Friday, January 17, 2014

'12 Years a Slave' and Dana Stevens' Epic White Privilege Failure in Slate Magazine


The Oscar nominated film 12 Years a Slave, which seems destined to win a number of awards, is still being discussed and processed by cultural critics and film reviewers. For example, on Friday of this week, Slate Magazine posted an essay by Dana Stevens about the film.

Unfortunately, her comments are a spot-on example of white privilege and how the white racial frame empowers many otherwise decent and well-meaning white folks to reproduce white racism in a quotidian manner.

She actually wrote the following:
I guess, simply put, I’m just not sure I’m down with body horror as a directorial approach for a movie on this subject. After a certain point it seems to serve more to shut out (and gross out) the audience than to make them think, feel, and engage...

But when the white overseers and masters—particularly Fassbender’s red-bearded supervillain, but to a lesser degree the figures played by Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, and Benedict Cumberbatch—show up, there’s sometimes the hint of a prurient horror-movie vibe that can feel exploitive. I felt this when Dano’s rather theatrically vile character sang that hideous “Run, nigger, run” song in close-up. Or in the many scenes when Fassbender (who, on a second viewing, I find to be laying it on a little thick) wanders his plantation with a bottle in hand, circling like a predator, looking for someone to humiliate and abuse.
It is easy to talk about white racism as a system that operates to maintain a sense of group position and power in a given society. Moral claims are easy to make relative to racism and white supremacy as well--the language of "good" and "bad" people, the racists being the latter, the rest of us the former, is compelling and safe.

I would suggest that the more challenging framework for understanding white supremacy as a cultural, political, and social force, is how it works through Whiteness's and White folks' capacity for narcissism, ego, myopia, and a willful and cultivated cluelessness and ignorance about matters related to the power and history of the color line in the United States and elsewhere. 

Stevens' comments about how the violence in 12 Years a Slave made her, a white woman, uncomfortable, and that the depictions of white slave owners and their cruelty seemed exaggerated and over the top is a version of the "universal I" in practice. Moreover, her framing of the "audience" as an unmarked and undifferentiated mass, one that she assumes shares her sensibilities and identity, signals to that fallacy in reasoning. For Stevens, "the audience" is implicitly coded as "white". 
 
One of the ways that white privilege hurts both white people's cognition and capacity for human empathy is that it makes white folks--and their experiences, egos, and perspectives--the center of all things. White privilege is a learned behavior. As such, it embodies a set of cultural and behavioral norms. Among these rules is that white folks' feelings and sensibilities must always be respected and catered to.

White privilege also encourages ignorance and stupidity. A tiny bit of basic research--listening to or reading interviews with former slaves, surveying accounts of plantation life as compiled by historians, or even having a reflective moment and thinking about how slavery in the Americans was a system of terrorism and tyranny which encouraged human barbarism, would have hopefully convinced Stevens to delete said paragraphs for fear of personal embarrassment.

Whiteness has no room for a full understanding of black suffering and pain. One of the comments in response to Dana Stevens' essay on 12 Years a Slave highlighted how a mainstream white film critic would never suggest that the suffering of Jewish people, and the wickedness of the Nazis as depicted in a movie about the Holocaust was exaggerated, or that the film should be toned down for the benefit of the audience's comfort level.

However, the representation of the innumerable cruelties visited upon black people during slavery across the Black Atlantic is to be modulated for the comfort of the White Gaze. Apparently, everyone is an expert on the history of black people and the American slaveocracy. And because all of us are experts on the subject, writers and commentators such as Stevens are not obligated to do the most basic of research or due diligence before making factual claims about that most "peculiar" of social institutions.

Ultimately, Dana Stevens' essay on 12 Years a Slave is a reminder of how the history and lived present of African Americans and other people of color is, once more, deemed a plaything for Whiteness and those empowered by white privilege.

51 comments:

mbsmith_101 said...

The comparisons to Nazi depictions are interesting in the context of accusations of 12 Years being exaggerated, for the fact of the completeness with which Schindler's List changed what can and cannot be done in a mainstream movie. The Holocaust has always been a special case for several reasons which go beyond the Holocaust itself. The most obvious is the photographic record--you cannot accuse Spielberg of taking liberties with what clearly exists in contemporary sources.

The other is the sheer volume of first-hand accounts. There is no reason to believe the survivors of the Holocaust and the survivors of slavery were not both intelligent, sensitive groups of people. The difference is that the Holocaust survivors were by and large educated and literate, which the slaves were denied as a matter of course. It's amazing so many accounts of slavery have survived at all, but it is natural, in my opinion, to be a little more skeptical of that type of historical research.



That said, a filmmaker could remake Salo and set it in the antebellum South, and I wouldn't have any trouble believing it matched someone's experiences pretty closely. I think it is probably difficult for anyone who has not seen it (including myself, thankfully) to grasp what can come from a complete lack of moral restraint, which any system of chattel slavery simply cannot exist without. I personally cannot conceive of actually committing the acts depicted, but the position that it offends my sensibilities so much--or intrudes too closely on what I want to believe about my ancestors--that it must necessarily be inaccurate is untenable. There is too much evidence to the contrary in too many other cases to discount the less-than-perfect contemporary accounts of slaves.

Introspective said...

Umm, so many slaves learned to read and write that left accounts behind of their *actual* experiences of slavery, Northrup included, that your blanket dismissal of the truthfulness of their accounts along with your erroneous characterization of all slaves as being illiterate as a matter of course, makes no sense. It suggests you could not have done enough reading/research into the subject; or else you would never make such a claim as to the validity of Holocaust survival narratives over and above the validity of slave narratives. Harriet Jacobs: literate. Frederick Douglass: literate. Olaudah Equiano: literate. Henry Box Brown: literate. I could continue with a list of former slaves who wrote truthful narratives depicting the harshest violence ever, that they lived and experienced, but I would be writing all night.


As for you Chauncey, this is the most spirited and thoughtful read of the way white privilege works that Ive read in a while. I will be taking tips from this piece to present what I mean by racial privilege to my students. Many many thanks.

mbsmith_101 said...

Northrup could read before he was captured. Douglass learned to read under threat of punishment if he were found out. Equiano education was encouraged to better accomplish his assigned tasks. None of that invalidates that the majority of slaves were kept uneducated by design.


Is it really that outlandish to suggest that literacy rates among central and western Europeans in 1945 were much higher than that among freed slaves in 1865? Yes, there are accounts. Yes, they should be taken seriously. I was simply pointing out that the standards of historical reliability were different in between the two eras, and it is easier to question autobiographical narratives in the absence of physical evidence. That phenomenon is not limited to slaves by any means, and the larger trend embodied in Stevens' piece to discount whatever makes us uncomfortable is very real. Douglass' narrative can be called into question in ways that Elie Wiesel's cannot; that much at least should be plain. That doesn't mean it should be, just that it can be. It also means that it will be, rightly or wrongly, for political and cultural purposes. If realizing that makes me uneducated on the subject, so be it.

Learning Is Eternal said...

CDV, I remember your post about this film after you viewed it. I agree. If this made some folks cringe trust me this film could have went deeper with violence than what was given.

There are so many scenarios & creative thinking in ways to torture a black body that 12yrs. Doesn't cover. I feel.

As was covered here @WARN, shoes made African flesh, black babies used as gator bait, castration (body parts sold), post cards of burnt black flesh from the last pic (a-nigger-to lynch) nic.

Most reviews & comments had me expecting a giant 10 feet tall in horror which wasn't even half of that.

There is one scene that stirred a myriad of emotion in me. When Northup was sent to the store & took that path which lead him to a lynching. The look upon those faces of the 3 to be lynched, not the actual lynching but the look in their eyes...

It's just I have a harder time listening to Strange Fruit. Especially in the dark.

Trust, nothing about these experiences are exaggerated.

I see what you mean. "I've been kicked. Please, tell me my reaction."

chauncey devega said...

Thanks for the call back reference. 12 Years a Slave and Django were Disney movies. Why are so many afraid of the truth of how black Americans were tortured, murdered, and debased by white folks during the Middle Passage and 3 centuries of bondage across the Black Atlantic? I don't want to dwell on 12 Years a Slave as we have discussed it here on WARN already. But, I have 2 posts forthcoming that are my effort to expose the white privilege lies about the movie.

chauncey devega said...

Interesting comment. We have every type of evidence available to validate the gross inhumanity of black chattel slavery in the New World, with the exception of film (and I may be wrong on that one so who knows) what other type of evidence is necessary? For me that is the point. Ignorance about the racial tyranny and pure wickedness of how black human property was treated in the New World should be the default assumption--not something that requires an extraordinary type of proof.

chauncey devega said...

How kind. We try. I am encouraged by the readers of WARN. See my above comment. Once American society acknowledges the black holocaust then a basic conversation about justice claims and reparations would follow. That ain't gonna happen.

Myshkin the Idiot said...

Great piece. Thank you.

"One of the ways that white privilege hurts both white people's cognition and capacity for human empathy is that it makes white folks--and their experiences, egos, and perspectives--the center of all things."

I've seen a lot of reflections about 12 Years lately that talk about how it encourages white guilt pathology which has made me think about that idea a little bit more.

I find it interesting that a movie like this is made and the reaction is to protect white people's feelings of guilt associated with slavery in America. I have never seen any reflections about protecting the myriad emotions black people might face when confronted with scenes as depicted in 12 Years.

To date I have seen neither 12 Years nor Django. My wife bought a copy of the actual narrative for me, the first few pages have painted a very interesting picture of America.

chauncey devega said...

"Douglass' narrative can be called into question in ways that Elie Wiesel's cannot"


How? Please explain. Douglass was an American titan and elder in Arts and Letters.

Tim Mitchell said...

Great post. I saw Steven's post too, and many of her comments made me cringe.

That said, I think that there are other aspects at work here in addition to white privilege. I think that it also involves the idea of how someone's ethnic and national identity is disturbed when confronted with detailed, graphic evidence of abuse committed in the name of his/her own nationality/ethnicity. Another good cinematic example would be Japan's reaction to the Chinese film Men Behind the Sun: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0093170/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1.

Another example would be a recent article that was posted by a resident of West Virginia who is angry about the recent chemical spill. You can read it here: http://culturalslagheap.wordpress.com/2014/01/12/elemental/. While the writer's anger is understandable, I don't know if he understands that what he is expressing matches how industrialized nations have been treating non-industrialized nations and indigenous cultures for a very long time. In fact, his one statement, "To hell with every greedhead operator who flocked here throughout history because you wanted what we had", can be appreciated by every indigenous tribe across the Americas, while one of his other statements, "To hell with everyone who ever asked me how I could stand to live in a place like this, so dirty and unhealthy and uneducated", can be appreciated by any Native American who chooses to say on his/her impoverished, depressed reservation. The problem, though, is that when you make such observations around conservative whites, they usually tell you that you're a politically correct crybaby and then ignore you.

CBid13 said...

You're absolutely correct, CDV. I don't know whether or not the guest's comments were an actual effort to cast doubt upon any of the evidence or narratives -or if the comments were more to the point of trying to maybe get into the head of those who do question the multitude of sources that we have; despite whichever the case may be, by simply looking at the many historical documents of white people who owned slaves we're consistently provided with a reality many whites would like to deny any connection with: the cataloging of black human beings as personal property alongside livestock, beasts-of-burden, agriculture equipment, land acreage etc. The details of each slave's physical features were often noted and, in many cases, descriptions of scars, strength, and even assessments of actual monetary value were given. If personal accounts of blacks from the not-so-distant time period of slavery in America are not enough, a cursory glance through the ledgers, journals, and other personal documents of white slave owners should surely suffice to give just an inkling into the horrific reality that slaves were forced to live in. Being listed alongside cattle, equipment, and dogs as property, yet not even treated nearly as well as these truly valued possessions were is quite a hard pill for many whites to swallow -even more so, all of the collective guilt to wash it down with. Most of us prefer to think of that period as being more accurately depicted in the movie version of 'Gone With the Wind.'

Myshkin the Idiot said...

exactly my thoughts when I read that piece on West Virginia.

T said...

Tim,
I know what you mean about industrialized nations treating the unindustrialized as slagheaps. But I have news for you: the U.S. is no longer an industrialized nation; we shipped out all those jobs ages ago.
We are now a 3rd world country. Only half of able-bodied people have a job.
I could go on.
Read Chris Hedges' 'Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt' (artwork by awesome graphic artist Joe Sacco).
In it, he details how blacks of Camden NJ, whites of Appalachia, Indians of Pineridge Indian Reservation, and Mexican workers in Immalokee, FL, have all been used, had everything extracted from them, and then thrown away.
Then he says: they're coming 'for the rest of us' now. He means the remaining middle-class (mostly white, but everybody else to boot).
It is a horrifying read. And tells us what's in store for us.
Talk about slavery.
***********
Chauncey, I got off topic; sorry, I couldn't help myself.
To make it up to you, I'll send you the book, I'll pay the postage; but only if YOU REALLY WANT TO READ IT.
Let me know.

T said...

When I found out what 'break the buck' really meant, I cried for a week.
Same as when I found out what a snuff film was.

T said...

The good thing is, that in the 1930s or thereabouts, the gov't sent lots of gov't surveyors into the field to interview former slaves about their slavery.
I'm forgetting the name of the book....MAYBE the 'Slave Chronicles'. I have it packed away somewhere. I read parts of it- the slaves didn't hold back on what they went through. Thank heaven we have the record of that.
Why the gov't did this, I don't know.

The Sanity Inspector said...

I have never quite understood the idea behind reparations for slavery. Why are there no campaigns for reparations for Jim Crow laws? There are no living victims of slavery, but many still remain who were adversely affected by segregation.

The Sanity Inspector said...

You're thinking of the Work Projects Administration slave narratives. It was part of the New Deal's efforts to put people to work: they hired a bunch of unemployed writers to go interview the former slaves. Go to Project Guteberg's website and search "slave narratives" in the search box, for the transcripts. They're arranged by state.

chauncey devega said...

Goodness. I wish more folks who offer to send me goodies as a consequence of a great comment! I have that graphic novel on my list already. Other suggestions?

Introspective said...

To the contents of those inventories kept by slaveowners I would add that they also recorded in many instances the brutal beatings and other forms of terroristic violence they inflicted upon slaves to force their submission. So that comment from "guest" above about whether the brutality of slavery can be seen as historical truth or not based on "illiterate" slaves' accounts is way off base as both masters and slaves routinely attest to the brutality in surviving records. Its as much a historical fact as the Holocaust. Sorry to break that exceptionalist bubble you tried to spin.

Myshkin the Idiot said...

I have heard of a few scenarios families who had their homes destroyed and run out of towns and counties getting compensation more recently.

I believe there are likely a number of organizations pulling for some form of compensation for many of the negative effects of segregation pre and post civil rights. I have always imagined this blog and conversations like what Devega offers are in effect the modern equivalent to the 'reparations' argument.

Racist conservatives know this, which is why they fight tooth and nail over policies to uplift the impoverished.

Cynthia McKinney ran for president on the Green Party ticket back in 2008. I kept my fingers crossed that she would win, knowing full well that would never happen. Here she talks about slavery, segregation and reparations:
http://racism.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=512:repara04&catid=117:reparations&Itemid=140

Myshkin the Idiot said...

Here the Rosewood Massacre of 1923 compensated claims for victims and their families in 1994 in Rosewood Florida. Total settlement was approximately 1.5 million if you could prove you lived there in 1923 or your family owned property there before it was burned to the ground.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosewood_massacre#Seeking_justice

kokanee said...

Re: "That said, I think that there are other aspects at work here in addition to white privilege."

You might be right. She's sticking her head in the sand thinking that she didn't have anything to do with slavery so why should she be made to feel guilty about something she's not responsible for. That line of think is wrong. Even if racism were eliminated completely today (not in a million years), the African-American community has been subjected to innumerable wrongs. As a society, we need to right this wrong.

As for Stevens comments, they were deplorable and should not have been published. Her comments were flat out wrong not to mention insensitive. The movie didn't come close to capturing the horror of enslavement that the book did. Actually, I felt that the movie was softened specifically for a white audience. Of note, the movie lacked the part where Northup was being chased through the swamp by man-eating hounds. Or the fact the slaves were kept on such meager rations that they were nearly starving. Stevens and all white people would be better served by reading the book. For one, when you read the book you read it from Northup's perspective. You get a better sense of what it was like to be Northup.

kokanee said...

Buck breaking...yikes. My guess was that it was castration. I was wrong:
http://diaryofanegress.com/2012/10/17/buck-breaking/

T said...

I TOLD you I cried for a week.....

T said...

Chauncey, other suggestions: there are so many, my mind is blank.
I'll think on a list and get back to you.

T said...

Thanks for that. You guys on this blog know your sources backwards, sideways and forward.

kokanee said...

You'll forgive me if I don't thank you for this one T. What is racism but the lack of affording another fellow human being common decency and respect.

T said...

I grossed you out- I apologize.

kokanee said...

Don't apologize. We shouldn't run from the truth. We should face up to the truth. Wasn't that the point?

Black Sci-Fi said...

Perhaps the Obama Administration should employ the First Lady, Michelle Obama, who is the decendent of slaves to start a "Truth Commission" to once and for all times address the horror of slavery in Amerrica. After all, truth is the best place to start a dialog that is only addressed in the comment sections of popular websites after insensitive rambling articles are published as click-bait. As Ms. Clinton moves closer to announcing for the Presidency, I would like this issue to be on the front burner in any political debate rather than being a side issue for race-baiting. In addition, it might be nice to have the First Lady serve a more noble purpse and leave a more lasting legacy than as the subject of a 50 page "white gaze" in the leading "quasi-feminist" websites of her fashion statement legacy.

Learning Is Eternal said...

"madonna doesn't care about white people."

Myshkin the Idiot said...

dammit :/

I just learned earlier this week about the Alligator Bait and the human leather. I also read during the Indian Wars of the west, Americans would cut off the testicles of men to use as tobacco pouches and cut off the lips of the vagina to stretch over their cowboy hats as souvenirs.

http://forum.nationstates.net/viewtopic.php?t=22188&f=20&view=unread

Buddy H said...

I don't mean to stray too far from the topic. I haven't yet seen the movie (it re-opened at our downtown theater, we are seeing it tomorrow). The story begins with Northrup living a happy life in Saratoga Springs. His troubles don't begin until he is transported down south.
Let me tell you about Saratoga Springs: Last year, a young black man was out late with his white girlfriend. About 2am. Police accused him of banging her head against a wall, and chased him. He ran (he wasn't supposed to be out late, on probation for some controlled substance charges). They chased him up some scaffolding. What happened next is being debated. The police said he fell. Others say he was pushed. Today, he is in a coma. A few weeks ago, his family observed his 22nd birthday. He is unable to walk, talk, feed himself, etc.
His girlfriend told reporters the next day he did not attack her, did not bang her head against any wall. He was trying to break up a fight between her and another girl. And yet, to this day, the internet commenters on the local news sites say "he shouldn't have run, he shouldn't have been out late, he shouldn't have 'attacked' the girl, he got what he deserved," etc.
There were demonstrations in downtown Saratoga. Black residents came forward to testify before the town board that they have been mistreated over the decades by the Saratoga police force. So far, the town has not allowed any independent investigation.
What does this have to do with the movie and the Slate comments? I guess that the the underlying message of Dana Stevens is that these atrocities are ancient history, and why can't "you all" just move forward?

Myshkin the Idiot said...

"Are you trying to Solomon Northrup me?" I think of that little gem every time I hear of stories like this.

kokanee said...

Unfuckingbelievable the capacity of humans for such cruelty. :(

Miles_Ellison said...

I wonder for whom films like 12 Years A Slave are being made. When it comes to films about slavery, you are either preaching to the choir or shouting at the deaf.

Myshkin the Idiot said...

It kills me when I see people blame certain groups for atrociousness while ignoring or disregarding the gross things that have existed at other times and in our own society.


The Patriots History gives about two pages to excuse the Spanish conquistadors by saying the Aztec were such cruel and violent people, completely disregarding the fact the Spanish were slaying all walks of life in the Americas, not just the Aztec.


Can we just be real about history?

kokanee said...

Yes the Spanish massacred the Aztecs, stole their gold and every other atrocity that one can think of but at the same time they assimilated the rest of the native population. Likewise, the M├ętis in Canada were a mix of French, Scottish and indigenous peoples. But in America, the "savage Indians" experienced betrayal, genocide and apartheid. And that mentality has stayed with us right up to our current world empire.

! said...

I finally got to see this film, and I am blown away by Dana Stevens' idea that it is too much like a horror movie. What was the American Slaveocracy but a real life horror movie for the Black people caught up in its grasp? The film was tame and maybe a little too tasteful in its depictions, not "body horror."


Also, I raise my eyebrow at the white character she DIDN'T mention: Mistress Epps. You simply can't tell me that this depiction of white female cruelty DIDN'T get to her. Trust. I am a white woman who has read Mothers of Invention and tried to truly understand the white female slaveowner role and its shameful history - and yet the straightforward way the film shows Mistress Epps and her physical and mental abuse of Patsey, shook me to the core. White women are talking amongst ourselves about this role and the way it busted through our denial. Color me skeptical of Dana Stevens ignoring this aspect of the movie in her review. Deny, deny, deny...

chauncey devega said...

That is a great point. Was Stevens in denial? "Insulted" by the depiction?

! said...

I would have to be a mind-reader to tell you. But the elision means something. It's blatant.


This is just me telling you that she's not laying all her cards out on the table.

nevilleross said...

Perhaps if the novel Lion's Blood was turned into a movie, white people like Ms. Stevens would love it to bits. This article is spot on about her white privilege and how it affects how she saw 12 Years a Slave.

nevilleross said...

Do you want more important things like the economy and getting all Americans employed to be front and center, or just what you want? Obama was elected as a president for all Americans, not just blacks; if he and Mrs. Obama did this, he'd be giving the right-wing a bigger club to bash him with then they have already for the issues they're basing him for now.

nevilleross said...

Okay, then, what would a real movie about slavery be as made by you? You just sound like a brother kicking the ass of another brother due to jealousy.

chauncey devega said...

See my first response to you. This isn't a school yard. Do reword your comments appropriately.

nevilleross said...

You haven't answered my question as to what you would do if you were Steve McQueen.

chauncey devega said...

I think he made a fine movie within the confines of a mainstream release. Does that mean it wasn't a watered down depiction of slavery. Of course not. Tarantino, who made a fantastical movie about slavery said that about his own movie in an interview w. Gates. I believe that McQueen has also hinted as much.

James Spader said...

"However, the representation of the innumerable cruelties visited upon black people during slavery across the Black Atlantic is to be modulated for the comfort of the White Gaze."

This is valid. Dana Stevens' reaction comes across as completely self-centered. However, nowhere in her essay does she question the historical accuracy of 12 Years a Slave. Subconsciously this may have filled in the perception of gaps in her sense, but it isn't really there.


There is another way to make sense of her comments. She's starting from the assumption of "the map is not the territory." Maybe this is also white privilege but that's a different essay entirely.

chauncey devega said...

Interesting metaphor. One to consider in these conversations about privilege and perceptions of reality. As I told her on Twitter though I will have to disagree on the first point--she suggested that the white characters in the movie were exaggerated, had an over the top feel to them, and the movie had some type of horror sensibilities she found off putting. As I point out in the piece above, if anything those "characters" from the autobiography seem to be pretty fair--if not subdued depictions of white on black violence in the era.

James Spader said...

I read that as criticism of the performance and direction styles, not necessarily* of the content.

On this point she explicitly assumes an audience that shares her sensibilities, and implicitly this is the audience that should be catered to.

*maybe I'm being naive.

chauncey devega said...

"she explicitly assumes an audience that shares her sensibilities"


And that is the point on the universal I of whiteness. The unmarked audience that shares her racial perspective, identity, and "sensibilities" as the default.


I reference it often because of its power. The White Racial Frame is one of the most powerful social forces in American life.