February 6, 2014

Concerning Victimhood Comparisons

Posted in Judaism, Pop Culture at 6:48 am by chavalah

"12 Years a Slave" movie poster, featuring Chiwetel Ejiofor

“12 Years a Slave” movie poster, featuring Chiwetel Ejiofor

Admission: I have not yet seen “12 Years A Slave.” It’s an important movie, and I need to. It’s just ever since seeing “Schindler’s List” in the nineties, I’ve needed my own space and time to process a movie with the amount of constant, institutionalized violence that this one promises. I’m waiting for the DVD.

“Schindler’s List” and “12 Years A Slave,” from my admittedly unverified perspective, seems like an apt comparison when it comes to assessing blockbusters about historic, legally-sanctioned persecution against two minority groups. “The Holocaust” and “slavery” are largely seen as the two pinnacle events of brutal, wide-scale xenophobia leveled against Jews and African Americans respectively. (To be very broad about it, and not taking into account other such travesties that both spawned from or created The Big Two, and also other groups persecuted by both.) Sometimes, however, such comparisons feel hurtful.

In the wake of the massive success of “12 Years a Slave” in the box office and awards ceremonies, I’ve seen a lot of commentary about the disproportionate representation of the Holocaust both in US movies and the US history classroom, the latter of which I find baffling. I don’t mean to call anyone out as an antisemite or a liar, just going off of my own experiences. Personally, I find the general US history curriculum for school-age children to be rather weak. What I remember coming away with is mostly keywords—concentration camp, gas chamber, Anne Frank, “jude” star…plantation, whippings, Harriet Tubman, underground railroad. My increased knowledge of the nuts and bolts of the institutionalized nature of the Holocaust, its impact on my people and its place in Jewish and world history came from my mother, my religious/cultural community, survivors and my own research. And I do feel a little slighted by this accusatory comparison, not to discount that slavery is massively under-taught in most US school systems.

There is, no doubt, a disproportionate amount of Holocaust movies in the US mainstream. There seem to be key reasons for this, without resorting to victimization Olympics, some more understandable than others.

One of the big reasons the Holocaust is more accessible than slavery is because it’s still contemporary history. Survivors are still alive to share their stories. There are easily identifiable “antagonists”—leading party members of the Third Reich with their goals and agenda, including the Final Solution and the targeting non-Jewish victims (though this is the most simplistic re-telling of the Holocaust). Also, technology from the 20th and 21st century has been much more effective at recording and preserving Holocaust primary source testimony. (But check out the Library of Congress for access to slave narratives collected in the 1930s.)

A more problematic reason for the seesaw between Holocaust movies and slavery movies in Hollywood is that the former event largely casts the United States in a positive light, whereas the latter is one of our country’s worst and long-lasting human rights offenses in history. If there was one, big reason for the dearth of slavery stories in our cinema, I’d wager it has more to do with discomfort about airing the worst of our communal dirty laundry, rather than “but then we’d be losing out on another Holocaust movie.”

All this being said, I’m an advocate for more slavery movies and less Holocaust ones in the future. Not only for more honest, fair treatment of the African American experience, but for Jews and other Holocaust victims as well. I feel that we’re so over-saturated with Holocaust movies that they’re no longer as accurate a portrayal. When Kate Winslet jokes “I told you to do a Holocaust movie” for easy access to an acting award, then I think we’ve lost perspective. We’ve drained this horrific event of its horror and human empathy.

I’d actually been on the fence about making this post, given the highly sensitive nature of these subjects. But then something happened today on Facebook—an acquaintance invoked “Goodwin’s Law”— a vernacular term meant to stem blithe comparisons between Hitler/Nazis and anyone/thing you happen to dislike—in regards to someone else mentioning, offhand, that people were killed in the Holocaust. The Holocaust has officially lost enough meaning in some public consciousness so as to erase its VICTIMS. That’s pretty terrifying. (Another apt comparison—glib remarks about how any hardship is akin to slavery. Lots of similarities here.)

My main point is that I think it’s hurtful, wrong, and ultimately self-defeating to compete with “victimization” stories. Both of these events have their unique (yet often similar) challenges within US and worldwide consciousness, and both deserve thoughtful and thorough review.

Happy Black History Month. Am hopeful that recent films such as “12 Years A Slave,” “The Butler,” and “Fruitvale Station” will raise awareness and pop culture representation of African American issues. Best of luck to the first in the Academy Awards, airing on March 2!

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