• Monthly
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $other
  • use PayPal

ONE WEEK TO DOUBLE YOUR DONATION!

A generous supporter has offered a $25,000 matching grant. So for this week only, whatever you can donate will be doubled up to $25,000! If you have the means, please donate! If you already have done so, thank you for your support. All contributions are tax-deductible.
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

What 12 Years as a Slave Taught Django

Prostitution and slavery. One you rent and one you buy. Both contain a vast variety of metaphorical meanings, but sometimes a slave is just a slave and slavery is wrong.

This is what 12 Years as a Slave teaches us and movies like Amistad and Django Unchained do not. But the latter two, which also delve into the wrongs of slavery, fail for entirely different reasons.

Amistad at least attempted to give us a sense of the anger and pain of being enslaved, even when the movie turned into a courtroom drama that proved the system  ‘capable of change’: A Supreme Court packed with Southerners could not only free Cinque and the other people taken hostage on the Amistad, but actually made a statement supporting this revolt of free men. The film never mentions that during that fine hour when the Supreme Court made its ruling (United States v. Libellants and Claimants of the Schooner Amistad, 40 U.S. 518 [1841]), millions of slaves were being legally forced to work as human chattel all over the United States. At least Chiwetel Ejiofor got his first shot at the star-making machinery stateside.

But I can appreciate Amistad. Whatever its failings, it’s a good Hollywood film. The same cannot be said of Django Unchained, and this dog just looks that much worse standing next to 12 Years a Slave.

For Tarantino slavery is just an excuse to create a posse of marketable action figures as ridiculous as the ones in Team America; World Police. Django Unchained fails because it’s amoral. What happens when you mash up a Spaghetti Western and a Slave Narrative? An act of deep historical ignorance.

Mind you, I’ve enjoyed any number of movies based on comics or illustrated novels. They use a storybook form that is a natural companion for a movie.

And some of Tarantino’s work has been revolutionary: Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction had a powerful impact. I even have a soft spot for Inglourious Basterds—Christoph Waltz’s performance is indeed Oscar-quality. But Tarantino’s work has more or less gone on a 10-year run, getting progressively worse along the way. The decline is highlighted when an exercise in bullshitting the audience such as Django Unchained stands exposed beside a movie with such shocking verisimilitude as 12 Years a Slave.

It isn’t just that the caricatures of Django Unchained are black and white. The problem is the characters’ sense of right and wrong can be colored by the number. We get a painting but it’s s-o-o-o boring. What creates this feeling is Tarantino’s way of distancing the viewer from anything happening on screen. How is anyone supposed to believe in the fountains of blood  spurting up from a severed artery in Kill Bill, the sociopathic Jewish killers of Inglourious Basterds, or a plantation called Candyland? We’re not, and these films, hell-bent on showing the strings through the use of parody and irony, leave us empty. I came out of Django Unchained knowing no particular truth. Slavery was just a form of entertainment, another triumph of historical revisionism.

12 Years a Slave is also just a movie and therefore produced with the hope that it will make money—but what a movie! Was anyone thinking of anything besides what they’ve seen when they left the theater?

Interestingly, McQueen is a very stylish director. His earlier movies Shame and Hunger showed a real auteur at work, but I can’t think of a director in the United States working commercial screens who has evoked such revulsion since David Lynch. (Isn’t Elephant Man also a tale of Slavery?)

Silence is the key. So many movies coming out these days are as decibel-amped as an airport. It’s Wagner taken to the umpteenth degree.  I wish that McQueen had tuned his soundtrack down as it became overbearing at times. But when the film returned to silence, I was captured by the short lines of dialogue or small sounds that would then dominate a scene. Because of the lack of distracting music we hear Solomon grunting as he stands on his tippy toes with a noose around his neck. The other slaves saunter by in the background, never turning to look at this man hovering between life and death as the scene fades from the early afternoon to dusk. It still shocks me to think of it.

Above all we feel Solomon’s trauma, which is the trauma suffered by anyone who is enslaved. The era Pulp Fiction ushered in, that of the smartass, post-modern auteur, is now officially over. Twenty years is a good run but as Ezra Pound said, “The age demanded an image/Of its accelerated grimace”. Now we’re back to basics like shelter and hunger.  Verisimilitude triumphs over irony because it’s what our time demands.

Jeff Kahrs was born in the Hague, Netherlands, and raised in California. He received a B.A. in Dramatic Literature from U.C. Santa Cruz and an M.A. from Boston University, where he studied with Derek Walcott and Leslie Epstein. He worked for many years as a commercial fisherman in Alaska.
In 1988 Jeff helped found a reading series in Seattle called Radio Free Leroy’s, which ran for six years. From 1993 to 2011 he lived in Istanbul, where he taught English in its myriad forms. He co-edited an issue of the Atlanta Review on poetry in Turkey, was published in Subtropics, mediterranean.nu, and had a chapbook e-published through Gold Wake Press. More recently he co-edited a section of the Turkish magazine Çevirmenin Notu on English-language poets in Istanbul, and he was published in Talisman: A journal of contemporary poetry and poetics. In 2012 he was one of the winners of the Nazim Hikmet Poetry Prize. Most recently he completed writing a history of the Deep Sea Fishermen’s Union of the Pacific to celebrate their 100th anniversary. It is due to be Published in February, 2014.
More articles by:
bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
October 15, 2019
Victor Grossman
The Berlin Wall, Thirty Years Later
Raouf Halaby
Kurdish Massacres: One of Britain’s Many Original Sins
Robert Fisk
Trump and Erdogan have Much in Common – and the Kurds will be the Tragic Victims of Their Idiocy
Ron Jacobs
Betrayal in the Levant
Wilma Salgado
Ecuador: Lenin Moreno’s Government Sacrifices the Poor to Satisfy the IMF
Ralph Nader
The Congress Has to Draw the Line
William A. Cohn
The Don Fought the Law…
John W. Whitehead
One Man Against the Monster: John Lennon vs. the Deep State
Lara Merling – Leo Baunach
Sovereign Debt Restructuring: Not Falling Prey to Vultures
Norman Solomon
The More Joe Biden Stumbles, the More Corporate Democrats Freak Out
Jim Britell
The Problem With Partnerships and Roundtables
Howard Lisnoff
More Incitement to Violence by Trump’s Fellow Travelers
Binoy Kampmark
University Woes: the Managerial Class Gets Uppity
Joe Emersberger
Media Smears, Political Persecution Set the Stage for Austerity and the Backlash Against It in Ecuador
Thomas Mountain
Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed Wins Nobel Peace Prize, But It Takes Two to Make Peace
Wim Laven
Citizens Must Remove Trump From Office
October 14, 2019
Ann Robertson - Bill Leumer
Class Struggle is Still the Issue
Mike Miller
Global Climate Strike: From Protest To Power?
Patrick Cockburn
As Turkey Prepares to Slice Through Syria, the US has Cleared a New Breeding Ground for Isis
John Feffer
Trump’s Undeclared State of Emergency
Dean Baker
The Economics and Politics of Financial Transactions Taxes and Wealth Taxes
Jonah Raskin
What Evil Empire?
Nino Pagliccia
The Apotheosis of Emperors
Evaggelos Vallianatos
A Passion for Writing
Basav Sen
The Oil Despots
Brett Wilkins
‘No Friend But the Mountains’: A History of US Betrayal of the Kurds
John Kendall Hawkins
Assange: Enema of the State
Scott Owen
Truth, Justice and Life
Thomas Knapp
“The Grid” is the Problem, Not the Solution
Rob Kall
Republicans Are Going to Remove Trump Soon
Cesar Chelala
Lebanon, Dreamland
Weekend Edition
October 11, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Becky Grant
CounterPunch in Peril?
Anthony DiMaggio
Fake News in Trump’s America
Andrew Levine
Trump’s End Days
Jeffrey St. Clair
High Plains Grifter: the Life and Crimes of George W. Bush
Patrick Cockburn
Kurdish Fighters Always Feared Trump Would be a Treacherous Ally
Paul Street
On the TrumpenLeft and False Equivalence
Dave Lindorff
Sure Trump is ‘Betraying the Kurds!’ But What’s New about That?
Rob Urie
Democrats Impeach Joe Biden, Fiddle as the Planet Burns
Sam Pizzigati
Inequality is Literally Killing Us
Jill Richardson
What Life on the Margins Feels Like
Mitchell Zimmerman
IMPOTUS: Droit de seigneur at Mar-a-Lago
Robert Hunziker
Methane SOS
Lawrence Davidson
Donald Trump, the Christian Warrior
William Hartung – Mandy Smithburger
The Pentagon is Pledging to Reform Itself, Again. It Won’t.
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail