Could a movie cure politicians of their slavery-metaphor addiction?

November 13, 2013

The film “12 Years a Slave” is one of great beauty about a great horror. Director Steve McQueen’s account of the American slave business – and it was an American economic institution that trafficked in flesh, blood and human suffering – is not particularly easy viewing, though you can’t look away. I saw it a few days ago, and once was plenty. But I would gladly see it again if politicians who can’t quit their slavery metaphors agreed to a movie date.

At a Faith and Freedom Coalition fundraiser in Iowa over the weekend, Sarah Palin equated the federal debt with slavery. “When that money comes due – and this isn’t racist — but it’ll be like slavery when that note is due. We are going to be beholden to the foreign master.” When someone takes care to announce that what she’s about to say isn’t racist, it’s a safe bet she intends to be provocative and knows what the reaction will be. Perhaps Palin wasn’t just trying to make headlines as she’s pitching her next book. Perhaps she means exactly what she said, though you have to wonder if she could have found a more appropriate expression. (The Washington Post Fact Checker column found her pronouncement largely inaccurate.)

Chiwetel Ejiofor (left) and Michael Fassbender in "12 Years a Slave." (Francois Duhamel / Francois Duhamel)
Chiwetel Ejiofor, left, and Michael Fassbender in “12 Years a Slave.” (Photo by Francois Duhamel)

It’s not the first time Palin has used the slavery comparison to make a political point. And she has plenty of company, from rising conservative star Ben Carson, who said “Obamacare” was the worst thing that has happened in America “since slavery,” to losing Virginia GOP lieutenant governor candidate E.W. Jackson, who said anti-poverty programs of the 1960s did more harm to black families than slavery. And many years ago, when Clarence Thomas unloaded his victim of a “high-tech lynching” card, he saved his Supreme Court nomination by reviving visions of bodies swinging from trees.

It’s not just the conservative side of the political spectrum that takes a dip in such troubled waters. Vice President Biden rightly got in trouble during the last presidential campaign for saying to a diverse audience that included many African Americans that Republican nominee Mitt Romney would “put you all back in chains” by unshackling Wall Street.

Although some of my friends had approached “12 Years a Slave” as some sort of can-you-stand-it test, that wasn’t my experience. It was so much more than a dutifully tolerated antidote to the fiction of “Gone with the Wind,” with its loyal, simple-minded or invisible black people and sympathetic plantation owners – though I did appreciate that correction.

McQueen, a visual artist by training, captures the natural beauty that surrounds film hero Solomon Northup’s descent into a hell on earth. The outwardly calm world is rife with tension and with the anxieties of enslaved human beings, when everything is unpredictable and you are never in control, when life and death depend on the whim of someone else. It shows the twisted psyches of slavers — buyers and sellers — some who revel in the power and others who present a kinder front but are just as complicit in the institution’s immorality.

Though the movie focuses on Northup’s particular nightmare journey from freedom to slavery and back, the other black characters are not mere background – not the mother who suffers the constant, unwavering grief of having two children torn from her and sold away, nor the young woman who is subject to the cruelty, violence and sexual humiliations of her “owner” and jealous rages of his sociopath wife, nor the silent man who picks cotton until he drops dead and is solemnly mourned only by those who share his toils. All the men, women and children, not just Northup, were born free; he was, however, the only one who escaped in this story.

There are many ways to make a coherent, urgent political point without recalling the rope and the whip, the rapes and murders. Slavery, part of our shared American history, is not just a word, as Palin as much as acknowledged with her brief disclaimer. To use past anguish as present-day metaphor trivializes evil and shows disrespect to those who endured.

Viewing a film would not take the physical and emotional turmoil of the 12 years that Northup suffered. It’s a few hours out of a day — not much when you know you can walk free into a sunny afternoon once the credits roll. So I invite the next pundit or politician to sit and watch, listen and learn, and think twice before throwing the specter of slavery into a policy squabble.

I’ll even buy the tickets.

Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.
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Vanessa Williams · November 13, 2013