Friday, February 14, 2014

Twelve years a slave

The movie "Twelve years a slave," is based on the 1853 book by the actual free black man Solomon Northrup, who was kidnapped from Washington DC in 1841 and sold into slavery in the deep south in Georgia, when is was essentially impossible for a slave to escape. It is a compelling tale, and yet it lacked something. I'm not sure what, maybe because we have become used to a diet of movies and stories in which good triumphs over evil, in which the downtrodden arise and wreak vengeance on their oppressors. For example, the recent movie "Django unchained" in which a black man, with the help of a white liberal, manages to destroy a whole plantation in the south with its vicious slave-owners.

The unremitting cruelty of the slave-owning whites, including the repeated whip lashings that sliced the backs of men and women alike, is shown in gory detail. The fact that the "hero" is essentially broken, and forced to follow the immoral orders of his slave master, inflicting pain and suffering on his own kind, may be true to life, but is at times unbearable. You want him to strike back, even at the risk of his own life, but in order to save himself he doesn't. Unfortunately that was the reality of the situation and has been in many places and times.

If we compare this to movies about the Holocaust, of which there are now many, we know of many circumstances where people both fought back at the risk of their lives, for example "Defiance" about the Bielski brothers in the forests of Moldova, and "Schindler's list" about the rescue of over 1,000 Jews by a German industrialist. And there are also examples of wishful thinking, as in "Glorious basterds" in which a Jewish platoon led my a southern white officer kills Nazis. All these and many other movies, such as the comic book Super Heroes, have made us impatient when it comes to the real, drab, oppressive verisimilitude of the everyday inhumanity of man to man.


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