentin Tarantino momentarily forgot what his movie was called.

The quality of these films is not the issue. A few of them are great. But after decades and decades and dozens of titles, you get the political point. Movies are the most powerful ways Hollywood has to say it's sorry. There is a kind of audacity in something like Lincoln, in which important white men get discursive about the moral quandary in which slavery mires the country. That debate required men to search their souls and vote accordingly. But after enough of these movies, you're just hot with insult. You have to stop accepting apologies, accepting, say, The Help, and start demanding correctives, films that don't glorify whiteness and pity blackness, movies — serious ones — that avoid leading an audience to believe that black stories are nothing without a white voice to tell them that black people can't live without the aid of white ones.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 5:29 PM on October 25, 2013 [2 favorites]


John Ridley - 12 Years a Slave Q&A
posted by Artw at 9:45 PM on November 2, 2013


I just got back from seeing it - absolutely incredible film.
posted by Artw at 9:46 PM on November 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


David Simon: Slavery, a film narrative and the empty myth of original intent.
posted by homunculus at 6:31 PM on November 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


Wow, great piece.
posted by Artw at 7:25 PM on November 3, 2013


Incredible movie, just saw it last night. Felt to me like a holocaust film, in many ways. Digging into some of these links now.
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 11:21 AM on November 8, 2013


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