If Twelve Years a Slave is playing near you, go see it—if nothing else, as a corrective to any sniveling you may once have done over Gone With the Wind (I’m talking about me here).
The movie is based on a memoir by Solomon Northrup, a free man of color, who was kidnapped off the streets of Washington in 1841, and sold into slavery. No paternalistic gentry here, with their pretty plantations, their genteel manners; no fiddle-dee-dee.
According to Leonard Pitts’ column, the film’s glowing reviews are deserved, but the film is more than a masterpiece: it is the most unsparing, unsentimental depiction of American slavery ever filmed. Pitts says unless we understand the crime the film describes, we cannot understand America—then or now.
The New York Times review says this isn’t the first movie about slavery, but it’s the first one “that finally makes it impossible for American cinema to continue to sell the ugly lies it’s been hawking for more than a century.”
In “The Political Legacy of American Slavery,” by Matthew Blackwell, he and his co-authors describe how slavery affects politics in the south today. For the first 246 years of American history, mostly in the south, white landowners enslaved more than four million people.
Though slavery was abolished 150 years ago, the effects linger. Whites, living in counties with high concentrations of slaves in 1860, are more conservative, have harsher feelings about African Americans, oppose affirmative action, and vote Republican. According to Blackwell, each successive generation inherits the attitudes and beliefs of its parents.
Here is an 1860 map of slave-owning counties, a map Lincoln studied. The darker the county, the more slaves. Notice the shadow across the mid-south.
Compare that with a map showing the results of the 2012 election by Congressional District. The darker the red, the more Republican votes.
And here’s how my favorite cartoonist, Jim Morin, sees it.
I don’t know the answer. Blackwell, in the paper above, says the fewer slaves a county had in 1860, the more that county looks like the rest of the U.S. The more urban a county becomes, the less prejudice. We can wait, I guess, or we could let them secede again.
Go see Twelve Years a Slave.