David Simon, creator of the outstanding TV series “Homicide: Life on the Streets” and the excellent cable series “The Wire” and “Treme,” went to see the movie “12 Years a Slave” — twice.
He liked the movie on its own merits:
On first viewing, I was simply startled by how genuinely fair the storytelling had been with the subject matter. Sadism and soullessness was balanced by moments of regret and conscience on the part of white characters. Accomodation and supplication on the part of Southern slaves was punctuated by moments of desperate courage and dignity.
On second viewing — with me in a darkened theater with a big screen, looking for the rough seams and filmic dishonesties — I emerged thinking precisely the same about this remarkable work. This film didn’t cheat our national history. It didn’t allude to horror, nor did it revel in it. It marks the first time in history that our entertainment industry, albeit with international creative input, has managed to stare directly at slavery and maintain that gaze.
Everyone who had anything to do with this film getting made — from the producers, to director Steve McQueen, and the committed, talented cast — should sleep tonight and every night knowing that for once, the escapism, bluster and simple provocation that marks a good 95 percent of our film output has been somehow flanked, and subversively so.
But he also discerned a larger truth that is relevant not just for film buffs but for all Americans:
Anyone who acquires the narrative of 12 Years A Slave and finds it within his shrunken heart to continue any argument for the sanctity and perfection of our Founding Fathers, for the moral wisdom of their compromised document of national ideal that begins the American experience, or for their anachronistic or historically understandable tolerance of slavery — they are arguing from a desolate, amoral corner.
If original intent included the sadism and degradation of human slavery, then original intent is a legal and moral standard that can be consigned to the ash heap of human history. Hardcore conservatives and libertarians who continue to parse the origins of the Constitutions under the guise of returning to a more perfect American union are on a fool’s journey to decay and dishonor. …
In the echo of this film, the continuing call for a strict construction of our national codes and a devotion to the precise, original ideas of the long-dead men who crafted those codes in another human age, rings hollow and sick and shameful.
“Desolate, amoral, hollow, sick and shameful” fit Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia like a bespoke suit, his occasional good work on behalf of the First Amendment notwithstanding.