I sometimes think I have spent years unlearning what I learned earlier in my life. For instance, it was not George A. Custer who was attacked at the Little Bighorn. It was Custer -- in a bad career move -- who attacked the Indians. Much more importantly, slavery was not a benign institution in which mostly benevolent whites owned innocent and grateful blacks. Slavery was a lifetime's condemnation to an often violent hell in which people were deprived of life, liberty and, too often, their own children. Happiness could not be pursued after that.
Steve McQueen's stunning movie "12 Years a Slave" is one of those unlearning experiences. I had to wonder why I could not recall another time when I was so shockingly confronted by the sheer barbarity of American slavery. Instead, beginning with school, I got a gauzy version. I learned that slavery was wrong, yes, that it was evil, no doubt, but really, that many blacks were sort of content. Slave owners were mostly nice people -- fellow Americans, after all -- and the sadistic Simon Legree was the concoction of that demented propagandist, Harriet Beecher Stowe. Her "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was a lie and she never -- and this I remember clearly being told -- had ventured south to see slavery for herself. I felt some relief at that because it meant that Tom had not been flogged to death.
But in the novel, he had. And of course, slavery was not only incomprehensibly cruel -- it had to have had consequences. You can see those consequences in this marvelous, harrowing and concussively powerful movie. Families are broken up -- not just like that, with a casual statement of fact, but with a rending of garments and an awful pain and a tearing of the soul. A mother cries for her children and the wife of the slave owner tells her, in effect, to get over it: Time heals all wounds. Not so. Generations later, the hurt lingers.
There is nothing of "12 Years a Slave" in "Gone with the Wind." It is not the fetching and lovely Scarlett who whips her slaves and sells their children off so she can buy a ball gown in nearby Atlanta. It is not her father who goes to the slave market and leeringly examines naked women. It is no one in that lying picture who insists that the slaves remain illiterate -- learning being, as we all know, a dangerous thing. "12 Years a Slave" has finally rendered "Gone with the Wind" irrevocably silly and utterly tasteless, a cinematic bodice ripper. McQueen's movie has more than a little unlearning in it.
It has been decades since the gauze was removed to show the horror of American slavery. I know more than I once did, maybe more than most and maybe more than I like. Still, McQueen does something daring. He doesn't focus on an institution or, as in Quentin Tarantino's somewhat cartoonish "Django Unchained," on cruel whites but on the effect of slavery on a single black man. In "12 Years a Slave" that man is Solomon Northup, the author of the best-selling book upon which this movie is based.
Northup was a musician living in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. He was a free man until, in 1841, he was lured to Washington, D.C., and -- with the Capitol looming in the background -- sold into slavery. The heightened poignancy of his tale comes from the fact that he was not a slave yearning for something he never had but a man deprived of what was once his -- his home, his wife, his children and, pertinently, his freedom. He goes from being a human being to a blotted entry on a ledger. We can all connect to that. At the same time, we connect less with the slaves he left behind when he was freed. He is restored to the life he once had. They remain with the life they have always had.
"12 Years a Slave" is art at its highest, not just on account of mastery or talent but because of what it makes yesterday say about today. We obscured, we covered up -- we made the past conform to the present and insisted that hurt or pain had no right to persist, as if family tales told at the kitchen table dissipate when the silverware is put away. As a nation, we like to look pretty, but sometimes we weren't. The grave obligation of art is to show us what we look like. McQueen, has held up a mirror. God, we look ugly.
Richard Cohen is a columnist for The Washington Post.
By RICHARD COHEN