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12 Years a Slave vs. Django Unchained : Why It Matters

12 Years a Slave vs. Django Unchained : Why It Matters


The existence of the motion picture 12 YEARS A SLAVE has drawn rapturous approval from young audiences, but
several critics have seemed eager to compare it to last year’s DJANGO UNCHAINED. Several lauded DJANGO UNCHAINED and seemed less than willing to praise 12 YEARS A SLAVE as the necessary corrective it represents to many. Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, which had its New York premiere at the 51st New York Film Festival, stars Chiwetel Ejiofor in the true story about Solomon Northup, a free black man who is abducted and sold into slavery in the American South.

I had two conversations with critics whose comments bear repeating.

One female critic despaired of the ending, in which Solomon is “rescued” by his old contacts from upstate NewYork, 12 years later.

She objected to the intervention of a white man saving the black man. (She herself is a progressive academic female critic of European/American extraction).

A male critic whom we have known for years objected to what he termed the exploitation factor of the whippings of the female slave Patsy. This same critic referred to DJANGO UNCHAINED as a “masterpiece” and said he and his wife give DJANGO repeated viewings, filled with laughter. (He is a non academic individual also of the majority race.) Our conversation ended with him asking me to stop kicking his chair.

Why the disparity in viewer reactions? Why does the difference in the film’s perception matter?

First, I must disclose that I found the opening forty minutes of 12 YEARS A SLAVE a brilliant masterpiece of image and sound, the finest of the year. I am not a fan of DJANGO UNCHAINED.


Not because I think it’s an evil movie, but mostly because, when I look at 12 YEARS A SLAVE, I understand the emotions of the characters and the story of the man’s hardship and determination a one based in reality. I look at DJANGO UNCHAINED and I miss the movie it COULD have been.

Sadly, DJANGO UNCHAINED has more in common with the Will Smith film version of THE WILD WILD WEST than with any narrative about slavery.

But the clearest answer lies in the persistent perception of the American Dream as a reality available to all, with the concomitant belief in individual agency.  Call it the Booker T. Washington “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” philosophy so adored by the GOP stalwarts, if you like; it is insidious enough a fiction that it is ingrained in some Americans as much as the image of the steam locomotive pushing across the Western frontier. It is a belief that DJANGO UNCHAINED subscribes to and that 12 YEARS A SLAVE exposes as a fiction. There are malignant strains of it coursing through the American mindset that calls itself to attention whenever “entitlements” programs become an issue for debate.

It is a lie for the lives of many African Americans. It is a lie for many non-African Americans as well, but that fundamental truth is never exposed as part of the story of America and, importantly, the issues of class that slumber underneath this lie remain undisturbed.

Americans find it hard to believe that American slaves could not just simply rescue themselves and pull themselves and their families and friends and everyone they just met out of slavery, as if by a whim. But the reality of American history is plain: A third party was necessary because the issue of individual agency was removed from the grasp of the enslaved. Slaves did not have the ability to walk or act freely, period. Exterior forces beyond their control governed the ability to do Anything. It is the Conspiracy Theory writ large, but it is the true story of the slave experience. There was a MOVEMENT to abolish slavery, there were individual heroes and heroines, Harriet Tubman and the many who aided and participated in the Underground Railroad among them. There were White and Black supporters of the movement against slavery. But there were just as many thugs and killers and miscreants who took advantage of slavery and thought it just. And many individuals died who stood up against slavery. Many lives were destroyed. That is the reality of the slavery experience. It was not a revenge fantasy writ large. It wasn’t one man against the system.


There is a reason that South Africans modeled Apartheid on the American system.

But I will answer the question posed at the outset: several film critics prefer DJANGO UNCHAINED because, thematically, DJANGO UNCHAINED goes down in their minds as a film trope of a western, a revenge fantasy with a hero. 12 YEARS A SLAVE appears to some, frightfully as a documentary, not a fantasy and the reality is that, thematically, it most resembles a film noir. Not stylistically, of course: no shadows and gritty mis-en-scene, no “dutch angles” (off- center camera angles that probably would be more accurately described as “Deutsche” angles, harkening to their use in German expressionism) no world weary protagonists, no era of cynicism.

But, Mid-20th century America, the film noir story was a crucial turning point in the history of our country. Prior to the film noir movement, the myth in America /Hollywood was that, if you work hard, you will get what you deserve and you’ll achieve the American dream. Film Noir was well, you know, it doesn’t work that way for everybody.

And Film Noir had the femme-fatale: Women, wicked and multiple-layered, who led the protagonist astray.

DF-03057.CR2 DF-03057.CR2

But the nature of Film Noir is of the ordinary individual, a god-fearing well-meaning innocent who, through no action or fault of their own, gets caught and punished for no reason by persons unknown to them.

And this is why the perceptions of the films matter: real life. In America today, there are in the year 2013, true newspaper headlines like this one: Another Tragic Murder of a Black Man Near Jasper, Texas

Alfred Wright, a 28-year-old young man, husband and father of three from Jasper, Texas went missing in Sabine County on November 7, 2013. His body was found three weeks later by a family-organized search party, just 25 yards from where he was last seen. Over the last several weeks of January, 2014, the Wright family has grown increasingly concerned with the method by which the Sabine County Sheriff and Texas Rangers have dealt with Alfred’s case.

The Wright family’s desire to take action is compounded by the fact that this area of southeast Texas is notorious for harboring deep-rooted racial hatred. These tensions manifest periodically into violent, racially motivated crimes, such as the murder of James Byrd Jr., who was dragged to his death in Alfred’s hometown of Jasper.

Kevin Powell is now working closely with Alfred Wright’s family on this case:

“I and BK Nation are deeply concerned about the circumstances that led to the disappearance and subsequent finding of Alfred Wright’s body. We are demanding a full, thorough and independent investigation as to why the family had to hire a private investigator to locate his body, and also why they had to get a second autopsy report. It has been two months that this family has had to suffer not only through the lost of their loved one, but also a very careless and irresponsible investigation. As we approach the national holiday celebrating the life and work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. we are saying we want justice in all forms, and we want it immediately. That means we want the Department of Justice and its national arm of the FBI to deal with this.”

Anderson Cooper 360 will air a segment on the case of Alfred Wright Monday January 13th at 8 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.

A Bernsen Law Firm press release states that Texas Rangers’ autopsy report fails to explain apparent signs of severe trauma found on Alfred’s body, revealed by an independent second autopsy. One of the firm’s many concerns include the actions of a local member of law enforcement who began communicating toxicological findings with the general public even though that same person told members of the Wright family that no toxicology report was in existence.

“It is deeply troubling and hard to imagine why law enforcement is all of a sudden choosing to engage in investigatory efforts – interviewing family members and performing basic property searches – all of which should have occurred on day one.” -Bernsen Law Firm

Finally, the Wright family is requesting that the United States Department of Justice and its Civil Rights and FBI units take over the case and investigate Sabine County Sheriff Tom Maddox and Texas Ranger Danny Young.

This is why it matters. The dilemma of racial injustice is not merely an entertainment, it is not a cartoon.The misperceptions of race and power and race and revenge and race and class still consume everyday life – not like the imagined buffoonery of DJANGO UNCHAINED, but just like the arbitrary but real violence and savagery of 12 YEARS A SLAVE. These are still current affairs issues. Real slavery still exists in the modern world. Arbitrary injustice and violence still exist in the modern world. Racial disparity still exists in the modern world. Economic injustice still exists in the modern world. Our severest problems are man-made. We must not despair or look for revenge, but we must be the solution. The leadership is us. It is within this context that the discussion of DJANGO UNCHAINED vs. 12 YEARS A SLAVE arises.


January 16, 2014 - Posted by | CULTURE, FILM, We Recommend | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

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    Comment by Toulouse | September 26, 2014 | Reply

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