Spoiler alert: I did not leave the theater wanting to kill white people.
I saw “12 Years a Slave” recently and found it compelling and, yes, at times infuriating. But it was still based on the usual happy-ending formula for making movies about slavery: get a black slave who deserves to be free, preferably one with star power — such as Jamie Foxx as the newly freed roughneck Django.
Don’t try to make a movie about real scary slaves such as Nat Turner, though, no matter how popular the actor. Add some white slavers who can really “play the part,” but not so convincingly that the good whites in the movie can’t redeem themselves by helping to free the slave.
Director Steve McQueen, who is black, tweaks this formula to great effect, however. The star slave, played by British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, starts out as a free black man with all the style and sensibilities of today’s African American middle class. In 1841, he is kidnapped in Washington, D.C., and sold down river to the owner of a cotton plantation in Louisiana.
Imagine yourself living the good life one day and then waking up the next to find yourself cutting cane in your great-great-great grandpas’ footsteps.
If I left the theater wanting to kill anything, it was the notion that slavery was the creation of a few pathological Southern whites instead of an economic system of forced labor that benefited the entire nation.
You get to see black people being worked to death in cotton fields. But you never see the Northern aristocrats in the fancy outfits made from the cotton that was picked with those bloody black hands. You see the slaves cutting cane but not the sugar being spooned into the president’s tea.
The film does have more and meaner white slavers than you usually find in such movies, including a sociopathic plantation owner. Michael Fassbender’s Master Epps is perhaps the most diabolical white slaver since Chuck Connors’s Tom Moore in the 1977 TV miniseries “Roots.”
There are fewer good whites than usual, too. And the hero among them — played by Brad Pitt — appears as ambivalent about helping black people as today’s neo-liberals.
Fox Searchlight has been understandably careful in rolling out the movie. Despite rave reviews and a People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival last month, you can only see it at 18 theaters in five cities: New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta and the Washington area. It’s showing at three theaters in our area: the Regal Gallery Place in the District, the Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema and the Regal Majestic Stadium in Silver Spring.
So far, there have been no race riots or neo-Confederate protests. Still, it’s a slave movie and there will be hurdles ahead.
BoxOffice, an online movie business review, summed up the challenge this way: “The brutal nature of the film’s depiction of slavery could be a deterrent for mass consumption by an audience when the November 1 wide release arrives, but time will tell.”
That time may well come Friday, when the film opens in the bellwether of all black-oriented movie houses: the AMC Magic Johnson Capital Center 12 in Largo. This is hard-core Tyler Perry gospel, gossip and guffaw movie country. Downers about slavery aren’t particularly welcomed, especially the closer you get to the holidays.
I suspect that more than a few moviegoers share the sentiment expressed by Darin Poindexter on the Fox Searchlight movie blog recently:
“Here comes ANOTHER ONE!!! I swear . . . slaves and servitude is hotter than Zombies when it comes to ‘black movies,’ ” Poindexter wrote. “Hollywood has been stuck on giving us nothing more than portrayals of ‘black people’ in some form of racism, segregation, positions of servitude with some ‘we shall overcome laced onto it.’ ”
Nevertheless, McQueen has made perhaps the best movie ever on this difficult subject. I hope there will be more and even better treatments to come.
How about one in which justice prevails? America recognizes her trillions of dollars in reparation debt. Plaques on monuments to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson Davis and anything with Woodrow Wilson’s name on it are at least edited for accuracy. Asterisks added to statues of military leaders who waged genocide against Native Americans.
President Obama walks into the Rose Garden and issues a national apology for America’s original sin.
Texas revolts, becomes tea party territory and secedes.
And we all lived happily ever after.
For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.