As much as I really, profoundly disliked and am discomfited by the rapturous reception The Help’s received in some critical quarters and at the box office, I’m less interested in the badness of this particular piece of art, and more interested in why we keep making Noble White Ladies Meet the Civil Rights Movement movies, and how we can get something different in production. Turns out, all it takes is Brad Pitt, who is adapting Twelve Years a Slave, the memoirs of Solomon Northup, a free black man who in 1841 was kidnapped, held in slave pens in Washington, DC, and sold into bondage in Louisiana. Chewitel Ejiofor (who I love, though I wonder if it’ll make a difference that he’s British rather than American) will play Northup.
I really hope this comes to fruition. We’ve see Martin Luther King Jr. biopics, including Paul Greengrass’s account of King’s support for the striking Memphis sanitation workers and his assassination getting pushed back repeatedly. And McQueen and Ejiofor were supposed to be working on a Fela biopic too, and it’s not clear what happened to that. But it would be so useful and powerful to tell a story like that that explains that the direction from slavery to freedom wasn’t always a one-way journey, that demonstrates the reaches of the vast jaws of the market for slaves, that situates bondage not just in a vanished, Spanish moss-draped Deep South, but on Mall in Washington, DC where we inaugurated the first black president.
There’s a white character in Northup’s story, the Canadian carpenter who smuggled Northup’s letters back to his wife so she’d know what happened to him. But if he comes into the story and departs it through Northup’s narrative, rather than having a movie that follows said white carpenter South and has him discover Northup, I think this movie can avoid a lot of The Help’s problems. It’s not the existence of good white people in stories about black people that’s the problem. It’s the presumption that their goodness is the most important takeaway from anti-slavery and Civil Rights narratives.