brad pitt 12 years a slave

There’s certain things about history that you can’t change.  It’s a historical fact that Brad Pitt’s character, Samuel Bass, in “12 Years A Slave,” helped Solomon Northrup get a letter to Saratoga, which in return helped secure his freedom. That’s a fact that can’t be changed.  But some people think over the last two years, movies based on slavery, whether fiction like “Django”, or fact, like “12 Years A Slave”,  were conveniently given the white savior treatment.  Now in the case of Pitt’s produced movie, we can say it was historically correct.  But unlike Pitt’s, Quentin Tarrantino’s movie was purely based on his imagination.

In a recent piece for Salon, Daniel Jose Older writes how the white savior phenomenon has appeared in just about every slave narrative brought to the big screen:

What would a cinematic aesthetic of American history look like without the white savior? Perhaps the myth of white American exceptionalism would begin to crumble. Filmmakers would have to struggle to find new ways of getting people of color out of tight situations. Unpredictability might ensue; creativity would thrive. Maybe we’d finally see a Harriet Tubman biopic, instead of a cheap joke video at her expense.

David Ruggles, whose audacious opposition to slavery covered decades and included direct action, legal recourses, community organizing and journalism, has all but disappeared in the shadows of history. His house was the newly escaped Frederick Douglass’ first stop upon arriving in New York City. A decade later, Ruggles saved Sojourner Truth’s life at a clinic in Northampton, Mass. He spoke about the sexual subjugation of black women and solidarity across the fault lines of gender and race, topics we wrestle with to this day. These are historical crossroads and struggles we need to know about and celebrate.

The U.S. culture machine has found the temerity to show our ugly history with brutal clarity. What resonates about slavery narratives is not just that mainstream white culture has worked so hard to avoid dealing with them; it’s that the mentality of subjugation persists in American culture. We’re still picking up the pieces, still moving from crisis to crisis. Unraveling today’s tragedies will always depend on a multilayered, intersectional understanding of our past. It’s time to let go of the same played-out savior game and unearth the lost heroic narratives of black freedom fighters.

In speaking with various friends who refused to see either “Django” or “12 Years A Slave”, many stated that they were tired of the white savior treatment movies have been receiving.  In contrast, most would definitely see a movie about Harriet Tubman, but were afraid, like Older, that some random white guy would be thrown in for good measure.

Whether random or historically accurate, it’s safe to say that these narratives could possibly be told with out white additives, but would they actually get produced? Even in reading comments left by Clutch readers, many have complained about the one-sided aspect of most slavery movies.  

Clutchettes,  if the white savior was removed or not even added, would that change your opinion about the movies? 

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  • Let’s support each other

    None of you clearly saw this film. it is the harshest portrayal of slavery and as real as it gets. It is based ona true story. What were they supposed to do? Change the story. While you folks are putting down this film, it is earning a lot of buzz because for once we have an art school black director who is the slickest director out there making this film and pulling the strings. Of course his people are just out to put him down. So disappointed. I just can’t.

  • I mean, if it is historically correct, it’s historically correct. Most people who know about slavery in the US should know that the only way a slave would be able to walk off of a plantation he was kidnapped to would be if his rightful owner came, with papers, to claim him.

    • Misty

      I never saw 12 years a slave as a white savior movie given that the movie was mostly focused on Solomon. I liked the movie, but the truth is I’m tired of most of the movies that get made with us being slavery and civil rights and then the hood and that’s it. The glamorization of Black Suffering is annoying.

  • Nadell

    Do we actually think our ancestors cared who would be the vessel used to rescue them out of slavery? By all means, I doubt it mattered to them WHO that individual would be. In a state of constant turmoil, anguish, pain, humiliation and fear for their very lives, it mattered not if a white man or woman were the person aiding them to freedom. FREEDOM is FREEDOM!
    Solomon was his own deliverer or savior. He had the faith within himself and boldness & wisdom to continue pressing forward towards what already belonged to him – his freedom. If it weren’t for his own tenacity he would have never had the strength to even make the request to Bass.
    If that is how some movie goers gathered the film then that is very disappointing.

    • MeL Fr

      i love you for this!

  • ruggie

    There were white abolitionists and, later, civil rights activists who put themselves on the line. The Quakers played an important role in the Underground Railroad. As long as the portrayal is nuanced and not over the top with the rescuer imagery, I think it’s fine.

  • LaDonna

    The white savior complex is certainly a factor in why people are tired of slavery films, but I think it’s mostly just a general annoyance with this part of our history being constantly dramatized on film. If it’s not movies about slaves, it’s movies about maids. If it’s not movies about maids, it’s movies about black folks in the hood. Don’t get me wrong, slavery is a very important part of our history and should NEVER be forgotten, but I think people want to see the whole spectrum of black experience depicted in film. The story of our captivity has been told, and told some more, and told again. That is why Best Man Holiday has been so successful – it’s just a story about us being us without race and oppression motivating our actions. If we can see more diverse representations of us on screen, maybe people wouldn’t be so turned off by slave films.

    • Missy