Hollywood is in general uncomfortable with race, but it likes heroic masculinity. It's no surprise, then, that films about slavery often end up being about men becoming men. Django Unchained is a basic revenge story, with Django taking up the phallic gun to blast the evil forces that have held him down and captured his wife. Glory is a standard military parable, with the weak and undisciplined black troops learning to be a deadly fighting force even as their boyish white commanding officer proves himself. "We're men," Denzel Washington declares before the final battle, for all the world as if, before they joined the regiment, they were something else.Several things about the article strike me as a bit off base. Lumping Tarantino's revenge fantasy in with a good historical drama like Glory is deeply unfair to the latter, which is a well made movie about a set of events just as real as those which inspired 12 Years a Slave. Also, I'm not sure that it's precisely "masculinity" which is the issue here as the idea that when faced with some sort of massive evil all the "good people" will "do something" to overcome it.
Remarkably and honorably, 12 Years a Slave, based on Solomon Northup's 1841 autobiographical narrative, has a different story to tell. When the film opens, Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free musician, living in Saratoga, New York with his wife, son and daughter. He's a success and a grown-up; he doesn't need to learn to become a man. The narrative arc of the film isn't from powerlessness to power. It's the reverse.
Northup is courted by two men who promise him a touring gig, and then, after they've lured him to Washington, slip him a drug, knocking him unconscious. He wakes up in a cell, where he is viciously beaten on all fours while the slaver hits him with a stick from behind. Northup loses his former life, his dignity, even his self, as he is forced to take the name of a runaway slave, Platt. The entire sequence is a violation and unmanning—it's presented as a symbolic rape.
If we were working with the logic of Glory or Django, Northup would have to regain his manhood by standing up to his attackers and besting them in combat. That's not what happens here, though. Instead, Northup tries various ways to deal with the system. At first, he uses his education and skills to help his (very) relatively humane owner, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), with various engineering projects. Then, when he is harassed and attacked by Ford's overseer, he fights back, in a scene reminiscent of Frederick Douglass's autobiography, whipping the man who had intended to whip him. Where Douglass triumphed, though, Northup just ends up sold to a true sadist. As another slave, Eliza (Adepero Oduye), tells Northup, you can compromise yourself as you will, give the slave-owners your skills or your body. It doesn't matter. You're still a slave.
When Northup escapes, it's not through violence, but because a white Canadian working on the plantation agreed to get word to the north. Northup's ordeal ends as abruptly as it began when an old white friend pulls up at the plantation with the sheriff. There's no hail of gunfire, only a hail of legalese. Nor is this a happy ending. No one can give him back his lost years with his wife, or missing his children grow up. Patsey, and many others, are still enslaved. The men who kidnapped him are never brought to justice. Northup has no manly triumph.
For instance, consider the odd fact that the most famous American movie about the holocaust, an event in which over six million people were killed, is Schindler's List, a movie about how a few hundred people weren't killed. Some of this is just a matter of how we like our movies: We may like our pity and fear as much as the new Aristotelian, but we much prefer it if it closes with a healthy topping of hope. However, I think there's also a strong tendency to think that in terrible circumstance, the good people will stand up and fight back somehow.
Look at the massive over-prominence of "the resistance" in our stories about oppressive regimes. And yet in real historical circumstances, even most people who oppose an oppressive regime are not involved in active resistance. There are good reasons for this. Oppressive regimes do things like threatening to round up and kill ten random civilians from in retaliation for any one of their soldiers killed. Think about facing that in your neighborhood. Not only would be you unlikely to take pot shots at enemy soldiers, you might not think very well of anyone who did. Indeed, oppressive regimes have a way of generating very nasty resistance forces. One of the ways that Tito's partisans rose to prominence in Yugoslavia during World War 2 is they simply didn't care if killing German soldiers meant that the Germans would in turn kill large numbers of locals.
Similarly, as the article points out: Most slaves had no chance at rising up or escaping. We admire exceptional people, and we like a story with hope in it, so we tend to zero in on the stories of escape and resistance, but those stories are atypical, and the people who didn't succeed in beating the system were not inferior people or worse people. Indeed, in many ways, that majority of people, who find themselves in history's darker times having to fatalistically accept what happens to them and simply hope to somehow survive, are perhaps by their ordinariness the most like us.