Colbert Introduces McQueen to the Lost Cause

In this interview with 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen, Steven Colbert finds a way to both playfully diffuse and explore Lost Cause themes related to slavery. At the beginning of the interview he comments, “I’ve heard the move makes slavery look really bad.” Later after sharing that he is from South Carolina Colbert admits to having learned that “I grew up hearing that some slaves enjoyed…the job security…” The audience laughs in response, but they do so unaware of the fact that there are plenty of people who still subscribe to the Lost Cause belief that slavery was benign.

While I suspect that Colbert is consciously referencing the impact of the Lost Cause on how Americans remember slavery, what is hard to determine is whether McQueen picks up on it. One gets the sense that he simply views Colbert’s comments as outrageous.

Interestingly, I have not heard anyone from the Southern Heritage crowd complain about the depiction of slavery in this movie. Perhaps the movie is still in limited release or there is a unwillingness to challenge a film that is so closely based on a slave narrative.

Civil War Memory has moved to Substack! Don’t miss a single post. Subscribe below.

11 comments… add one
  • Pat Young Nov 21, 2013 @ 7:53

    I did like the fact that Colbert asked McQueen to apologize for the British treatment of the Irish. That was a nice take on the responsibility of contemporary citizens for historic wrongs.

    • London John Nov 22, 2013 @ 2:12

      I can’t play the video, but I’d certainly like to know how McQueen replied. I abhor violence, but a punch in the mouth might have been the most appropriate response. It is grossly impertinent, as well as racist, for a White American to ask a Black Briton to apologize for British treatment of White people who happen to have a lot of co-ethnics in the US. I’ll try to kep down to a few points.
      (1) Steve McQ is the descendent of West Indian slaves – victims of a greater crime than anything the British did to White people.
      (2) All White Americans are beneficiaries of the genocide of the Native Americans, even if their first ancestors arrived in the US after the wet work was over.
      (3) “You should see what we did in India”. ie if you know anything about the British Empire in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean, then what was done in Ireland must come pretty low down the list of atrocities. There are, of course, hundreds at least of books on the subject, but I think Late Victorian Holocausts by Mike Davis is particularly worth reading.
      (4) Why is it only the Irish, particularly the diaspora, who have made victimhood central to their self-perception? I understand some Irish-Americans describe themselves as “5th generation Famine survivors”. I have been very close to several Bengalis who were alive, some as adults, during the Bengal Famine that killed 6 million people under British rule in 1942, but none has ever described themselves as a Famine survivor. In fact none of the many people from former British colonies that I know expresses a sense of historical victimhood. On the other hand, White middle-class Englishpersons can transform themselves from historical perpetrators to victims just by calling themselves as “Irish”.
      (5) Do you think contemporary Irish-Americans have “responsibility” for the Draft Riots and other 19thC crimes by Irish immigrants against African-Americans?

      • Matt McKeon Nov 22, 2013 @ 6:27

        I don’t see any virtue is “dueling” atrocities. It smacks of “my piles of corpses is bigger than yours.” Does it make sense to say, “stop moaning about slavery, because it wasn’t as bad as the Holocaust?” Of course not.

        As far as the Irish are concerned, to characterize them as “white” “middle class” or uniquely aware of past grievances is not borne out by the historical record.

      • ryan.morson Nov 22, 2013 @ 6:30

        Colbert was JOKING.

        “Only the Irish have made victimhood central to their self-perception”?

        As an Irish American, I’d be happy to punch you in your mouth.

  • Corey Meyer Nov 20, 2013 @ 16:58

    Backsass has posted a review of the movie that did not agree with slavery’s depiction.

    • Forester Nov 20, 2013 @ 18:28

      Uh, link? I only saw her repost someone else’s review. I kinda would like to know what Connie thought of it. As far as I know she hasn’t seen it.

      I got free tickets from my school, but haven’t used them yet because I want to finish the book I downloaded an audiobook of it from Librivox and am halfway through it. I do look forward to the movie though. Just as a narrative, it recalls “Pinocchio” and is a good story. I know nothing about the accuracy of the book.

      However, I will see anything with Bennedict Cumberbatch in it. I’m a fan of his from “Sherlock” on the BBC. He’s the only reason I saw “Star Trek into Darkness,” as I’m not happy with the current interpretation of Star Trek (give me the old series any day). But I digress. From the previews, “12 Years a Slave” looks like a well-made movie and I think anyone interested in the period should want to see it, even if they disagree with it.

  • Forester Nov 20, 2013 @ 15:31

    The movie falls into the category of “its a true story even if it never happened.” Sure the film adds stuff and exaggerates, but it’s conveying the message of how bad the overall institution was. One could argue that the movie makes slavery look “worse” than it was, but then they’re stuck trying to defend slavery (and not many people are stupid enough to get caught in that trap).

  • Matt McKeon Nov 20, 2013 @ 15:12

    One of our latter day Confederates at Civil War Talk has tried to call into question Northrup’s original book. Other than that, I haven’t heard anything.

  • Ben Allen Nov 20, 2013 @ 14:46

    I think the “Southern Heritage crowd” isn’t complaining because (a) they believe slavery was wrong for the most part and (b) this movie does not portray “the peculiar institution” as the chief cause of the American Civil War. After all, the story ends almost a decade before the conflict’s beginning.

    The motion picture was released nationally on the first of this month.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 20, 2013 @ 17:36

      Yes, but there are a few references to future national reckoning over the issue of slavery.

      • Bryan Cheeseboro Nov 22, 2013 @ 9:33

        Ben and Kevin,
        Your exchange here about this slavery-themed movie’s distance from the Civil War and the lack of response from the Southern Heritage crowd makes me think about the miniseries North & South that ran on ABC back in the mid-1980s (Actually, it was three separate prgrams- North & South; North & South: Book II and Heaven and Hell, the latter released in 1993).

        While it was dramatic and entertaining, the series cannot be considered a good source for accurate history. Still, North & South, the first series, didn’t do a bad job in showing how the issue of slavery deeply divided the country, politically and socially. But I noticed in N&S Book II that connections to the Confederacy and slavery were greatly minimized or denied outright. I noticed that all of the Confederate characters you were supposed to like verbally started WHY they were fighting for the South and the issue was always anything but slavery. I’ve noticed this occurring in a number of Civil War films. Preserving slavery is left to only the evil characters in the program. In the long run, I think this kind of portrayal is very damaging because it says, “being a slaveowner makes you an evil person.”

Leave a Reply to ForesterCancel reply

Your email address will not be published.