Let Me Entertain You | America Sucks at History

On Saturday I went and saw 12 Years a Slave in theaters. It was absolutely spectacular.

I saw it alone, and it was so upsetting to the point where I was sitting in the theater five minutes after the movie had ended and the guy who cleans the aisles offered me a tissue. The film succeeded in portraying the horrors of slavery without a benevolent owner or other kindly white person, showing the tragedy without there a being a moral of the story. It was brutal, but honest, and everyone should see it.

Chiwetel Ejiofer is amazing as Solomon Northup, a free man sold into slavery. Image courtesy of Francois Duhamel/EW.

Chiwetel Ejiofer is amazing as Solomon Northup, a free man sold into slavery. Image courtesy of Francois Duhamel/EW.

I could wax rhapsodic for hours about the performances of each actor in the film: from Chiwetel Ejiofer’s moving portrayal of a free man sold into slavery for twelve years, to Michael Fassbender’s unhinged plantation owner, to newcomer Lupita Nyong’o’s heartbreaking depiction of an abused slave girl. Director Steve McQueen, who has worked with Fassbender previously in Hunger and Shame, has a unique style that perfectly frames and displays the beauties and the horrors of the time. But I’ll leave the reader to be awed by the movie in their own time; today, we’re going to talk about the failure of American historical filmmaking.

One of the reasons I adore movies is because when films are truly good, they make you think. One well-made movie can make a person reevaluate their position on a subject, or at least think on it in a different context. Movies reach such a wide audience, and there is so much opportunity to teach and learn together through media. (I don’t want to sound too idealistic; I’m fully aware that for every 12 Years a Slave there’s something like the upcoming animated and sure to be god-awful Lego Movie.)

But let’s be honest: America sucks at history. I suppose that’s an unfair statement, we’re good at making movies about the past if it’s not our own. However, if movies are dealing with controversial topics in United States history, they’re usually very subjective and tend to shy away from the gritty details.

It starts with children, who learn that Pocahontas fell in love with pretty blonde John Smith. Never mind the horrendous effects of colonialism; we can paint with all the colors of the wind. Movies dealing with racism are really taboo unless they come with some inspirational message or moral lesson, a la The Help. In these movies, there’s almost always a white protagonist helping his or her black friends overcome life’s perils.

This has also been a problem that plagued war movies as well, acting as kind of a perverse propaganda. Yes, war is terrible and brutal and many lives are lost, but the American side prevailed! I don’t really trust films about World War II, as they are prone to glorifying the past. Vietnam, that’s a different matter. Or even more recent movies, like The Hurt Locker. Talk about moral ambiguity!

It’s easy to skim over the horrors of the past, and we’ve been trying to forget slavery for a very long time. Even movies like last year’s Django Unchained, which has slavery as one of its main themes, is ultimately a tale of vengeance more interested in the spectacle of violence than the reality.

It’s interesting to note that 12 Years a Slave was directed not by an American, but by a British black man. It’s easier to believe that Mr. McQueen had no hidden agenda, only to tell a shockingly true story in the most effective way possible.

One can only hope that 12 Years a Slave will get the awards recognition that it deserves, and that this will allow filmmaking the opportunity to become more honest in its portrayal of the past. Till then, I’d like to tell you that Pocahontas died at the age of 22, probably from exposure to foreign illnesses. Don’t believe everything you see onscreen.