One of the most common comments on Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave, both from the press and from the general public, is that it's morally obligatory to watch this film. Now, there's no doubt that 12 Years a Slave is one of the only American films ever made to deal with the horrifying realities of slavery in a truthful and unvarnished way, while there are dozens, if not hundreds, of films that glorify the Old South and paint a rosy picture of happy Mammies and content cotton-pickers, from The Birth of a Nation to Gone with the Wind, Judge Priest to Jezebel. Taking an honest look at one of the ugliest stains on our history is absolutely a positive. Considering oneself morally superior for praising the film and because one empathizes with Chiwetel Ejiofer's character Solomon Northup - not a positive. Not at all. And yet, I've encountered this smug self-satisfaction all over the place.
The first issue is that empathy does not mean experience. In a recent interview, a journalist asked Mark Wahlberg about the rigor of his training for Lone Survivor, a film about Navy SEALS in Afghanistan, and Wahlberg responded with an extended rant. Though the press generally concentrated on the aggressive tenor of the rant, Wahlberg was making a really good point, one that both the people who make the movies and the people who watch the movies should take to heart. Wahlberg was basically saying that pretending to go through brutal experiences, like an extremely dangerous and high-stakes military undertaking, can't come close to the real experience. Movies like Lone Survivor and 12 Years a Slave are brutal viewing, but they can't come anywhere close, either for the actors or the audience, to what the people these characters are based on actually suffered.
The fact that we feel empathy for these characters isn't a testament to our own moral judgment; rather, it's a testament to the efforts of the filmmakers, actors, editors, cinematographers, etc. who have produced a film that compels us to feel empathy. It's easy today to say that slavery was wrong because it's part of the past, and so, films that deal with that subject matter are asking us to reflect, not to take action. That reflection is worthwhile and can have concrete and positive results. But, it's a little too easy to take the moral high ground when these difficult situations are, in the present, purely hypothetical. I might believe that I would have strenuously disagreed with slavery, as I do today, had I been alive in 1841, but I can't know that. No one can. Projecting ourselves into a complex moral reality of the past is merely a thought experiment.
So, let's stop congratulating ourselves on liking 12 Years a Slave for its politics and insisting that watching the film is an expression of those politics. Let's start talking about the film itself.
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