There is a famous Billie Holiday song called Strange Fruit (written by Abel Meeropol). It's a powerful and savage indictment of lynching and Southern racism. It's acknowledged as a classic and a milestone and it is to be admired. And I admire it. Unfortunately, I also rather think it's a heap of junk.
Why? Because, although it may be an excellent polemic, it's a lousy song. There is no pleasure to be had in listening to it. It is tedious, glum and strident. I'm sure some of its adherents would argue that it shouldn't be a pleasurable experience. Such serious subject matter, they'd say, demands an equally serious (read "po-faced") treatment.
I beg to differ. To support my argument, allow me to direct you to the delightful Count Basie Jimmy Rushing number It's the Same Old South (written by Jay Gorney and Edward Eliscu, from their revue Meet the People). This is also an assault on Jim Crow laws and racist atrocities. But instead of being doleful, blunt and overblown it is sarcastic, satirical and hilarious. And its lyrics are set to a jaunty, catchy tune that will have your foot tapping.
Instead of bludgeoning us with horrors as in Strange Fruit — "Pastoral scene of the gallant South/The bulging eye and the twisted mouth" — in It's the Same Old South we are offered snarky humour: "Let the Northerners keep Niagra/We’ll stick to our Southern pellagra."
This song shows that a pitiless attack on Southern bigotry can be swinging and upbeat and fun — it doesn't have to be a painful dirge.
This brings us to my argument about 12 Years a Slave versus Django Unchained. I think Tarrantino's Django is a vastly better movie and, even though it is a prurient, overheated pulp fantasy it is a better denunciation of slavery. No, strike that. Because it is a prurient, overheated pulp fantasy it is a better denunciation of slavery.
You come out of both movies hating slavery. But with Django Unchained you are also exhilarated, uplifted, and entertained. With 12 Years a Slave you are just numbed, dulled and deadened — and quite possibly bored. This is because the film makers of 12 Years are enslaved — if you will forgive the term — by the silly and simplistic notion that form must reflect content.
Thus 12 Years a Slave must be austere, horrific, tedious and repellent, because that is the experience it depicts. I say no. I say if you want to make an effective polemic against slavery why not couch it in the form of a hugely enjoyable, utterly lurid neo-Spaghetti Western?
Why is it better to take this approach? Because you will reach a larger audience. It will also be a more receptive audience because people enjoying an art work will be more open to the ideas it conveys.
Early in Django Unchained, Christopher Waltz dismisses "That slavery malarkey." This brilliantly throw-away line is a more effective reproach than hours of explicit polemicisim.
I'm not suggesting that 12 Years could, or should, have been reconfigured as Tarrantino style pop-art action movie. But neither did it need to be so solemnly numbing and ultimately dull.
(Footnote: Amazingly the lyrics for It's the Same Old South are only available online in one place, and the geniuses who transcribed it didn't know what 'pellagra' meant, so they just invented a word. In any case, you can make a mental correction and read the lyrics here.)
(Image credits: Jimmy Rushing by great jazz photographer William P. Gottlieb is from Jazz in Photo. Billie Holiday by the equally great Don Hunstein is from Jazz Dot Com. The posters for 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained are both from the reliable Ace Show Biz.)