Amoeblog

American Monomyth: 12 Years a Slave (2013)

Posted by Charles Reece, November 5, 2013 09:51am | Post a Comment
12 years a slave poster

It should no longer be necessary to defend Richard Fleischer's Mandingo, not after the eloquent and thorough defenses proffered by Andrew Britton and Robin Wood. Anyone who dismisses the film as exploitative trash hasn't read their essays. I say read them if in doubt about its substance. What's interesting to me about the film here is the great amount of narrative overlap it shares with the current slavery epic, Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave: the brutal whippings, the race-horse inspection of prospective slaves, a castrated slave uprising, the decimation of black families by separating children from their parents across plantations, enforced illiteracy, hangings, the demeaning and ambivalent status of the house negro, the rape of a young slave girl by her master and the subsequent jealousy and violent reprisal from his wife, who is herself much abused. The latter film even suggests a Mandingo-type vengeful desire on the part of the plantation mistress, Epps, towards a slave, Solomon Northrup, through a couple of closeups (one occurs as Solomon hangs from a tree). This desire is much more than mere suggestion in Mandingo, of couse (cf. poster below), but it's the master-slave sexual attraction that's always served as the locus classicus for the dismissive reading of the film as mere exploitation.

Despite these many commonalities, 12 Years a Slave is being celebrated as a primary Oscar contender and demanding of serious respect by the majority of critics writing about it. It's a decent film, but doesn't say anything more than Mandingo did. Indeed, it says (or attempts to say) a good deal less, since Mandingo was much more concerned with exploring the structural relations of slavery to other features of American life, particularly sexual politics (as both Britton and Wood detail, the purpose of women and children are linked with that of the slave, devices by which the system ensured the spread of capital through space and time, i.e.,  the plantation and its generations of familial owners). Ownership of others is endemic to the country's development, not an evil otherness that can be put to the side as something we now reject. And that structural concern has a lot to do with why Mandingo has been largely rejected as exploitation, but the psychological analysis of 12 Years a Slave is celebrated. The latter mostly puts the model viewer into the place of the slave, Solomon, which is a morally comfortable place to be: owning others as property is something someone else would do, I (the model viewer) am on the side of the oppressed. Slavery is almost entirely subjective in the film. Mandingo, as "exploitation" tends to do, has the viewer principally identify with the morally compromised position, that of the slaver Ham, who both partakes in and guiltily rejects the advantages of his position. There is no Schindler's List sort of redemption awaiting audience identification with him. His position in the peculiar institution, although inherited, implicates all of his choices, even when he's attempting some bit of kindness as he sees it. By aligning the film with his point of view, the institution isn't pure otherness and we aren't allowed to run away from it. All actions are read through the evil of slavery.

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Snowball's Chance in Hell: Django Unchained (2012)

Posted by Charles Reece, April 28, 2013 09:59am | Post a Comment
django unchained poster rich kelly

Along with Inglourious BasterdsDjango Unchained forms something of a diptych for Tarantino insofar as both are revenge fantasies set in two of history’s greatest atrocities: the Holocaust and American chattel slavery. In the interview he gave at the screening I saw last week, he certainly thinks of them that way. But before either film could begin to be written, one crucial difference in their respective historical situations delimited the possibilities of fantasy: one can fantasize about the end of the Holocaust by killing the highest members of the Nazi party, whereas there is no easily imagined personalized end to slavery through a few targeted acts of vengeance. Thus, the use of explosives against the Nazis seems a tactical act, a logical means of warfare. The use of bombs against slavery would border on what we call terrorism these days, or “irrationally” violent outbursts against a society (targeting civilians who can’t do anything to change the way things are, or think of the portrayal of the Watts riots, for example: why did they destroy property?). Slavery was a deeply structural violence, an ontological domination of a people that didn’t obtain in the instance of the Holocaust. Any heroic narrative set in the slave-built Southern economy is going to have a major hurdle to overcome: there is no real end in sight, the villain remains like the renewable heads of a hydra, nor is there a place to go where the hero’s limited victory will be recognized, much less celebrated (excepting the audience who might applaud at the film’s end). As Frantz Fanon famously wrote in Black Skin, White Masks:

The Jewishness of the Jew, however, can go unnoticed. He is not integrally what he is. We can but hope and wait. His acts and behavior are the determining factor. He is a white man, and apart from some debatable features, he can pass undetected. [...] Of course the Jews have been tormented — what am I saying? They have been hunted, exterminated, and cremated, but these are just minor episodes in the family history. The Jew is not liked as soon as he has been detected. But with me things take on a new face. I’m not given a second chance. I am overdetermined from the outside. I am a slave not to the “idea” others have of me, but to my appearance.

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