Reviews — From the March 2014 issue

Here There Is No Why

The trial of 12 Years a Slave

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There has long been a recognition that America’s presidents are the protagonists of some great national drama. JFK and Bill Clinton both inspired Hollywood cycles — glamorously angst-ridden and hyperbolic political melodramas in Kennedy’s case and tawdry action flicks in Clinton’s. LBJ’s war brought the rise of the “dirty” western; Nixon presided over innumerable TV and Hollywood policiers. Ronald Reagan appropriated the macho language of some blockbusters (Star Wars, Rambo) and inspired others, fanciful saber-rattlers like Top Gun, while the blithe denial of George W. Bush’s two terms found an analogue in cinematic fantasies of omnipotence — the rise of animated blockbusters and comic-book superheroes.

Even before Obama, a black president was not an unknown Hollywood trope. As numerous turn-of-the-millennium movies and TV shows made clear, an African American in the White House coincided with disaster. (In addition to Deep Impact, we have The Fifth Element, Stealth Fighter, the television series 24, the Christian-fundamentalist Left Behind, and Roland Emmerich’s multicataclysmic 2012.) A black man could become America’s president only once life as we knew it had come to an end (or was about to) — as with the crash of September 2008 that helped sweep Obama into office.

But Obama’s presidency has reconfigured the narrative, emphasizing the black man as an American protagonist and inspiring Hollywood to retell African-American history. “There’s a situation of authority which allows authority,” McQueen said of the age of Obama in a PBS interview. “We can tell our story now, because we are in a position of authority.” The 2012 Oscar season brought Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s judicious Lincoln along with Quentin Tarantino’s outrageous Django Unchained, which depicts a slave’s rebellion by fusing the Sixties anti-American spaghetti western and the Seventies Black Power revenge film. The year 2013 saw a new Jackie Robinson biopic and the latest Roland Emmerich disaster film, White House Down, with Jamie Foxx (a.k.a. Django) playing a beleaguered president who, unlike Morgan Freeman or Dennis Haysbert or Danny Glover (or, indeed, Barack Obama), talks “black” and wears Air Jordans. As the film’s envious Speaker of the House complains: “Voters today want somebody cool.”

The panorama of post–World War II history known contractually as Lee Daniels’ The Butler normalized a black presence in the White House in another way, starring Forest Whitaker as a Forrest Gump–like figure who rises from near-slavery in the Deep South to serve Presidents Eisenhower through Reagan. In addition to 12 Years a Slave, 2013 fare included Black Nativity, an adaptation of Langston Hughes’s gospel passion play, also starring Whitaker; the docudrama Fruitvale Station, about state-sanctioned violence against a young black man; and historical documentaries on Muhammad Ali and the Philadelphia black-liberation MOVE cult. As Hollywood Reporter noted last November, “never before has such a diverse slate of black-led films performed so well at the box office as they have in recent months.” (The only “race” movie Obama associated himself with was Lincoln, which, in hopes of establishing some sort of consensus with congressional Republicans, he had screened at the White House.)

Yet there’s an especially modern, or at least modernist, aspect to Northup’s story, with its portrayal of the cosmic absurdity of fate. Published the year after Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in 1853, 12 Years a Slave was a well-known abolitionist text and even a bestseller in the years before the Civil War. That it was, until McQueen’s film, less famous than other slave narratives may be due to Northup’s collaboration with a white amanuensis who many thought tidied up or even usurped his voice, sacrificing authenticity for literariness. More crucial to the book’s eclipse, however, may be the trajectory of Northup’s experience. The story of a free man sold into bondage runs disconcertingly counter to the more positive narratives told by Frederick Douglass and other ex-slaves. It is one thing to pity the travails of a person unluckily born into poverty, disadvantage, or slavery — and quite another to experience the plight of a free individual losing everything for no reason at all.

's most recent book is Film After Film; or, What Became of 21st-Century Cinema? (Verso). His last article for Harper’s Magazine, “Open Happiness,” appeared in the May 2013 issue.

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