A lot of movies lie about a lot of things. They lie about what love, sex and war all look like. They lie about what people look like. Movies are a great way to get to truth, but few do. And it may be that one of the biggest lies movies ever told was about American slavery. Until now.
After seeing “12 Years a Slave,” I tried to think of all the movies I’ve seen that depict slavery. The first two that came to mind were “Gone With the Wind” and “The Patriot.” I enjoy both films but they bother me — bother a lot of people — because the portrayal of slavery is so innocuous that it’s offensive. It’s more problematic in “The Patriot,” because while Mammy and Prissy are technically free before “Gone With the Wind’s” intermission,
Mel Gibson’s happy ending involves him still getting to own people. Yay!
“12 Years” refuses to look away from how awfully, sickeningly, horrifyingly bad slavery was and the stain it left on a country that wrote about equality with one hand and held shackles in the other. Moreover, the film takes on a character we often see in film — the lovable, kind slave owner — and indicts him just as strongly as it does the violent, hateful owner down the road.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Ford, the kindly slave owner; Michael Fassbender is Epps, the horrible one. It’s easy to hate Epps. It’s harder to hate Ford. See, he reads his slaves the nice parts of the Bible (Epps likes to play up the parts that justify slavery). Ford suggests that it’s cruel to separate a mother from her children … right before he buys only her because the slave trader won’t cut him a bulk deal.
I’m not a fan of the movie “The Help”; among other things, it allows white audiences a comfortable space to be sure, absolutely sure, that they would never be as hateful as every white character other than Skeeter. There’s no such space in “12 Years a Slave”; white audiences get to be Epps, violent and ignorant and hateful, or they can be Ford — genteel and kind and oh so giving that the four people he just bought get a snack upon their arrival.
It’s a matter of course that, in any discussion of slavery, someone will feel it necessary to remind everyone around them that they personally never owned slaves. Which, yay, you get a cookie. Had Ford been born in 1976, like I was, he wouldn’t own slaves, either. But he was born into a time and a place where “owning human beings” and “really nice guy” were not mutually exclusive.
Ford sees nothing wrong with slavery because in his world there is nothing wrong with slavery; we live in a world where slavery is bad, and that’s an accident of birth and circumstance more than anything else.
So, no, I’ve never owned slaves. And “12 Years a Slave” makes it clear that most of the truth of that statement comes because I was lucky enough not to be born that way.