Thanks to Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave Richard Cohen, a Washington Post columnist born and raised in the Confederate backwoods of New York City who went on to attend segregated and backwards institutions like NYU and Columbia, has finally learned that slavery was a very bad thing. "I sometimes think I have spent years unlearning what I learned earlier in my life," he wrote in Tuedsay's paper. "Much more important, slavery was not a benign institution in which mostly benevolent whites owned innocent and grateful blacks."
Thanks to the film, Cohen learned that slave owners were not "mostly nice people," that abolitionist Harriett Beecher Stowe was not a "demented propagandist," and that blacks were not "content" with being raped, whipped and dehumanized. Somewhere in this post-racial country a man is ironing his Klan gown under a Confederate flag and saying "Well, even I knew that."
But let's ignore Cohen baffling pose of stultifying ignorance for a moment. This is, after all, the man who argued against the idea that the shooting death of Trayvon Martin could have possibly, maybe, might of had something to do with race. That event didn't challenge his views on race, but a movie is speeding up his education (only 153 more years of American history to go!). He is a perfect example of how even the most closed off minds can be enlightened by this year's films dealing with race and black history — 12 Years a Slave, Fruitvale Station, The Butler, 42, Blue Caprice, and the upcoming Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom — which last week Vanity Fair columnist James Wolcott argued are doing a better job of starting the "national conversation on race" than the shooting of Trayvon Martin.
The problem with that conversation is that it consists of a lot of usually clever people simply stating the obvious. In 2013 we should be able to discuss race in a way that's more nuanced than "Slavery was bad, right? Right." Cohen saw a movie depicting slavery and wrote an essay (in 2013!) on how slavery was bad. Most critics at least knew that much, but still praise these films for simply showing how bad race relations were and still are. Wolcott's summary of the way this year's films have dealt with race is just that, a summary. "Patronized and demeaned as 'boy' long into manhood, the black male especially learns early on to mask his emotions and rein in his impulses, otherwise down comes the lash, up goes the lynch rope," Wolcott wrote. Yes, black people, especially black men, have been taught to be cautious of white authority. And?
Pointing out the obvious is necessary, especially for all the Richard Cohen's of the world who still Stowe's sincerity, but going beyond that is what connects the past to the present. Angel Evans wondered on PolicyMic whether a scene in The Butler, when a mother admonishes her son for joining the Black Panthers, doesn't downplay that aspect of the Civil Rights movement and current black activism. Orville Lloyd Douglas at The Guardian wondered when we were going to get a film featuring black stories that don't revolve around real-life slaves, butlers or maids (all the films previously mentioned were based on real people). People disagree with them, but the point is they've moved beyond judging films on race by how well they portray race relations. "Regardless of your race, these films are unlikely to teach you anything you don't already know," Douglas wrote.
Comparing Evans and Douglas' pieces to Cohen's is like comparing a graduate student's thesis on how free access to preschool helps inner city youths to a preschooler's essay on why they like recess. They, like most people, already knew that slavery was bad and moved beyond that. They didn't need a movie released in 2013 to tell them that.