Why is the great movie about slavery so elusive?

Illustration for article titled Why is the great movie about slavery so elusive?

Sure, see 12 Years A Slave. It's worthy. But not — as some critics have asserted — worthy of every award or of entry into the annals of greatness.


Steve McQueen's movie suffers from the fatal problem with most films about the Holocaust or slavery in the American South. In order for them to work as entertainment, someone has to survive, escape or at the very least triumph even in death. Viewers demand that there be some moral, that the protagonist be somehow deserving of liberation: brave like Daniel Craig's character in Defiance, smart like the leader of The Counterfeiters or born free like Solomon Northup in 12 Years.

The film makers may not intend any judgment about the people who went uncinematically to their deaths in the camps or the plantations. But the essential truth — that most victims lived and died without glory or meaning — has to be skipped over.


It's more honest to eschew reality entirely for over-the-top fantasy, as Quentin Tarantino does in Inglourious Basterds and Django. Or else abandon all effort to entertain. The most real movie about the Holocaust — Shoah — is also the most excruciating.

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