Django was first over the top. At the forefront of the new wave of filmic history that deliberately refused to shy away from the horrors of pre-Civil War US society, Tarantino vocally condemned what he perceived as the ‘Auschwitzian aspect of the slave trade in America’, while on the rounds promoting his 2013 Spaghetti Western Django Unchained. Condemning what he accurately perceived as the very obvious, very shameful, slavery-sized hole in the industry’s official version of American history, he said in one interview
“I was always amazed so many Western films could get away with not dealing with slavery at all…Hollywood didn’t want to deal with it because it was too ugly and too messy. But how can you ignore such a huge part of American history when telling a story in that time period? It made no sense.”
Typically Tarantino-esque, Django was bold and brash and not to everyone’s taste, but was an impressive film not only thanks to superb performances from Foxx, Waltz, Di Caprio and Jackson, but by the fact that it looked unflinchingly at the sadistic brutality of the system that perpetrated slavery in the United States for so long. Especially of what the director called the ‘Southern Aristocracy’ of the white plantation owners, whose culture was sentimentalised by Hollywood ever since its early years, as in Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind. It was a wake-up call delivered to the heart of Hollywood’s account of history.
But, if Tarantino’s film functioned as a pathfinder for a radical new revisionism in US historical films, Steve McQueen’s new work, 12 Years a Slave, delivers a payload unprecedented in Hollywood’s lifetime. While Django was more of a quasi- Spaghetti Western, 12 Years…, adapted from the true memoirs of freeman-turned slave Solomon Northrup, is a film specifically and solely focused on the experience of slavery in the United States. It deliberately brings the shameful, true reality of America’s past into the foreground of cultural consciousness. ‘History written with lightning’, as one critic aptly described it.
Like Tarantino before him, McQueen- a Turner Prize winning artist-turned feature length director whose first picture Hunger was a similarly brilliant and explosive historical examination of the H-blocks Hunger Strikes- accused the industry of ignoring this crucial chapter in America’s past:
“The second world war lasted five years and there are hundreds and hundreds of films about the second world war and the Holocaust…Slavery lasted 400 years and there are less than 20 [films]. We have to redress that balance and look at that time in history.”
One thing that makes this approach so important and so welcome is the understanding of how Hollywood delivers a historical narrative to its legion global audiences that is both stratified and subjective. Through its lifetime this version of events by the drip drip of relentless production and distribution has undoubtedly shaped historical consciousness, as, for example, Edward Said and the post-colonial movement in academia have argued vis-à-vis traditional Western conceptions of the ‘East’. The films that were made about slavery prior to this new assault on the taboo were overwhelmingly about abolitionism, or its championing by the North in the Civil War, and this arguably sanitized the USA’s nineteenth century experience.
By choosing a narrative set before these years, when slave-ownership was enshrined in the US constitution alongside all other property rights and thus entirely legal, 12 Years a Slave more accurately shows us (in microcosm) the society it propagated. In one of the most striking shots of the film, the camera pans up from Northrup in chains and behind the bars of a prison cell in Washington to reveal a shimmering White-House in the background- surely a nod to the historical truth that many of America’s founding fathers were slave owners themselves.
The welcome shift in zeitgeist that these films affect underlines the power of the movie industry as a tool for moulding historical consciousness. Today, most people’s understanding and conception of the past is overwhelmingly shaped by film and television over, say, academic literature, as it tends to be far more accessible. This being the case, it is highly important that such a change in Hollywood’s official version of history is sustained and developed. Though such trumped-up celebrations of celebrity culture never fully reflect the great variety, depth and nuances of the modern international film industry, the globalized spectacle of the Oscars may yet help in this endeavour by rewarding such radical filmmaking. For my money 12 Years a Slave, up for 9 Academy Awards this Sunday including Best Film and Best Director, deserves the lot.