Archive for slavery

BEN-HUR (1959)

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 12, 2019 by cdascher

Ben_hur_1959_posterThis film came with a reputation – of being, shall we say, a lot. I had never seen Ben-Hur and part of why I delayed watching it was that I knew it would be long. Also, my completist partner in crime wanted to not just watch one version – no, we chose to watch THREE. This included the 1959 film this blog is about, the 1925 silent film, of which the ‘59 film was essentially a remake, and a fifteen minute short from the early 1900s. 

I can truly say I got a good sense for Ben-Hur, though I didn’t read the book or check out the comic. There are a few things that really stood out to me about this drama, which depicts conflict when the Romans in their quest for empire take over Judea, causing tension among friends. Chiefly, we follow the story of Judah Ben-Hur, who is a wealthy Jewish prince and merchant from Jerusalem who becomes ensnared in conflict, along with his mother and sister, because of a misunderstanding around a fallen tile from his roof and his own outspoken nature. He is proud of his Jewish faith in a time when the Romans were having none of it. 

When he is taken in as a prisoner of the Romans, he becomes a galley slave for five years. He’s assigned eventually to the Roman Consul Arrius and saves his life after there is an attack on their ship by the Macedonians. Judah prevents him from falling on his sword (more than just a saying in this cinematic journey!), and to show his gratitude, Arrius petitions Tiberius to free Judah and adopt him as a son. Judah spends a year in Rome, enjoying prestige and learning how to chariot race – eventually being asked by an Arab sheik to return to his home of Jerusalem to race in front of the new governor of Judea Pontius Pilate against his old friend Messala (the man responsible for getting him imprisoned). When I speak of the things that stood out for me, though, there are really two: chariot racing and leprosy. 

It felt so sad and uncomfortable to watch how the characters with leprosy were dealt with and I wondered what form that would take in our world and our time. I suppose there are similar kinds of situations, where people are shunned and pushed to the outskirts, but when it comes to human contact being that impossible, I don’t know if there’s anything that can quite compare. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have a loved one in that position, and so I must say I remained fairly fixated on that the whole time. We also watched all three versions of this film to get a good sense of it, including the earliest silent version. I love Judah’s character, and I really liked watching the ways in which the different films handling the Jesus representation – particularly decisions to show his body/face or not in various moments. 

Mouse and I also had a lot of conversations about the chariot racing – namely, about how the animals were treated. Mouse knows more about this, but it is my understanding from him that there were many different approaches to documenting this for the different versions. I mostly kept looking at the horses to ascertain, as a former horse girl, whether or not it seemed they felt true terror.  Continue reading

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12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013)

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 4, 2018 by cdascher

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.\ Continue reading