12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013)

12 yearsIt was like a scene from middle of the previous century, like something from an old civil rights documentary. A column of angry marchers – mostly male, uniformly caucasian – carrying torches and chanting racist slogans, converging on an American town. But this wasn’t dusty archival footage; this happened in 2017, five months before I write this. The animus behind this gathering of far-right groups was the planned removal of a statue from a local park, a statue of Confederate military leader Robert E. Lee. So just what sort of society was it that these extremists were so intent on venerating the memory of?

12 Years a Slave is the story of a real man, Solomon Northrup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a 19th century resident of New York state who was lured by a false promise of employment, kidnapped and illegally sold into slavery in the American South. He is purchased by a man named William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), then, after an altercation with Ford’s overseer, sold to the sadistic Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), all the while struggling to find a means to communicate his situation to his contacts in New York.

12 Years a Slave is a breathtaking work – literally. I could barely breathe throughout most of the film. It is painful to watch, but necessary – highlighting a time in our nation’s history that has set the stage for the enduring structural racism we see today as well as the cultural and individual racism. Ta-Nehisi Coates often writes about how we are a nation based on “pillage and plunder” – this powerful cinematic work brings that squarely to light. The film was directed by Steve McQueen, who I recently learned spent time in Iraq as an official artist documenting the horror of the war there. I mention this because I think McQueen is deft at depicting endless, brutal violence as both horrific and somehow mundane – the fabric of everyday existence under slavery.\

Lupita Nyong’o is brilliant in this film as Patsey, a favored slave who can outperform the men and pick over 500 pounds of cotton in a day. Epps regularly rapes and abuses Patsey, and this is exceedingly painful for Northrup to witness. In the book Northrup actually wrote about his life, he talks about Patsey’s indefatigable spirit in the face of such monstrous trauma and violence, dubbing her “the queen of the fields.” While little is known about her life after Northrup left her company, there are many who hope that the film’s notoriety will lead more historians to research this important figure and learn about her life. This is part of what makes films like 12 Years a Slave so vital in the cultural milieu.

Epps is the principle villain of this movie, but the character I find myself returning to in my thoughts is Cumberbatch’s Ford. While both are slave masters, they’re very different men. Were he to live in another time and place, Epps’ psychopathy may not be so easily expressed, but he would obviously still be a real jerk. He’s a bad person. Ford, on the other hand, perhaps not a ‘bad person’. Nothing he does is outside what is sanctioned by- even expected by- the society in which he lives. Unlike Epps, he has no appetite for wanton cruelty, and expresses real concern for Northrup’s safety. I bring this up not to somehow condone or excuse his actions- he is absolutely engaging in something that is fundamentally inhumane and evil. He is the embodiment of the moral blind spots we as individuals develop when society sanctions that which any outside observer would see as indefensible.

The film opens with text indicating it as a true story. As mentioned, Solomon Northrup was a real historical figure. As an avowed critical thinker, I am required to mention that Northrup wrote the account of his enslavement with a distinctly persuasive motivation. As such it is, by definition, propaganda. So, should it be considered fact? First, as I understand it, modern researchers have corroborated the aspects of the story that could be checked out. Furthermore, although it may never be possible to fact-check every detail of the story, the things he described are a part of the historical record of slavery. Not to mention denying them would contradict my understanding of human nature itself. So, yes, I am fully willing to accept Northrup’s story as real.

On to a less emotionally fraught observation. The dialogue in the movie has sort of an archaic feel to it. It seemed, to my modern ears, a bit formal, almost stiff. As I understand it, we don’t know exactly people talked in times before modern sound recording. Of course we have examples of written language and transcribed speech, mostly from formal settings. What would a typical American English conversation have sounded like in the 1840s? Was the dialogue authentic to the time? Was is an attempt to recreate language from the source literature? Or was it a conscious artistic choice?

I appreciate Mouse bringing up the moral blind spots we develop when society condones behaviors. This is something I thought about a lot with this film, and have also with others. I have asked myself, if you had been there, what would you have done? How much would you have been willing to risk? What can you and will you risk now in the face of injustice? I think it’s really valuable to have films like this that can push us to ask those questions.

Interesting, too – I didn’t have the same reaction to the speech that Mouse did, but I think it was because I watched this entire film with so much horror and discomfort and sadness and disgust. Perhaps in that way I was distracted.

I also now really want to read Northrup’s book about his life. I wanted to learn as much as I could about the life of Patsey. As I said above, films like this also help drive historians to do work like uncovering more about her. That is invaluable. I hope for a world in which we have more films telling these stories, which we must never forget. They inform where we are now every single day. We are a country founded and built on white supremacy and violence. We can’t ever let that reality fade from our understanding of the current culture.

I do try to actually make this blog about movies, not just my views on everything that goes on in the world. And I think I’ve made the case that history is indeed complex, that it’s impossible to judge those in the past by today’s standards. That being said, I’ll close with this: If you think the world depicted in this movie is something to romanticize, then I see no need to accept your position as legitimate. And if this truly is a world you want to take us back toward, then as far as I’m concerned you can go burn in hell with all your heroes.

Spoken truly like the man I married. I’d close by saying it is incumbent on people in this country who are white to teach this sick, brutal history to our children, to factor it in to all our political analyses today, and to use it as fuel to put our bodies on the line when we see white supremacist violence in action today. It is still very much alive, even if its form has shifted. I trust that years from now our great-great-great grandchildren will watch a movie about racial injustice and violence that is occurring RIGHT NOW on our watch with the same horror with which we view this film.

This work serves as a much-needed reminder. We need those – desperately. Let’s do all we can to finance such projects, preserve them, and disseminate them.

Also nominated in 2013:
American Hustle
Captain Philips
Dallas Buyers Club
The Wolf of Wall Street

Next film: AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999)



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