I've put off seriously watching new movies for a couple years, but in my reacquaintance, 12 Years a Slave is one of a very small handful of real masterpieces that I've at least seen from the 2010s and probably top among the American movies I've seen which include only two or three others; The Social Network, Boyhood, and perhaps Lincoln and above all four, the Iranian movie: A Separation. If they are there, I so eagerly look forward to discovering many more.
It should not escape any Jew's attention that 1993 was both the year of Schnidler's List and the Oslo Peace Accords. 1993 was perhaps the closest the Jewish people ever had to an annus mirabilis, or more to the point, a Shanat Ness. 1948 and 67 was of course great years, and going back a few millenia we can have other candidates as well. But in 1993, it seemed, for a brief moment, to a vast plurality of Jews, that Jews may be able to live for a foreseeable future with both empowerment and peace without having to relinquish one or the other or both. In the wake of 1993, a new era in Jewish life was indeed born, but it was born out of the failures of 1993, not the successes, and the broad political, cultural, and religious agreements and asssumptions that once defined Jewish life have completely rent themselves asunder. But at the very last day of the year came the document that will probably stand for centuries as the ultimate memorial to the Shoah: Schindler's List. Don't listen to anyone who says that Schindler's List is anything but one of the greatest movies ever made - this is the document for all time that will convince generation after generation that the Shoah was very, very real, and anything but inevitable. Oscar Schindler saved 1200 Jews. Had five or eighteen thousand German businessmen decided to act as Schindler did, the Holocaust might have been avoided. A quarter-century later, Schindler's List comes to us not only as a document of terrible suffering, but of enormous hope that one day, somehow, this suffering can be prevented.
But if 1993 was a potential annus mirabilis in Jewish life, then perhaps 2013 was a potential annus mirabilis in African-American life. A black President had not just been elected but re-elected in a country where all such things were thought unthinkable just ten years earlier. This was the year of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, it was the first of a long series of African-American shootings which became causes celebre which the internet allowed people to follow with enormous passion and fascination. The verdicts finding killers innocent of taking young African-American life had not yet been posted on facebook and twitter with regularity. Before the verdict finding George Zimmerman not guilty, one could be forgiven for convincing oneself for at least a few days that race relations truly had turned a corner. Out of the dashed hopes of the George Zimmerman verdict came the hashtag Black Lives Matter, and from there came an entirely new era in African-American life, which perhaps came from the realization that historic inequity would not be redressed. But in a similar historical coincidence, three months and five days after the Zimmerman verdict came 12 Years a Slave, which not only gives an inkling of slavery's full horror and enormity to a mass audience, but also, through portraying the abduction of Solomon Northup from a prosperous New York existence into slavery, demonstrated how even the most prosperous African-Americans must dread being trapped by the worst of America's historic torments. When the system could not protect him, it did not matter at all that Solomon Northup was a respected pillar of his community. Slavery as it existed in the 1830s exists no longer, but African Americans arrived in this country with a system built to minimize their autonomy, and a century and a half later we still live in a world in which the autonomy of even the most prosperous African-Americans can be minimized without any warning at all.
12 Years a Slave is a reckoning truly for the Obama era that gives us the smallest glimpse into horrors completely passed over beyond the historical record - probably because history's chroniclers were too ashamed of what we might discover. Much internet space was was made to debate the various historical inaccuracies, interpolations, composites, short-cuts, and of course these inaccuracies matter, but they matter because so much justice was done to the experience that after seeing the experience of slavery conveyed so ably, we owe it to ourselves to learn as much about the reality as possible even more than we did before its release. Finally, a movie has been made that conveys what slavery probably was. For a hundred-fifty years, nostalgists of the antebellum South would have us believe that slavery was a generally genteel institution in which slaves were well-treated albeit lesser members of a larger family. It doesn't matter to these people that there were literally thousands upon thousands of written documents that testified to its enormity of suffering; and if we multiply those documents with the statistical record, the probable enormity of its horror becomes beyond contemplation. Unfair as it might be, the screen is a much more vivid record than historical documents, and dares those who glamorize the old South to continue their whitewashing.
But what makes 12 Years a Slave still greater than its realism, which already gives off a bit of the spirit of Dante's Inferno, is the Shakespearean vividness of its character motivations. The American South, in all its larger-than-life dramas, is probably the most mythical region of the American imagination. Its various dialects invite characters of heightened speech to the outsider, and the characters of 12 Years a Slave often speak with a Shakespearean, or perhaps more to the point, Melvillian, grandeur that befits an American epic. Furthermore, just think of the various Southerners you know. So many people from the south are still unwittingly trapped within an historical maelstrom so much larger than themselves that they cannot help but be a hurricane of confused motivations and impulses, much as we all are, but perhaps still moreso; and reflecting that 12 Years a Slave is a still greater chamber of horrors than it seems, because the ultimate horror is its inferno of Stockholm Syndrome in which master perpetrates so many hateful crimes upon slave that from these hateful acts can be formed bonds of love, and love and hate intermingle in these interactions so freely that as in Shakespeare, the motivations of many characters can only ever be guessed, and often seem to change from second to second.
The controversies of 12 Years a Slave are those which bespeak a document of extreme importance. Slavery is an institution so medieval that we have no real idea of what it takes to implement it, and those who are made by it into subhumans are so banished from history that we have no idea precisely what they endured. While he was speaking of antiquity, George Orwell, of course, summed it up much better than anybody else probably ever could:
“When I think of antiquity, the detail that frightens me is that those hundreds of millions of slaves on whose backs civilization rested generation after generation have left behind them no record whatever. We do not even know their names. In the whole of Greek and Roman history, how many slaves' names are known to you? I can think of two, or possibly three. One is Spartacus and the other is Epictetus. Also, in the Roman room at the British Museum there is a glass jar with the maker's name inscribed on the bottom, 'FELIX FECIT'. I have a mental picture of poor Felix (a Gaul with red hair and a metal collar round his neck), but in fact he may not have been a slave; so there are only two slaves whose names I definitely know, and probably few people can remember more. The rest have gone down into utter silence.”Of course, slavery long predates America, and its chains are the fate of many billions of the hundred billion humans who've walked this earth. There is no way of remembering their fate, there is only the horrific realization that much of our supposed advancement has been upon their labor. Freud wasn't right about many things, but he was absolutely right about the human mind can be an incredibly decadent thing, and the more refinement the surface of a society seems to possess, the more savagery may exist just beneath it to make such pleasures possible. Southern savagery to blacks was the ultimate indictment of civilisation-with-an-s as we once thought of it, an entire society of politeness and gentility and refinement, built by literally trillions of savage acts taking place just ten feet away. A healthy society, primed for historical advancement, is not a society of luxury and refinement, but a raw, noisy, practically ungovernable society, in which the baser urges of human beings exist obnoxiously at the surface, and the veneer of politeness and hospitality disappear, because where conflicts are more well-stated, they can be resolved rather than repressed. Ask yourself why over the course of American history the South declined in influence while New York became the center of American life.
12 Years a Slave was a watershed in American culture, it signified a breaking of the dam. It was filmed in an era of relative optimism in which it was thought possible that a confrontation with the enormity of slavery's could happen with relatively minimal rancor - but in the case of such a damaging, horrific institution, a minimum of rancor is never possible. The real confrontation begins now, in the era of Trump, of Black Lives Matter, of internet information, of police body cameras and true knowledge about mass incarceration and fake news. The old truism goes that Europe can never forgive Jews for the Holocaust. It's a great saying, because the Shoah is the constant reminder that all the great European achievements, all the refinement, all the civility, only increased the continent's ability to to act like animals. But relatively few Jews live in Europe anymore, how much more true is it that Americans can never forgive blacks for slavery?