Tuesday, October 15, 2013

White Privilege and Film Together Again: Did You Know That "12 Years a Slave" Makes Scarlett O'Hara's Struggles in "Gone With the Wind" Seem Petty by Comparison?

Like many of you, I am eagerly awaiting the new movie 12 Years a Slave. The early reviews suggest that the movie is going to win several Oscars. I have spoken with someone that has seen the movie and he described it as The Schindler's List of African-American history on film.

12 Years a Slave is powerful. And if director Steven McQueen's past movies are any indication, he will hold nothing back in his raw depiction of how power is not an abstraction--it is enacted by and through its relationships with the human body and psyche.

In surveying the early reviews of 12 Years a Slave, I came upon the following quote from the Hollywood industry magazine Variety:
This epic account of an unbreakable soul makes even Scarlett O'Hara's struggles seem petty by comparison.
Upon reading the above "blurb" on the website Rotten Tomatoes, and then the full review, I was less shocked than I was disgusted.

One of the themes I have returned to in my essays on We Are Respectable Negroes, Alternet, and Salon is how the colorline, and day-to-day white privilege and White Supremacy, are systems which are sustained in the post civil rights era by social and political institutions, an empathy gap towards people of color, and historical myopia by otherwise well-meaning white folks.

As the lede to an otherwise spot on and sharp endorsement of 12 Years a Slave, Peter Debruge's suggestion that the pain and loss experienced by a white woman who profited from White Supremacy, and owning black people as human property, is in the same moral or ethical universe as the suffering experienced by black bondspeople, remains bizarre. Yet, it is a near-perfect example of colorblind racism and White Supremacy in practice.

I am also disappointed by how a film reviewer for a major publication could read the film Gone With the Wind without a critical eye, and thus continue to further the myth of the Confederacy as a type of noble "Lost Cause"--and its white elites as "victims"--instead of identifying white slave owners as racial terrorists who deserve(d) no pity, empathy, sympathy, or human compassion.

Gone With the Wind is White Supremacist propaganda. Unfortunately, even in 2013, there are large numbers of people who fail to recognize how their fantasies of big plantations, fancy dresses, and "Southern hospitality" were based upon murderous cruelty towards black Americans. The white racial frame and Whiteness together facilitate many lies: one of the most prominent of those lies is a self-delusion that Whiteness is benign and exists as something neutral, good, and outside of history.

Peter Debruge's effort to create some equivalence between the real life events depicted in 12 Years a Slave and the "struggles" of Scarlett O'Hara are akin to a person taking pity on how Nazis came upon "hard times" when their stolen Jewish labor was taken from them at the end of World War 2. 

Any person in the public square making the latter suggestion would be run out of town, mocked, and derided.

By comparison, and as we have recently seen with deranged suggestions by Tea Party Republicans that extending reasonably affordable health care to the American people is a crime like slavery, black folks' history can be played around with, misrepresented, and lied about at will and with few consequences.

Peter Debruge's comments about 12 Years a Slave is just one aspect of a multifaceted and complex colorblind white racism in the post civil rights era and the Age of Obama. 

Of course, overt White Supremacy is real and remains dangerous. Thankfully, it has been reduced to an outlier and near-caricature by the Black and Brown Freedom Struggle. 

The new White Supremacy is far more difficult to counter because it works through taken for granted assumptions and spurious "commonsense" notions about unequal racial outcomes being based on "culture" as opposed to genetics and biology. Here, racist outcomes that reinforce White power are naturalized and made to seem normal. In all, colorblind white racism is based on unthinking assumptions.

Moreover, the new White Supremacy, especially as practiced by good white liberals and others, is enabled by both a lack of critical reflection and a willing surrender to seeing the world through White eyes and White Privilege. Such a bias does not encourage its owners to question basic priors about social relationships and power.

I do not know Peter Debruge. I will assume he is a good and smart person. But, there is something very wrong when he is able to equate--without thinking (is this not the core basis of implicit racial bias?)--the cruelty experienced by a person owned as human property, and the sense of loss when their owner is deprived of said human being's labor and owned personhood.

12 Years a Slave is a reminder of how there remains much work to be done in educating the American people about the crime against humanity that was the enslavement of millions of Africans in the "New World".

By comparison, in the post World War 2 era West Germans did a far better job of owning up to the Holocaust. White Americans lag far behind them in owning and making reparations for the centuries of crimes committed against African-Americans. So much for American Exceptionalism. But then again, like Santa Claus, American Exceptionalism was always a useful lie that could not withstand much critical scrutiny.

Hopefully, the movie 12 Years a Slave will inspire viewers to do some research, buy and read some some essential historical texts, and then grapple with the centrality of chattel slavery (and the genocide of our First Nations Brothers and Sisters) to the rise of America as a global power.


Learning is Eternal said...

If our people passed on these roles in film what type of impact do you think it would have? In playing them, we play ourselves (I believe).

"The white racial frame and Whiteness together facilitate many lies: one of the most prominent of those lies is a self-delusion that Whiteness is benign and exists as something neutral, good, and outside history."

Nailed it.

Until I see a Nat Turner biop or the reason the louisiana purchase was cheap I won't spend coin on racist reels. And even then it would feel like landing one good shot after accepting a series of flurries.

chauncey devega said...

Sam McQueen is black. And this is a good and necessary project. What, if any, are your objections to it?

SabrinaBee said...

I can't wait to see the movie either, especilly since it is actually based on a true story. I don't, for one moment, believe that Mr. DeBurge unwittingly made the comparison. I believe it was deliberate because as you have observed, there is a profound lack sympathy for the history of blacks in this country. And for Native Americans, and Mexicans. But they did pay resttution to Japanese. I tink this country hates to be reminded of its past because, it would then be awkward when we want to step u on the soapbox fo other countries, like Germany. Funny that. Jim Crow still alive and active while we are admonishing Germans. Ever observe a conversation about genocide? Weirdest display of cognitive dissonance. They will list everything. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, every representative from every place but here. Granted those names have faces. Maybe we should put a face on ours. Maybe Columbus? Oh right, he has a federal holiday. Hmmm...

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

Bright spot: my students read part of Northrup's narrative for my class, and many of them are super-excited about this film. I can only hope that more films like this can expunge the residue of the godawful pro-Confederate nostalgia of so much of Hollywood's treatment of the ante-bellum South and Civil War over the years.

chauncey devega said...

callous indifference is more like it. the white racial frame cultivates such behavior. are you going this weekend?

chauncey devega said...

how did they respond to it? was there a difference between the black students and the other students?

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

We read his description of the slave market in New Orleans. Black students were more passionate about it, but many others were affected too. Someone read the passage aloud where a woman's son is sold away from her, and you could hear a pin drop. A couple of students, one white and one black started weeping. It is some gut wrenching stuff, and it is most definitely on par with Elie Wiesel or Primo Levi, not Scarlett O'Hara.

SabrinaBee said...

Sure am.

The Sanity Inspector said...

Although in the current climate it is probably unfilmable, I'd be interested in seeing a big budget biopic of the 18th Century Scottish explorer Mungo Park. I've read some of his Travels In The Interior Districts Of Africa, and there are several scenes I can easily imagine on screen. One would be his amazement when he first viewed the city of Timbuktu, prosperous and cultured beyond his imaginings. Another would be when he was stranded without shelter at night, and some village women took him in. They went back to work and

"lightened their labour by songs, one of which was composed extempore; for I was myself the subject of it. It was sung by one of the young women, the rest joining in a sort of chorus. The air was sweet and plaintive, and the words, literally translated, were these.—" The winds roared, and the rains fell. "—The poor white man, faint and weary, came and sat under our tree.—He has no mother to bring him milk; no wife to grind his corn. Chorus. Let us pity the white man ; no mother has he, &c. &c." Trifling as this recital may appear to the reader, to a person in my situation, the circumstance was affecting in the highest degree. I was oppressed by such unexpected kindness; and sleep fled from my eyes. In the morning I presented my compassionate landlady with two of the four brass buttons which remained on my waistcoat; the only recompence I could make her."

Park made three voyages to Africa, being killed on his third. Between trips, back home in Scotland, there was one occasion when his wife came upon him sitting by a stream, tossing pebbles into it. He explained that in Africa he would do this to see if a stream could be forded, estimating the depth by how long it took the bubbles to come up. By this his wife knew that he wanted to go back.

As I said it probably couldn't be made to anyone satisfaction nowadays, either as an actioner or a morality play. But it is a fascinating story nonetheless, full of historical ironies too numerous to relate here.

Learning is Eternal said...

Monster Balling?

Vic78 said...

That one's perfect. It'll be something if it went viral. "Damn, Kerry Washington Monster Balling like a mufucka." I know we'll have some half wit jerk off saying "I got paid for my buck dancing." If there was a vote I'll put mine in for Monster Balling.

! said...

I've been interested to see reviews and articles stating that they feel like there is too much gruesomeness in the film:


But in a climactic set piece in which Solomon is forced by a gun-wielding Epps to whip Patsey nearly to death, I sometimes felt smothered by McQueen’s insistence on wallowing in the extremes of human anguish.

And even half-empty screenings because critics are avoiding watching it: http://www.theatlanticwire.com/entertainment/2013/10/please-dont-shy-away-12-years-slave/70610/?oref=obinsite

Are white Americans really that afraid of owning up to our ancestors' atrocities and our own country's history? Just for a couple of hours in the cinema, even?