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For Thanksgiving Weekend Viewing: "12 Years a Slave" - A Review

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For some of us, Thanksgiving is an annual wake-up call, both for what we can be thankful and also to remind us of what remains to be done so that the holiday can really be a "thanksgiving day" for all of our nation's citizens.  Sadly, for too many in this country that "to do" list is a very long one indeed.  "12 Years a Slave" pulls us into one of the most painful periods of our country's history.  "Thanksgiving Day," around which a myth has arisen concerning relations between Native Americans and certain early settlers, should in part remind us of another great horror of our country's history: the centuries-long genocide that killed off approximately 90% of the original humans inhabiting what became the United States.  And now for the current wake-up call.

The movie "12 Years a Slave" is described in a Wikipedia entry presumably written by its makers as an " historical drama film ."   It is a British-American production based on the book by the same name published in 1853 by the African-American man, Solomon Northrup, who endured this agony.   It received a limited release in the United States last month, and will be released in Great Britain in January, 2014.   It will be very interesting to see how wide a release it eventually gets in the U.S.   It hardly likely to be shown in very many, if any, theaters in the South, except possibly in those catering almost exclusively to African-American audiences.   It would certainly not be well-received by those Southerners (and others) who refer to the First American Civil War as, for example, the "War of Northern Aggression" ( a term used by the new President of the National Rifle Association , a man who refers to President Obama as a "fake President" and to Attorney General Holder as "rabidly un-American"), nor to those who refer to it as the " War for Southern Independence ."   

From [Unidentified woman resting her arm on a book entitled History of Slavery]  (LOC) This movie brings a very important part of that history alive.
[Unidentified woman resting her arm on a book entitled History of Slavery] (LOC) This movie brings a very important part of that history alive.
(Image by The Library of Congress)
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It is fascinating that the first reference cited in the latter document is: " How Should 12st [emphasis added, and yes, that is exactly how it appears in that document] Century Americans Think about the War for Southern Independence? "   In that particular article, the author, a Professor of History appropriately enough at the University of the first Secessionist state, South Carolina, calls the First Civil War " Lincoln's War to Prevent Southern Independence ." Of course, at its center was the struggle by the Slave Power to preserve slavery in the states in which it already existed and to expand the "peculiar institution" to all of the then-remaining Western Territories.   This is a movie that shows the full horror of slavery.   Horror, that is, to those who view what was done to one group of human beings by another as a horror.   Presumably those who characterize the war as one for "Southern Independence" or whatever, don't see it that way.   For a current actual holder of the view that slavery wasn't actually all that bad, see:


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There have been a number of movies about slavery as it really was.   I have hardly seen them all, but this one is the most powerful that I have seen, and other viewers have described it in the same way.   In a way, in fact, it is more like a retro-documentary about slavery than it is simply a drama about the subject.   Why do I say that?   Because first,   most viewers are likely to see the film with some foreknowledge of its origin, a true story with a true beginning (Mr. Northrup's kidnapping), middle (Mr. Northrup's 12 years in captivity), and conclusion (Mr. Northrup's return to freedom).   And second, because of the way the film is constructed it can easily be seen as a documentary showing slavery in all of its horrors, consecutively.


Perhaps the most important point of the film is that it clearly illustrates the Southern justification for slavery, that "blacks" were inferior people, not really human you know.   (This has always struck me as quite odd.   By the 19th century, after end of slave-importation in 1807, there were very few pure African blacks in the United States.   Virtually all slaves were thus of "mixed blood."   Did that mean, therefore, that there was something inferior about the white men who fathered all of those mixed African/North American children too?)   


The Southern justification for slavery was well-summarized by Alexander Stephens, the Vice-President of the Confederate States of America, who, after the death of John C. Calhoun in 1850 had become the principal theoretician of slavery:


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" Many governments have been founded upon the principle of the subordination and serfdom of certain classes of the same race. Such were, and are in violation of the laws of nature.   Our system commits no such violation of nature's law.   With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law.   Not so with the Negro.   Subordination is his place.   He, by nature, or by the curse against Cain, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system.   Our new government is founded on the opposite idea of the equality of the races.   Its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the Negro is not equal to the White man; that slavery --- subordination to the superior race --- is his natural condition." 


And so, serially, the movie illustrates the major features of the "system [that] commits no such violation of nature's law (sic)."     Among them are: the kidnapping of free African-Americans to be sold into slavery; the selling of such people, as property; the separation, by sale, of family members [one wonderful irony of the film is that Paul Giamatti, who plays the slave-seller in "12 Years a Slave", in Tim Burton's 2001 version of "Planet of the Apes" played the role of an ape slave-seller in a society in which intelligent apes were the owners and humans were the slaves,]; the constant threat and use of violence; the practice of lynching, that is extra-judicial execution (even though it meant loss of "property") of recaptured escaped slaves, primarily to set an example for anyone who thought of trying to escape ( lynching of course being practiced on a regular basis throughout the South into the 1960s ); the use of torture short of lynching; the dreadful working and living conditions; the constant humiliation practiced by the slave-masters; the repetitive rape of female slaves by the slave-masters; the creation of a sub-class of especially docile African-Americans who served on some plantations as intermediaries between the owners and the rest of the slaves; and, until in Mr. Northrup's case what happens to regain him his freedom, the total lack of any system of justice for any slave.


As the Confederate Navy Jack, (not the "Confederate Battle Flag," as we are told by those who are in the know ) is waved in front of the White House in an anti-"Obama Care" demonstration; as the former governor of Virginia declares a holiday to celebrate the Civil War but the first time around forgets to mention slavery; as a white woman sends her son out on Halloween in a Ku Klux Klan outfit , saying " it's supposed to be white with white, black with black, man with woman and all of that. That's what the KKK stands for;"   as Republican candidates and office-holders claim that   President Obama was born in Kenya; as Tea-Party propaganda is full of racist attacks on the President; but most importantly, as the modern Republican Party, all around the nation, is instituting laws designed (and certain of its leadership is saying this more-and-more openly) to take away the vote from   African-Americans, which happened to be the first self-announced task of the Ku Klux Klan when it was formed in late 1865 ; it is very important for all of us to understand what slavery, the central focus of secession, the Confederate States of America, and the First Civil War, was all about.   In that regard, do see "12 Years a Slave" if it is available where you live.  It should be noted that the film, originally released in October, 2013, is still on view in certain parts of the country, and it was apparently widely shown in the South


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Steven Jonas, MD, MPH, MS is a Professor Emeritus of Preventive Medicine at StonyBrookMedicine (NY) and author/co-author/editor/co-editor of over 35 books. In addition to his position on OpEdNews as a "Trusted Author," he is a Senior Editor, (more...)

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