Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Most People Weren't in the Resistance

I was struck by this piece which contrasts the movie 12 Years a Slave (which I'm eager to go see) with other depictions of struggling against slavery, or evil generally, in American movies.
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.

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.
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.

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.


mrsdarwin said...

Aw, you beat me to today's post!

Leaving Glory out of the discussion (which I think Noah Berlatsky would have been wiser to do), I think the revenge fantasy genre which Tarantino has taken as his metier recently is almost worthless because it is so unchained, if you will, from any mooring in reality. It says nothing about how people actually survive tragedy and rebuild lives; it's not even all that cathartic because that much revenge violence doesn't actually purge emotions but key them up; unlike the original perpetrators, the characters taking revenge don't have to deal with the consequences of their actions (unless they're part of that increasingly tired genre, the troubled superhero/vigilante/tough guy).

Solomon Northup has to survive his ordeal (a little word for such a horrific experience) and rebuild his life without being a Tarantino character. Like most people, he doesn't get to open up a six-pack of whup-ass on those who've wronged him. He has to figure out how to live without revenge or justice in this world. Even Christ, who had the ultimate justification for getting even with those who wronged him, didn't go beat the tar out of the Roman soldiers, Pontius Pilate, and the Sanhedrin; he had to content himself with defeating sin and death itself.

Also, Berlatsky's jaunt into a feminist reading of Twelve Years a Slave vs. Glory is, like most feminist readings of anything, tiresome, because it assumes that people can't take anything of value from the experiences of the other sex, and indeed must feel diminished by them. His assumption that bravery (which here seems only to apply to combat) is an example of "manliness" rather than courage or fortitude or discipline -- attributes that either sex can cultivate and appreciate in either sex -- assumes that women are too parochial to appreciate these qualities unless expressed by other women. By all means, let's have more stories about women, but because those stories are part of the broader human experience, not because we need to pit power vs. powerlessness in gender terms, or because either sex has a lock on particular virtues.

Darwin said...

That's a really good point.

Thinking about things in terms of virtues rather than "manliness" I think helps underscore something else: Glory definitely deals with real virtues (courage, fortitude, etc.) but from the reviews it sounds like 12 Years a Slave does as well. The issue is not so much that movies tend to highlight people who show given virtue over those who don't, but rather tat there seems to be an emphasis on big, showy (and particularly violent) examples of virtue over quieter ones.

Kristin said...

This focus on the resistance might explain why so many people ask, "Why didn't the Germans try to stop Hitler and save the Jews?" I'm sure many would have tried if, you know, getting shot wasn't an issue.

Anonymous said...

Just a clarification. Rather than call the holocaust "an event in which over six million people were killed", it's an event in which about 11 million people were killed including 6 million Jews and 5 million "other" (including 3 million Polish Catholics). The media usually focuses on the 6 million Jews as the largest group. But let's not forget the other 5 million that were also targeted and killed - there were 11 million humans that died.

Darwin said...


Fair point.

At a strictly terminology level, I guess part of the question is whether "holocaust" should be used to refer to all of the mass killings during the period, all the German mass killings during the period, or just the mass killing of Jews during the period. I'd kind of been assuming the latter, but unquestionably when they attacked Poland in 1939 the Nazis intended to start a race war. They didn't manage to kill nearly as many non-Jews as they meant to, but even so the enormity of what happened in the bloodlands of Central Europe is underscored by the fact that a Jew living in Berlin in 1936 was more likely to be alive ten years later than a Gentile living in Warsaw.