“12 Years a Slave” is certainly 180 degrees of fresh air removed from the despicable “The Birth of a Nation,” from 1915, and is even a vast improvement over the sentimental and apologetic “Gone With the Wind,” from 1939. But are modern films that deal with slavery and its aftermath becoming too predictable?
Overuse of the N-word. It seems directors and writers of films tackling slavery go out of their way to incorporate the N-word into the dialogue as often as possible. This attempt at realism creates an excessive use of the N-word that makes this pejorative word lose its impact.
Beatings, floggings, lashings, whippings. Recent films with slavery as the subject have a more graphic depiction of the savage beatings administered to slaves than in the past. In “12 Years a Slave,” beatings take place for the slightest offenses, everything from someone not picking enough pounds of cotton daily in the blistering heat to Patsey, the young slave girl capably played by Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o, leaving the plantation temporarily to get a bar of soap to clean herself. Patsey receives a whipping that is more gratuitously displayed than in the floggings in “Roots,” from 1977, or the lashing received by Private Silas Trip, the runaway slave character Denzel Washington played in “Glory,” from 1989. After a while, it becomes unnecessary to show yet another beating, and show it in such vivid detail that blood splatters from the back of the victim with each subsequent blow. We already got the point from the first flogging. Do we really need to see the tenth one?
Lynchings. In “12 Years a Slave,” Solomon Northup, portrayed with distinction by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is kidnapped into slavery and works on a plantation with a rather benevolent master. However, one of the white workers there resents Solomon’s intelligence and class and begins verbally harassing and intimidating him. Northup successfully defends himself by beating up and humiliating the man. With the intention of lynching Solomon, the worker returns with a couple burly friends. They have Solomon tied up with a noose around his neck, and are lifting him into the air to hang from a tree when he is spared by the timely arrival and intervention of the plantation owner’s overseer. Northup is then moved to another plantation for his own safety, and there he witnesses the lynching of other slaves. Films exploring the evils of slavery and Jim Crow often show a lynching like clockwork, as if required every few minutes for authenticity. But showing so many lynchings detracts from the effect of each one.
Slave master raping the slave woman. A constant theme of slave films produced after the Civil Rights era is the slave master neglecting his delicate, prim and proper white wife and invading the slave quarters to prey upon defenseless slave girls and women. Northup’s new master is named Edwin Epps. His wife, Mary Epps, is insanely jealous of and resentful toward Patsey, the slave girl who picks the most cotton and has won the favor of Edwin. The irony is that drawing Epps’ attention and praise only leads to Patsey suffering his unwelcome sexual advances. In her envy, Mary Epps begins to mistreat Patsey. When her husband decides to discipline Patsey for having had the audacity to leave the plantation to search for soap, Mary eggs him on, encouraging the barbaric beating of Patsey after the slave is stripped and tied to a post.
Another example comes from “Mandingo,” the “blacksploitation” film from 1975 starring the late boxer Ken Norton. Blanche, the wife of the slave master, is furious at her husband for ignoring her in favor of Ellen, a slave with whom he has started having sexual relations. Blanche abuses Ellen in the same way Mary Epps torments Patsey. In an effort at “turnabout is fair play,” Blanche entices Mede, Norton’s character, to her bed by threatening to cry rape unless he starts servicing her. Mede feels he has no choice and yields to the blackmail by taking up with her. Of course, breaking this ultimate taboo ends badly for both of them. She becomes pregnant and delivers a nonwhite child. Predictably, her husband flies into an uncontrollable rage and makes her drink poison. Upon learning Mede is the father of his wife’s black child, the slave master orders Mede to fill a big kettle with water and start a fire under it. He then demands Mede climb into the boiling cauldron. When Mede refuses the master shoots him, even though Mede has been a loyal slave. The storyline and message is always the same; that it is fatal for a black male slave to couple with a white woman, but the slave master is free to have his fill of black slave girls and women, producing many mulatto children in the process.
Nude black slaves. Films about slavery have no qualms about showing male and female black slaves in the nude, both front and back. But rarely do these films ever show a nude white person.
Black men used for entertainment. In “Mandingo” and “Drum,” another 1970s film about slavery starring Norton, there are scenes where slave owners and white bystanders lay down bets and watch muscular black male slaves engage in no-holds-barred boxing contests that last almost to the death of one of the participants. In “12 Years a Slave,” Northup is ordered to play the violin while black slaves dance for the amusement of white spectators.
More and more violence. In “Drum” and in “Django Unchained,” from 2012, there is almost an inevitability to the violence that comes at the end of these films. If usually follows the pattern of rebellious slaves seeking revenge for the injustices that have been perpetrated upon them for an extended period. Usually the mansion that is central to the plantation goes up in smoke, often taking down the slave owner and his family with it.
“12 Years a Slave” breaks no new ground. The film won a Best Picture Oscar despite being similar to other slave flicks from the past. There is one relatively benign slave master in “12 Years a Slave,” but the other slave owners are the garden variety villains who think they are biblically entitled to physically and verbally abuse slaves they regard as mere property. The hostile, vindictive, jealous wife of the slave master is stereotypical. Patsey, the slave girl who is raped and whipped by the slave master, is the routine victim. Slave traders and overseers who are intoxicated with the power to wield the lash and use the noose, are typical. The only thing that makes “12 Years a Slave” stand apart from most previous slave films is it has a happy ending and an almost “Wizard of Oz” quality to it. Like Dorothy in “Oz,” Solomon suffers a traumatic event where he is transported from the comfort of his home, has a life-changing experience in a foreign or surreal world, and eventually escapes and returns home a transformed person.
Future films about slavery. There seems to be a formula that popular films like “12 Years a Slave” and “Django Unchained” follow. And this pattern will probably continue as long as they do well at the box office and are nominated for Academy Awards.
“12 Years a Slave,” DVD, 20th Century Fox, 2014
“Mandingo,” DVD, Paramount Pictures, 1975, 2008
“Glory,” VHS, RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video, 1990