There are relatively few movies about slavery. Wikipedia lists about 30 total, and that includes films like Birth of a Nation, Gone With the Wind, and Spartacus, which are not especially interested in the experience of slaves in the antebellum South. In comparison, there are more than 180 films about the Holocaust (not counting documentaries). It’s true that the Holocaust was more recent—but, on the other hand, slavery occurred in the U.S., home of Hollywood. You’d think film might have something to say about it.
Perhaps things will change, given the enormous critical success of this year’s 12 Years a Slave. But should we want them to? What do we gain, if anything, from the cinematic portrayal of slavery? What would we get from 180 films about slavery, or from 30? Or, for that matter, from one?
Read more. [Image: Channel Four Films]
At the beginning of 12 Years a Slave, the kidnapped freeman Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), has a painful sexual encounter with an unnamed female slave in which she uses his hand to bring herself to orgasm before turning away in tears. The woman’s desperation, Solomon’s reserve, and the fierce sadness of both, is depicted with an unflinching still camera which documents a moment of human contact and bitter comfort in the face of slavery’s systematic dehumanization. It’s scenes like these in the film, surely, that lead critic Susan Wloszczyna to state that watching 12 Years a Slave makes you feel you have “actually witnessed American slavery in all its appalling horror for the first time.”
And yet, for all its verisimilitude, the encounter never happened. It appears nowhere in Northup’s autobiography, and it’s likely he would be horrified at the suggestion that he was anything less than absolutely faithful to his wife. Director Steve McQueen has said that he included the sexual encounter to show “a bit of tenderness … Then after she’s climaxes, she’s back … in hell.” The sequence is an effort to present nuance and psychological depth — to make the film’s depiction of slavery seem more real. But it creates that psychological truth by interpolating an incident that isn’t factually true.
This embellishment is by no means an isolated case in the film.
Read more. [Image: Fox Searchlight Pictures]
From The Atlantic archives: a detailed account of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion from Thomas Wentworth Higginson.
Read more. [Image: Wikimedia Commons]
147 Years Ago Today, the U.S. Outlawed Slavery
Happy birthday, 13th Amendment! In honor of the anniversary, here’s a collection of excellent stories from The Atlantic's archives.
- Where Will It End? (Dec. 1857): In The Atlantic's second issue, Edmund Quincy urges readers to take a stand against slavery. “It is only the statement of the truism in moral and in political economy,” he wrote, “that true prosperity can never grow up from wrong and wickedness.”
- American Civilization (Apr. 1862): Ralph Waldo Emerson’s vehement argument for the federal emancipation of slaves. “Morality,” above all else, he asserted, “is the object of government.”
- The President’s Proclamation (Nov. 1862): Seven months later, Emerson hails Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation as an act that would mean “the lives of our heroes have not been sacrificed in vain.”
- Reconstruction, and an Appeal to Impartial Suffrage (Dec. 1866): In the same month the 13th Amendment was adopted, Frederick Douglass pushed lawmakers to grant black Americans the vote: “Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot.”
- The Death of Slavery (Jul. 1866): William Cullen Bryant’s stirring poem about the demise of the “cruel reign” of slavery.
This is a very, very incomplete collection of stories from the era about slavery. (We were, after all, an abolitionist magazine.) For more, take a look at the commemorative Civil War issue we published last year.
[Image: Wikimedia Commons/National Archives]
Miller has been making wall paintings from piped frosting since 2001; more recently, she’s experimented with pieces that use hardened sugar tiles. For the piped graffiti, she employs a recipe for Royal Icing, otherwise known as the glue that cements gingerbread houses. The saccharine goo is made with “meringue powder, water, and powdered sugar,” Miller says. “It dries really hard, almost like plaster.”
The artist hasn’t been fooling around with frosting for more than a decade to prep for Ace of Cakes. The art contains a subtext that’s as bitter as gall: She wants us to remember the era when European powers enslaved a huge chunk of Africa to sustain their precious New World sugar plantations. During a 300-year span that began in the 16th century, “white gold” became so treasured that it accounted for a third of Europe’s whole economy; more than 10 million African slaves made the horrific “Middle Passage” to the Americas to help feed the beast.
Read more. [Images: Shelley Miller]
— A heartbreaking 1859 letter from Harriet Newby to her husband, Dangerfield Newby. After Dangerfield was freed from slavery, he went north to earn enough money to buy his wife and children’s freedom.
These are not images of “problems.” They’re images of people. There are 27 million slavesin the world today: That’s more than double the number of people taken from Africa during the entire transatlantic slave trade. A hundred and fifty years ago, an average agricultural slave cost over three times the average yearly wage of an American worker, about $50,000 in today’s money. Yet now, entire families can be enslaved for generations over a debt as small as $18. Slavery is illegal everywhere, but it exists all over the world.
Read more. [Image: Lisa Kristine]