"Twelve Years a Slave," a movie based on the 1853 autobiography of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped into slavery in 1841, is a powerful antidote to the Tea Party's poisonous nostalgia for the era of "states' rights" and "nullificationism," which became code words for protecting the "liberty" of Southern whites to own African-Americans.
The movie, directed by Steve McQueen and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup, reveals how lofty phrases about "freedom" often meant their opposite as Southern politicians developed an Orwellian skill for weaving noble-sounding "principles" into a cloak for covering up the unjustifiable.
"Twelve Years a Slave" offers a counterpoint to this slavery apologia, carrying you back into a time and place that is still recognizable as America, though arguably as crazy and surreal as any scene from "Alice in Wonderland."
Though not explicitly a political film, "Twelve Years a Slave" lays bare the cruel and dehumanizing system that twisted the morality and the psychology of an entire region. There is a matter-of-fact disquiet in the everyday madness as whites convince themselves that their financial well-being and their elevated place in society depend on the routine degradation of blacks.
What "Twelve Years a Slave" lacks is a sense of catharsis where the bad guys get their comeuppance. In this case, the only satisfaction is that Northup is one of the rare cases in which a kidnapped black is returned to freedom and to his family. For a more vindictive sense of justice, you have to watch last year's fantastical "Django Unchained" in which the white slaveholders are annihilated and their Candyland plantation goes up in flames in a stylized made-for-Hollywood shoot-out and bloodletting.
Instead, "Twelve Years a Slave" ends with an unrequited desire for justice, but that was the historical reality. Indeed, many whites still resist the historical judgment on the evils of slavery.
Nursing a Grievance
Yes, the South lost the Civil War but many white Southerners still see themselves as the real victims of what they call the "War of Northern Aggression." It was the innocent Southern whites who were somehow put upon by the North simply because of their principled commitment to "states' rights," "strict construction" and "nullificationism," fancy-sounding concepts that conveniently had been invented by slave-owning Southern politicians.
The failure of Reconstruction in the 1870s and the extension of white supremacy via Jim Crow laws over the next century contributed to this whitewashing of the history of slavery, as the focus shifted to the supposed violation of white rights during Reconstruction when blacks were allowed to vote and hold office and Northern "carpetbaggers" interfered with Southern ways.
Though I grew up in Massachusetts, I was not immune from getting a heavy dose of the romanticized version of the antebellum South and a long list of Southern grievances from the Civil War and Reconstruction, both from Hollywood movies and my grade-school history books of the 1960s.
I recall how revelatory the multipart series, "Roots," was for me and many other Americans when it aired in 1977. For the first time, many white Americans got a taste of slavery's reality -- from kidnapping people in West Africa, through the brutal ocean crossing, to the dehumanizing process of selling human beings into slavery, to the rapes and whippings, to the systematic crushing of the human will to be free.
However, many American whites, especially in the South but also in parts of the North, continue to internalize the old myths about white supremacy and the justice of the Confederate cause. They resent the demographic shifts in the United States, away from a white-dominated society to one that is more racially and ethnically diverse. To protect their privileges, they are comfortable with Republican machinations to suppress the votes of black and brown Americans, in order to exaggerate the value of white votes.
In the South, many whites still nurse those grievances from the federal government's ending of slavery through the Civil War in the 1860s and the federal outlawing of segregation in the 1960s. Rather than feel shame over the cruel history of slavery and segregation, many Southern whites feel resentment at what they see as their own persecution.
Especially through the rise of the Tea Party -- a largely Southern-based movement although with significant support in pockets of the North and West -- the old excuses for racist repression are back in vogue: "states' rights," "nullificationism," "strict construction," even threats of secession as right-wing governors refer to their states as the "sovereign state of ..."
Distorting the History
To justify these theories pulled out of the dark history of slavery, the Tea Party and their strategists have relied on a historically revisionist version of the Constitution, distorting what the Framers were doing with the founding document.