Up from Stereotypes

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What’s the best genre to demonstrate the horrors of slavery? A horror film, of course! I’m not a big fan of horror movies; I avoid slasher films at all costs. But once in a while one comes along that transcends the usual cheap thrills of the genre. Get Out is one of them. A psychological thriller that makes a powerful social commentary, it will be remembered — and studied — for years to come.

Get Out, the debut film of writer-director Jordan Peele, is sly, eerie, suspenseful, funny, well-acted, and only gruesome in short spurts (pun intended) toward the end. Best of all, it transcends the formula of the genre by providing an underlying social message with subtle allusions and literary artistry. You will continue to think about the film’s nuanced references as you discuss the movie with other viewers. And you will want to talk about it, I’m sure! As just one example, watch for the significance of a black man picking cotton.

A psychological thriller that makes a powerful social commentary, "Get Out" will be remembered — and studied — for years to come.

The story begins late at night, as a young black man (Lakeith Stanfield) walks down a tree-lined street in an upper-class neighborhood. The background music is reminiscent of the soundtrack for Deliverance, but with a distinct gospel flair that, combined with the moss-covered trees, creates a hint of voodoo and heightens our sense that something bad is about to happen to the man. When a classy white Beemer pulls over to check him out, a look of anxiety comes over his face, and I was reminded of James Baldwin describing in an essay the “thunk, thunk, thunk” of the car door locks whenever a black walks down an unfamiliar street. (See my review of the James Baldwin documentary, I Am Not Your Negro.) I also thought of Trayvon Martin’s death as he walked through a predominately white neighborhood where he didn’t seem to “belong.” The young man is indeed snatched, and we don’t learn his fate until much later in the film.

Meanwhile, the scene changes to a daylight apartment where Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose (Allison Williams) are preparing to spend the weekend with Rose’s parents Missy (Catherine Keener) and Dean (Bradley Whitford) at their woodsy estate. Chris is concerned because Rose has not yet told her parents that Chris is black, but she reassures him that they aren’t racist by saying, “My father would have voted for Obama a third time if he could have!” Sure enough, that’s one of the first things Dean says to Chris when they meet.

Guests at a lawn party that weekend make similar remarks that appear to be prompted by Chris’s race. One guest tells him, “Tiger Woods is my favorite golfer.” Another asks Chris what sport he plays. A middle-aged woman fondles his bicep as she speculates suggestively on Rose’s good fortune in the bedroom. Everyone is kind and welcoming, yet they blurt out comments that focus on Chris’s race rather than asking about his job or his interests. I winced, thinking of times when I, too, have looked for common ground by making a comment based on race or country of origin. Chris is a photographer, by the way. Not very stereotypical! This is one small scene, but it becomes important later on — and not in the way that the audience expects.

Chris is concerned because Rose has not yet told her parents that Chris is black, but she reassures him that they aren’t racist by saying, “My father would have voted for Obama a third time if he could have!”

Nothing is quite as it appears, of course. The creepily smiling black servants seem to have come straight from jobs in Stepford, and the neighbors appear as strange in their ordinariness as the demonic neighbors in Rosemary’s Baby. The cast of characters includes such iconic tropes as a mad scientist, a hypnotic psychologist, and a blind man with the gift of inner sight. The soundtrack is also powerful, controlling the audience’s emotions as all good horror soundtracks do. You’ll have a rousing good time figuring out whom to trust, whom to fear, and what’s going on in the basement of this stylish psychological thriller.

Produced with a budget of just $4.5 million, Get Out brought in over $80 million in its first two weeks. It makes me happy to see a first-time writer and director enjoy such well-deserved success. Get out this weekend and see Get Out!


Editor's Note: Review of "Get Out," directed by Jordan Peele. Blumhouse Productions, 2017, 104 minutes.



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Pretty Good Cause, Pretty Bad Argument

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Rightwing commentators have a ridiculous thing going on right now. It appears to emanate from the otherwise intelligent and upright Dinesh D’Souza, who is puffing a new propaganda movie — Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party.

This ridiculous thing is the idea, now constantly confided as formerly hidden knowledge, that the Democratic Party has always been bad, and the Republican Party has always been good. After all, the Democratic Party supported slavery, and the Republican Party opposed it.

I submit that this notion is just as silly as Michelle Obama’s maunderings (much criticized by the Right) about the significance of the White House having been built by slaves. She might have added that the Louvre was built by a tyrannical monarchy. Or that the pyramids were built by a tyrannical monarchy, in the service of a false religion. We’ve come a long way from then. And so . . . ?

If you don’t know anything about history, don’t insist on informing other people about it.

Now to the rightwing’s use of historical facts, or non-facts, about American political parties. This is the truth: the Democratic Party is almost 200 years old, the Republican Party more than 150. During the long, strange history of those parties, each of them has been colored by almost every conceivable political, social, and religious tendency. In terms of attitudes, ethnicities, gender roles, social classes, political beliefs, religious or anti-religious preoccupations — in short, in terms of everything — their present membership bears no similarity whatever to their original membership, except that almost all of their adherents have two eyes, a large mouth, and a peculiar nose (useful for detecting food, useless for detecting falsehood). Even in 1860, many Democrats opposed slavery, and many — perhaps most — Republicans were disgusting racists. And if you’re toting up ideological goods and evils, the Democratic Party was, for many long years, the party of hard money and low taxes, and the Republicans were the party of high taxes, crony capitalism, and big government projects.

I very much dislike the current Democratic Party of the United States. I consider it the source of much more than half of the political evil of this country. But something that antagonizes me even more than the DP of the USA is the willingness of good people, intelligent people, people whom I feel are on my side, to engage in false arguments and misrepresentations of history. They ought to know better, for God’s sake. Can’t they read?

If you don’t know anything about history, don’t insist on informing other people about it. And if your idea of “history” is nothing more than your idea of good and evil, and therefore of what should and should not have occurred, whether it occurred or not, you shouldn’t even use the word. You’re no better, intellectually, than any of your conceivable opponents. Drunk with your moral fervor, you’re denying yourself, and whatever slack-minded followers take you seriously, the real history by which moral judgments ought to be informed.




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The Bears and the Bugs

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James Bowman is a good writer, and he wrote a very good article about the recent British elections for the June issue of The New Criterion, which is a good magazine. In that article there are a number of memorable observations, such as the idea that politics is usually and traditionally a matter of “the orderly management of the hatred between social factions.” I’m not sure that’s strictly true, but it’s certainly relevant to the current state of American political affairs. It’s also well phrased. I like reading Bowman’s stuff.

So it’s a sad indication of the state of our language that even such a good writer as James Bowman should refer, in the same article, to “the problem that eventually sunk the [British] Labour campaign.” Sunk? The past tense of “sink” is “sank.” “Sunk” is the past participle. Bowman doesn’t know that?

But oh, what a small thing! Why pick on that?

I’ll tell you why. Look at it this way. You go to a picnic, and just when everyone is having fun, a troop of bears comes out of the woods and eats ten of the children. It may be the first time it ever happened, but it shows that you have a bear problem. Neglecting all caution, you turn up at the next picnic, and there are no bears. But the mosquitoes drive everybody crazy. That shows you have a mosquito problem. It’s not as bad as a bear problem, but it’s bad nonetheless.

If you have kids, ask them whether they’ve ever learned the verb forms in school. You’ll find that they haven’t — and neither have the professional writers.

This column is usually occupied with bear problems. This time, let’s think for a moment about mosquito problems, such as the difficulty that many professional writers of English have in getting nouns to agree with verbs. It generally doesn’t keep you from understanding what they mean, but it’s . . . annoying. And unnecessary. Thus, on August 19, CNN finally raised its eyebrows about Mrs. Clinton and reported, “There have been a constant stream of stories about Clinton's emails for the better part of five months.” I’m glad CNN isn’t ignoring those stories (provided by other news organizations), but can’t it make its subjects and verbs agree? “There have been a stream”? There have also been blunders.

Another mosquito problem is the one I started out with — the inability of English speakers to remember what strong verbs are like. A strong verb is any that does not create its past and perfect forms with an -ed ending. Originally, Indo-European verbs were strong. Then the –ed form became influential (“productive,” as the linguists say), partly to assimilate borrowings of verbs from foreign languages. It was easier to use, so it spread to other verbs. But strong verbs still sound, well, stronger, and they are very useful in poetic and generally emotive language. It sounds better to say, “She strove to succeed” than “She strived to succeed.” It would have sounded still better if Tammy Bruce, one of America’s most cogent spokesmen for liberty, hadn’t told Fox News (August 15), “Carly Fiorina has weaved that fact into her presentations . . .” Tammy! I love you! But haven’t you heard of that word woven?

The hitch is, you have to know what you’re doing. Imagine that! You actually have to know that a person not only strove to succeed, but having striven, he sang his heart out. These days, however, he will have strived, and it’s an even chance that he sung his heart out, while the hearts of his enemies sunk. It’s more than an even chance that he had fit himself for his role. Here is an opposite, though not an insuperable, problem. Fit is a normal weak verb; it’s fit-fitted-fitted. Strange but true. This doesn’t mean that last week somebody (in San Francisco, it would be hundreds of people) shit on the doorstep. Shit is still a strong verb; somebody shat on the doorstep last week — and isn’t that a more forceful way of describing it? People spat in the subway, too.

Experience has convinced me that at least seven of the Muses have left the university, and the other two have been beaten into nescience.

Why can’t people keep this in mind? Why can’t professional writers (distinguishing them, for the moment, from actual people) figure it out? Well, if you have kids, ask them whether they’ve ever learned the verb forms in school. You’ll find that they haven’t — and neither have the professional writers. If your kids are troublemakers, get them to ask the English teacher what the past tense of fit may be. Or shit. Then they can ask the teacher whether he has ever read the King James Bible. And if he hasn’t, they can ask him how he ever got to be an English teacher. Should be interesting.

Moving on from the inevitable after-school detention, oft visited on the overly articulate . . . You can tell that people aren’t reading anything, let alone the King James Bible, when their spelling reproduces what they hear, or think they hear, not what they’ve read. Witness the non-word alright. This has been with us for quite a while (which doesn’t make it good — remember the Dutch Elm Disease). It’s the product of people who have never seen all right in print, or if they have seen it, have never wondered whether those two mysterious words could possibly have the same meaning as the things you see on post-it notes: “Henderson party: parking in Alley alright tonite.” In this never-saw-that, never-noticed-that category you can also file all those people who write things like, “Invitees can signin for the conference now” and “To hookup/test software, turnoff browsers, then turnon.” I’m quoting the kind of communications I get in my academic email. Experience has convinced me that at least seven of the Muses have left the university, and the other two have been beaten into nescience.

Of course, reading is no longer a prerequisite for writing of any kind, even professional writing about professional writing. Consider an article in The Wrap (April 6) about the aftermath of (or “fallout” over) Rolling Stone’s smear story on a University of Virginia fraternity. The article cited an observation by Fox News personality Greta Van Susteren (whose own English is pretty good):

The Fox anchor invoked a former president’s infamous phrase to tie a bow on Rolling Stone’s missteps: “As Ronald Reagan said, ‘Trust but verify,’” she told TheWrap.

If you read books, and you notice what you read, you know that infamous does not mean famous — no, not at all. And if you enjoy reading books, you usually have some interest in noticing how authors get their effects. A person rattling along in conversation may say, “Our first idea went flat, but that’s all water over the dam,” and this may have some effect. But it won’t work in print, because people who read actually have to take a moment to look at what they’re reading. If they’re conscious (which admittedly, many “readers” are not), and they see the word missteps, they probably picture steps, going the wrong way. They won’t worry about the picture of a magazine making missteps; they’ll accept that as a little imagistic oomph. But when you ask them to picture somebody tying a bow on missteps, they won’t do it, because they can’t do it. It isn’t colorful; it’s stupid. The best audience, the audience most likely to appreciate an effective use of language, will move on from trying to picture the bow to the easier task of picturing the author, smiling with self-satisfaction after having, shall we say, tied that metaphoricbow on his misstep.

Anyone familiar with letters written by average Americans a hundred and fifty years ago knows that they tied a lot of those bows. They also wrote alright, very frequently, and worse things, much worse things, all the time. And anyone who has read a typical sermon or political address from the same period can see how many lofty phrases could be expended on practically nothing. The difference between that period and ours is that back then, nobody mistook average, unmeditated English for anything you’d want to use when you really got serious. People expected serious writing to be literate. Literacy was something they not only appreciated but enjoyed. Perhaps they even overenjoyed it.

In 1850, President Zachary Taylor was held in contempt by other politicians for his lapses from standard grammar. Compare President Obama, who is lauded by the political class as a great public speaker, despite his refusal to master the like-as distinction, his success at filling sentences with uhs and ums (sometimes 30 to the minute), and his constant attempt to reach the sublime by talking about folks and dropping his final g’s.

It’s hard to say whether this year’s presidential candidates are better or worse with language than he is: are rotten apples worse than rotten oranges? Some are more literate, but is there one of them, any one of them, whose speeches you want to hear, as opposed to reading the one- or two-sentence news summary? Trump, I suppose — but that’s because it’s fun to hear him abusing the other candidates. The format of his speeches, if you want to call it that, is exactly the same as the others’: he makes a series of 50-word declarations, apparently unconnected with one another, “highlighting” the positions — or, more accurately, the slogans — he wants you to remember. In this sense, there’s not much difference between Trump and those two yammering old coots, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton (who are just as abusive, but stupefyingly dull at it).

Compare President Obama, who is lauded by the political class as a great public speaker, despite his constant attempt to reach the sublime by talking about "folks" and dropping his final g’s.

Nor is this merely a problem of politics. When Clinton and her surrogates claim that Republicans are trying to block healthcare and are waging war on women’s health, when Sanders and his gang of Post Office retirees announce that, because the government takes no action, women are paid only 78% of what men are paid, there’s also a problem of language. If you saw that in a book, you’d be shouting at the page: “What do these words mean? Are Republican mobs blockading hospitals? Are all the statisticians lying? Are women paid $78,000 for the same jobs for which men are paid $100,000?” If the author didn’t explain his statements, you would dismiss the book as incomprehensible. You wouldn’t think, “Ah, that’s interesting — here’s the slogan these people are pushing today. Must be because of that poll about women going Republican.” You wouldn’t think, “Good move! Sanders is playing to the welfare crowd. He’s prying them away from Hillary.” You’d think, “This is a bad book,” and that would be the end of it.

This defines the difference between normal readers and members of the political class. One group is jealous of its intellectual health and safety; the other doesn’t mind going to a picnic and being bitten by mosquitoes or gnawed by bears. In fact, it prefers that kind of picnic.

On March 7, 1850, Daniel Webster gave a speech in the United States Senate. It was about an issue of great importance: the attempt to reach a compromise between Northern and Southern claims to power. But although people could have read a summary in the paper next day, and it was at least 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the Senate chamber, the place was packed. Ladies stood for three hours to hear Webster’s remarks — because that was the length of his speech: three hours and 11 minutes. Webster closely reviewed the long history of legal provisions and political negotiations regarding the status of slavery. He analyzed the geography of the western United States, assessing the possibility that slavery might become a paying proposition there. He reviewed his own history of opposition to slavery. He then considered what would happen — indeed, what did happen — in the event of a Southern secession.

Secession! Peaceable secession! Sir, your eyes and mine are never destined to see that miracle. The dismemberment of this vast country without convulsion! The breaking up of the fountains of the great deep without ruffing the surface! Who is so foolish, I beg every body's pardon, as to expect to see any such thing? Sir, he who sees these States, now revolving in harmony around a common centre, and expects to see them quit their places and fly off without convulsion, may look the next hour to see heavenly bodies rush from their spheres, and jostle against each other in the realms of space, without causing the wreck of the universe. There can be no such thing as peaceable secession. Peaceable secession is an utter impossibility. Is the great Constitution under which we live, covering this whole country, is it to be thawed and melted away by secession, as the snows on the mountain melt under the influence of a vernal sun, disappear almost unobserved, and run off? No, Sir! No, Sir! I will not state what might produce the disruption of the Union; but, Sir, I see as plainly as I see the sun in heaven what that disruption itself must produce; I see that it must produce war, and such a war as I will not describe . . .

Many people hated Webster’s speech. It earned him the scorn of powerful voters in his own state, agitators against compromise. Yet its words were continuously informative. They were continuously interesting. They were continuously entertaining. They were, by the end, exciting. They weren’t talking points. They weren’t spin. And they weren’t three hours and 11 minutes of subliterary, unorganized sounds.

The ability to give literary interest to political words wasn’t confined to the greatest orators. Even Warren Harding, who is, perhaps unfairly, regarded as a mere politician, a nothing among statesmen, had that ability. On May 14, 1920, Harding outlined his political program:

America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality. . . .

Out of the supreme tragedy [of the Great War] must come a new order and a higher order, and I gladly acclaim it. But war has not abolished work, has not established the processes of seizure or the rule of physical might. Nor has it provided a governmental panacea for human ills, or the magic touch that makes failure a success. Indeed, it has revealed no new reward for idleness, no substitute for the sweat of a man’s face in the contest for subsistence and acquirement.

For the past 95 years, Harding’s reference to “normalcy” has been panned by the intellectuals. A few dispute his use of that word instead of the normal “normality.” More, alas, sneer at his idea that war, revolution, and the ambitions of the progressive state should not be regarded as normal parts of the American condition. You can judge between Harding and his foes. My point is that Harding, known as one of the weakest of presidents, could deliver a speech that has approximately 100,000 times the word power of any contemporary political communication. He knew that big things come of small — that “dispassionate” is a valuable word, although you see it only in serious books, and that it presents an interesting contrast to “dramatic”; he knew that a sentence containing not one but eight sharp but serious conceptual distinctions can be a contribution to thought and argument, and certainly to literary interest.

You want a good meal? Here it is. Bacon, lettuce, tomato, avocado. Ketchup and mustard on the side. Fries, fruit, cottage cheese . . . right there at the end of the table. Rather have the roast beef? We’ve brought that too. This is survival food. No bugs, no bears.

So, how do I get to that picnic? Easy — all you have to do is read.




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A Slave Narrative, and More

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12 Years a Slave is one of those must-see films that you’re glad you’ve seen, even though you can’t say you enjoyed it. It simply isn’t that kind of film. Like Schindler’s List (1993), it’s an important film historically, but it’s difficult to watch, as characters are torn from their families, forced to work at hard labor, and savagely whipped — backs torn open, bleeding profusely. In one agonizingly slow scene a man hangs by the neck for what appears to be several hours as others go about their business in the background. His toes are barely able to reach the mud beneath his feet and he shuffles awkwardly as he struggles to keep his neck above choking. The scene is unbearably long and utterly silent except for the soft buzzing of insects and the mutter of unconcerned conversation in the background as he slowly dances in a circle.

Yet, for all that, this is an exquisitely beautiful film. The camera work by Sean Bobbitt often focuses tightly on unexpected closeups — the backlit hands of a store clerk wrapping a package, or a caterpillar munching on a sunlit leaf. These artistic touches are typical of Steve McQueen’s directorial style, and they provide a vivid contrast to the dark theme of slavery in this film.

In 1841, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a cultured, educated free black man living with his wife Anne (Kelsey Scott) and their two children in Sarasota, New York, when he was drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery by treacherous men masquerading as his friends. Bewildered and frightened, he is whipped into submission and then sold from farm to farm into increasingly harsher conditions. He quickly learns to hide his literacy and his background as a freeman in order to survive, as it is impossible for him to contact friends and family in the north, and masters feel suspicious of and threatened by slaves who can read and write.

This film chronicles the 12 years that Northup spent as a slave. It is horrifying because he was a freeman kidnapped and unfairly sold into slavery, but the plight of the other slaves is no less horrifying. In fact, all slaves are kidnapped in one way or another — either directly, or by birth into slavery. It is horrifying because slavery was practiced by otherwise liberty-minded American colonists who somehow found a way to justify their “peculiar institution,” often by reading from the Bible. And it is horrifying because it was legal. As abolitionist Bass (Brad Pitt) says to a southerner who defends his legal right to own Northup, “Law don’t make it right. What if they passed a law making it legal to buy and sell you?”

Another horrifying aspect of this story of a free man sold into captivity is that it still happens today. So many young men today are wrongfully accused and convicted of crimes they did not commit. Many of them are beaten or terrorized in the interrogation room until they are so frightened and confused that they confess to crimes they did not commit, just as Northup is beaten into a confused stupor in this film when he claims to be freeborn. They languish in prison for 20 years or more, unable even to apply for parole because the parole board requires a declaration of remorse for one’s crime — and how can a man express remorse for a crime he did not commit? I teach in the college program at Sing Sing, a maximum security prison, and while most of the men are indeed guilty of their crimes, several do not belong there. Tears water their pillows at night, just as Northup’s tears water his pillow in the film, because their lives are destroyed by false arrest, false witness, and false judgment. There is a rush to put them away with the justification that “if he isn’t guilty of this, he must be guilty of something.” Incarceration of young black men is the new version of “crime prevention.” It is our new “peculiar institution.”

Incarceration of young black men is the new version of “crime prevention.” It is our new “peculiar institution.”

Films are like myths. They often reveal the values, beliefs, and fears of a culture. A few seasons back we saw multiple films about reluctant superheroes alienated from the society they have sworn to protect and weary of their isolating roles. This has been a season of films about the struggle to survive in an unfamiliar environment — an astronaut stranded in space (Gravity), a ship’s captain kidnapped at sea (Captain Phillips), a socialite demoted to her sister’s tiny apartment (Blue Jasmine), and an “everyman” stranded in the ocean (All is Lost), to name just a few. In many ways these films reflect the concerns of our current culture as we struggle to survive in what is an increasingly hostile and estranged America, where instead of being appreciated, individual people (including some of the most successful producers) are beaten down and denigrated.

Although 12 Years a Slave is based on a true story, it is impossible to know what is factually true, and what is substantially true. Some of the vignettes simply don’t ring true, as when the lecherous and sadistic slave owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) whips Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) almost to death because she has spoken back to him. Patsey is his most productive slave. She picks twice as much cotton every day as any of the men do. She is a valuable, unblemished piece of property, even if he doesn’t acknowledge her humanity. It does not make sense that he would destroy such a valuable capital good in a fit of pique.

It also does not make sense that all the black characters in the film have perfect diction and lofty vocabulary — so lofty that Lupita Nyong’o sometimes stumbles over the uncomfortable sentence patterns. Yes, Northup was highly educated, and many other blacks were educated too. But not in Louisiana. And not field slaves. It would have been more realistic to have written a script that was truer to the vernacular used by slaves in the mid-19th century. But I suppose that would have given rise to accusations of stereotyping.

In his recent article for the Atlantic Noah Berlatsky quotes UNC professor William Andrews’ view in To Tell a Free Story (1988): Solomon Northup’s story was actually written by his attorney, David Wilson. Andrews argued that most, if not all, slave narratives were merely dictated to white writers, who “cleaned up” the diction and made the works presentable in style and language for white audiences. However, Berlatsky would have been wise to read a more recent commentary on slave narratives. Later scholarship presents compelling evidence that many of them were indeed written by the former slaves themselves.

I studied slave narratives as the focus of my masters thesis, “To Tell a True Story” (1993), in which I discuss the purpose, themes, and genres of slave narratives as well as their truthfulness and the difficulty of claiming the authors’ own voices. All these narratives were framed by authenticating documents written by reputable white people who lent a stamp of credibility to the narrators. Of course, many of these supporters were abolitionists with a cause, so for more than a century it was whispered that these white benefactors did the actual writing. “How could an illiterate slave write something as elegant as this?” critics asked. Evidence is rising that the narrators did indeed read — and write. They learned to write well by reading good books and learning from the patterns they found there. But we can never know for sure who put pen to paper, the teller or the auditor. The important thing is that the stories have been told.

12 Years a Slave is a profound film that tells a profound story. It is difficult to watch, not only because of its intense emotion and brutality but because of the guilt it engenders in those who are not black, simply because they are white. Right or wrong, we tend to identify with those of our own race, and it is difficult to identify with character after character who has not a single redeeming quality until Brad Pitt finally appears on the screen as a reasonable white abolitionist. But Schindler’s List was difficult to watch too, for many of the same reasons. Both are brutal, both use nudity to demonstrate the humiliation of their characters, and both are overwhelmingly respectful of their subjects. Both are films you ought to see.


Editor's Note: Review of "12 Years a Slave," directed by Steve McQueen (no — not the blue-eyed blond of Great Escape fame). Plan B Productions, 2013, 135 minutes.



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Lincoln: A President Lies, and People Cheer

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Abraham Lincoln is one of the most complex presidents in American history. For over a century he was revered as our most important president, after George Washington. Recently his star has been tarnished by questions about his motives and tactics. Most Americans are surprised to learn that Lincoln was a Republican, because Democrats today love to accuse Republicans of racism. Nevertheless, it was the Republicans in Congress who supported the 13th Amendment, enfranchised the slaves, and squelched states' rights, while Democrats remained firmly on the other side of the aisle. Was Lincoln a forward-thinking civil rights advocate who restored a nation to wholeness, or was he merely a politician playing the race card to win the war and create a whole new constituency of former slaves?

Steven Spielberg's ambitious Lincoln tries to answer some of these questions. It is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2005), a book that focuses on Lincoln's conciliatory spirit and determination to work with cabinet members he selected from among those who had opposed him in the 1860 election. This forgiving nature is what I admire most about Lincoln. His beatific "When I make them my friends, am I not destroying my enemies?", said in response to those who wanted to continue punishing the South after the war had ended, is a quotation that guides my life.

Lincoln is so determined to see the 13th Amendment pass before the war ends that he resorts to corruption and deception.

The film, however, focuses less on conciliation than on politics as-would-become-usual. Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) works relentlessly to shepherd (some would say "push") the 13th Amendment through Congress in the waning days of the Civil War. Support for the amendment, which would outlaw slavery, was divided along party lines; Republicans favored it, but did not have enough votes to pass it, and Democrats were against it.

Although many Americans were ready to end the buying and selling of slaves, few were ready for further developments that might proceed from abolition. "What would happen if four million colored men are granted the vote?" one cabinet member asks rhetorically. "What would be next? Votes for women?" But Lincoln knew that his war-weary citizenry would do anything for a truce, even grant equal rights to former slaves, so he convinces them that ratifying the amendment would force the South into surrendering.

Lincoln makes a compelling argument for why the Emancipation Proclamation was only a stopgap wartime measure. Ironically, slaves were freed under a law identifying them as "property seized during war." The Emancipation Proclamation did not actually end slavery; in fact, it had to acknowledge the property status of slaves. Since rebels residing inside the southern states were at war, not the states themselves, after the war ended state laws would still be in force, including laws permitting slavery, or so he complains. A constitutional amendment would be necessary to end slavery for good. Lincoln claims that southern voters would be unlikely to ratify such an amendment, passing it and ratifying it before the war ended was essential.

The movie’s position on this seems strange, given that, as losers in the war, all state officials under the Confederacy would be turned out of office, with no legislative authority. Once the South surrendered, the Union lost no time in selecting new officials who would make and enforce new laws. In fact, Lincoln’s program for reconstruction was to install governments in the Southern states that would ratify the amendment, and this policy was followed by President Johnson.

Nevertheless, Lincoln is so determined to see the amendment pass before the war ends that he resorts to corruption and deception. He enlists a group of unscrupulous patronage peddlers to promise political jobs and appointments to lame-duck Democrats if they will promise to vote for the amendment. They add piles of cash to sweeten the deals, and the votes start piling up too. The group is headed by a bilko artist with the unlikely name of "Bilbo" (James Spader). All of their scenes are accompanied by comical music to make us laugh at their outrageously funny and effective techniques. Aren't they clever as they connive to buy votes?

In addition to buying votes for his amendment, Lincoln also resorts to outright lying. When Jefferson Davis sends emissaries to discuss a negotiated peace while the amendment is coming to a vote, Lincoln knows that some of his "negotiated support" is likely to change, and the amendment is likely to fail. Consequently, he sends a letter denying any knowledge of the peace delegation from Richmond, even though this is clearly a lie. He sends this note with a flourish and a chuckle — and the audience in my theater cheered. I was disheartened that they didn't feel the same shame I felt when I saw a president of the United States deliberately lie to get his way. But I wasn't surprised. It's what we expect today.

In case you haven't noticed this yourself, I will spell it out: the tactics for pushing the 13th Amendment as shown in Spielberg's Lincoln are almost identical to the tactics used by Obama to pass his healthcare bill. Each was sponsoring a highly controversial bill with far-reaching consequences; each had a Congress divided along party lines; each used high pressure arm-twisting, political patronage, and outright lies to accomplish his goals; and each met vociferous opposition after the bill was passed. Why? Because they both chose expediency over integrity. Persuasion and education were needed, not force and deception. When expediency rules, tyranny reigns.

What I have written here makes the film seem much more interesting than it actually is. My thoughts about writing this review kept me engaged; you probably won't have that advantage. Daniel Day-Lewis creates a masterfully crafted Lincoln and deserves all the accolades he is gathering for the title role. But it is not a very engaging movie. Playwright Tony Kushner, who wrote the script, is more comfortable writing for the stage, and it shows. The pacing is ponderously slow, and the script, though elegant, is dialogue-heavy. In short, the film is all talk and no action. That's OK for a 90-minute stage play, but not for a three-hour film on a gigantic screen. I'm also skeptical about his accuracy, based on the biases that appear in other works.

When expediency rules, tyranny reigns.

There is also surprisingly little dramatic conflict for a film that takes place during the height of the costliest war in our history. We see the effects of war in the form of dead and mutilated soldiers, but we never see examples or effects of slavery; in fact, all the black characters in this film are well-dressed and well-spoken, and except for the soldiers, they sit and socialize with the whites. If a viewer didn't already know the history of slavery in America, he would have to wonder, what's the complaint? On either side? Moreover, the "bad guys" are being invaded by a superpower, while the "good guys" are lying and buying votes. So how does that fit our usual expectation of heroes and villains?

I'm also offended by the deliberate racebaiting in this film, and indeed in several films and Broadway shows I have seen in the past couple of years. Why is it OK to add "for a white person" (followed by self-deprecating chuckles and head-nodding from the audience) when describing someone's physical appearance or personal attributes? I thought we gave up saying "for a [colored] person" long ago. Haven't we finally come to a place where we can just stop noticing race and gender? Why do pollsters and educators continue to divide people by ethnicity? It's time to just burn that race card and bury it. Economics and education are at the root of inequity today, not race.

Lincoln tries to be an important film, and in one respect it is — as a cautionary tale for today. But it falls short — even though it's way too long.


Editor's Note: Review of "Lincoln," directed by Steven Spielberg. DreamWorks Pictures, 2012, 149 minutes.



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Bowdlerizing Huck

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Professor Alan Gribben, who teaches at Auburn University in Montgomery, has introduced a sanitized version of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Controversy has gathered around this latest incarnation of the novel because of its substitution of the word “slave” for the “n-word.” Somehow lost in the controversy is the editor’s decision to change “Injun” to “Indian.” At any rate, Gribben’s book has become a media sensation and has resurrected long-buried arguments over the legacy and import of one of American literature’s greatest works.

So much has been made of the words “political correctness” that it is difficult to know just what meaning they retain. If they mean anything, surely they apply to Gribben’s editing, which seeks to satisfy modern taste and decorum at the expense of accurate knowledge about the past. Of course the novel is problematic — American history is problematic — but erasing problems of the past will do little to aid our understanding of history and culture in the present and future. In light of the number of scholars working at the intersection of race and culture, America today hardly risks, as it once did, suffering from historical amnesia. Yet bowdlerizing texts could affect the way we remember racial history.

One thing that Twain probably wanted his novel to do was address the multivalence of racism by viewing it through the eyes of a young boy. Doing so would allow him to critique Southern race relations while avoiding offense. This unfortunate edition undercuts Twain’s critique.

None can challenge the idea that the “n-word” is hurtful and strong. But editing it out of Huck Finn, however understandable and well-meaning the effort may be, simply removes the book from its social and historical context. It is an historical text — not just a delightful work of fiction. It follows that reading the actual text can give us insights into the past.

Twain’s prose mimicked the vernacular of folks in the Mississippi valley. What other word than the n-word would someone in Huck’s time and place have used to refer to black people? Apparently the editor thinks the answer to that question is “slave.” But of course, this is nonsense, as even a cursory acquaintance with contemporary documents will show. Like many if not most of Twain’s contemporaries, the characters in his novel use the n-word casually. Examining its use is more than an exploration of authorial intent. It is studying a way of life in a world in which some people are grappling to overcome the racism that others casually accept. Twain’s book has that overcoming as its goal. Twain’s use of the “n-word” is ironic. He isn’t endorsing the word. He’s criticizing it. The way the n-word is used in Huck Finn shows very clearly Twain himself never would have applauded that word in “real” life.

Of course the novel is problematic — American history is problematic.

If Huck Finn is a narrative seeking out racial understanding — and this is a plausible and common reading — then Gribben’s editing undermines themes of racial and cultural understanding. Jim, a black slave and a principal character in the novel, is a courageous and complex figure. His place in Southern culture — both the fictional culture of the novel and the real one upon which the novel was based — is critically compromised by a whitewashing of the offensive diction that he is forced to confront.

Huck is also a complex character. The n-word may mean one thing to Huck at the beginning of the book, but it means something different to him at the end. At first, Huck never considers what the word might signify to Jim, but as Huck himself develops as a personality, and as his bond with Jim grows stronger, he begins to think, well, differently. Huck decides to “steal Jim out of slavery” despite his belief that he’ll go to hell for doing so (“All right then, I’ll go to hell,” he says). That grave decision seems less morally significant when Huck’s culture becomes, with the sweep of an eraser, less racist than it actually was.

It will not do to pretend that distasteful epithets did not exist in history. Nor will it do to sugarcoat history or historical texts in order to validate one man’s legacy, even if that man is a cultural and literary father figure (Faulkner called Twain the “father of American literature”). Twain hardly needs us to validate his legacy, especially since his sophistication is apparently far beyond that of today’s editors, who seem to miss the irony and criticism with which he loads his words.

I suppose the editor has a point when he claims to want to avoid teaching children that the n-word is OK, because Twain used it. But this little touch up — substituting “slave” for the n-word — risks undoing the racial tension in the novel and in the culture that influenced Twain. The deepest understandings come from investigating tensions. Even Huck learns that, as he challenges racism in subtle and nuanced ways.

We are not products of culture, but we are, all of us, influenced by it. Culture does not excuse our actions or beliefs, but it does help to explain them. Readers of Huck Finn would benefit from understanding the culture of the novel and of the novel’s author. How can we understand the present if we don’t understand the events and attitudes that shaped the present? Rather than altering Twain’s text, we should teach the novel, with all its fraught diction intact, to students who are mature enough to handle it.

The edited version of Huck Finn forces young students to skip over critical thinking about race relations in America. Yet the classroom is the very place where students are supposed to confront harsh realities and to learn from them. Isn't it the point of critical learning to hold social and cultural phenomena under a microscope, so as to understand them better? If students in schools or universities are not allowed to consider harsh truths about the past, even truths about offensive lexica, where will they learn about truths? Contemporary and popular film, television, and music are rarely good sources for learning about the past.

Changing the “n-word” to “slave” does not redeem Twain or Huck Finn — not that they need redeeming — but it does rob students of the opportunity to learn from history. Worse, it robs students of the opportunity to become, like Huck, more racially sensitive as they experience, withHuck, life on and around the Mississippi — as they read, in other words, about Huck’s gradual coming to “terms.”

That’s what this whole debate is about: coming to terms. The particular term at issue is the “n word.” The larger issue is American history. I’m not sure I would say that the bowdlerized novel sets us back, because I’m not convinced we’re moving in the right direction anymore, but I would say that blotting out history never lends itself to social progress.




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