Though Steve McQueen’s latest film debuted less than three weeks ago, it feels safe to say that we now live in a post-12 Years a Slave era. The black British director, a descendant of Caribbean slaves, put forth a vision of “the peculiar institution” so harrowingly realistic and so convincingly nuanced that his film sets a new standard for what every subsequent slavery movie should look like and do. It’s also easy to imagine that McQueen’s film will be the image of slavery this generation will have as a reference point when it inevitably ends up in high-school history classes all over America.
Challenging 12 Years a Slave’s near-guaranteed hegemony – and taking advantage of the current “slavery trend” that Deadline identifies, between Django Unchained, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Lincoln, and McQueen’s masterpiece – is the History Channel’s planned remake of Roots. The 1977 miniseries was enormously influential, seen in whole or in part by eight-five percent of all homes with televisions during the initial airing.
Home to UFO Hunters and Pawn Stars, however, the History Channel’s past programming inspires little confidence that it can do justice to the original. But the larger question is whether TV can do justice to the dehumanizing brutality of slavery.
I first started thinking about this after rewatching 12 Years a Slave and wondering whether there could ever be a period show with ambitions for historical accuracy, a la Downton Abbey, that took place in the antebellum South. And the answer is a simple no, for the obvious reason that it’d be too fucking depressing. The finite length of a film or a TV miniseries makes all the tragedy bearable, because it’ll end for us, even if it never ends for them.
But even a miniseries on cable will encounter difficulties in fully capturing the intensity and the relentlessness and the savagery of slavery’s physical and psychological violence. Cable networks are regulated by much lighter censorship than their network siblings, but they’re still regulated. To spoil very little, the N-word is thrown around in 12 Year a Slave, oh, maybe two hundred billion times over the course of two hours, mostly at black characters by white characters. (Because of the changing definition and connotations of the N-word depending on its speaker and the intended audience, censors seem more willing to let pass its usage when a show’s character is black, e.g., on Chapelle’s Show.)
Thus, a cable version of Roots is unlikely to contain the kind of violence and language that earned 12 Years a Slave its R rating. Yet part of the film’s point – and likely, its legacy – is its refusal to flinch away from the ruthlessness of slave society and the moral compromises even the noblest slaves have to make. The explicitness of the violence is McQueen’s message: This is what it was really like. The filmmaker and writer John Ridley initially had trouble finding a suitable story to tell about slavery, but it’s no coincidence, I think, that he chose a real-life story to bolster the film’s claims to authenticity and truthfulness. And a cable network simply can’t show the kind of scenes that make 12 Years a Slave such a necessarily hard-to-stomach experience. (HBO would be a different story, obviously, but they also have execs with much better taste than those at History.)
I’m not saying categorically that slave stories shouldn’t be told on the small screen. My guess would be that most Americans, myself included, know much too little about slavery as is. But the topic is so important and so sensitive and so crucial to get just right that it deserves much better than the opportunistic hack job this Roots reboot looks like right now. And god knows black actors could use the work. But in a post-12 Years a Slave culture, the standards for what a slave story should look like, in all its revolting, nauseating depravity, might be beyond what TV can currently offer.