After all the knowledge we already have about slavery during the years prior to the Civil War, it seems that the movie industry is taking it on yet again in a more visceral fashion. When Quentin Tarantino took on slavery in “Django Unchained” last year, many people thought it was going to give the most realistic depiction ever attempted at what it was like for African-Americans. Because far too much of “Unchained” was also tongue in cheek, it didn’t seem to resonate as much as it should have. Some were even turned off by the excessive violence of it to a point where you could accuse it of being nowhere near that bloody in real life.
When Hollywood takes on history’s screw-ups, we’re now at the point where we throw it in the face of the viewer so it’s near augmented reality. Just how intensely violent those historical events were, however, is still up for debate. Is Hollywood really channeling from history lately where the more realistic depictions are right on the nose accurate?
“12 Years a Slave” seems to be the more serious opposite to “Django Unchained” and one that seems to take it even further in the relentless violence behind slavery. While we wouldn’t expect anything less intense from a director like (the other) Steve McQueen, we might be at the point now where we have to ask ourselves how intense it has to be to drive home a point about history.
The advantage of “12 Years a Slave” is that it comes straight from the source in Solomon Northup’s autobiography. This take on mid-1800s slavery might be the equivalent to what “Saving Private Ryan” was to films about D-Day and World War II in general. Regardless, “Ryan” provided such a shock in 1998 that anything else since then seems superfluous in depicting events in an overly graphic way.
You might find some who really can’t hack sitting through graphic violence, no matter if it’s depicting important history. For those people, they don’t need the violence to feel empathy toward those who suffered through the great tragedies of past decades and centuries. You’ll likely find many non African-Americans who can feel the pain of slavery through writings and past depictions not nearly as bloody (like TV’s “Roots”).
Will there be some criticism of movies depicting history in an overly violent way just to get attention? It likely won’t hurt “12 Years a Slave” because the acting and directing is obviously very much stellar and rides above the violence. But for those that have to use violence to gain clout, it’s going to hurt other movies that want to get history right. Even if some parts of history were reportedly as bloody as the films make them out to be, movies have to be careful not to rely on graphic violence to make history movies compelling.
With an astute director, other elements of history we haven’t tapped should be focused on first, including ways of speaking and getting minute historical details right for those history sticklers. Movies are nearly at a cumulatively supreme place in making history come virtually to life, and it may have to come down to nuance to resonate rather than being overly brutal.