I purposely waited until saw McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave twice before writing an essay in dedication to the thought this film is responsible for provoking. I wanted to ensure that I hadn’t been beguiled by the beauty of the Louisiana setting, the intriguing melancholic score or the creative nuances that make this film easily one of the best cinematic experiences I’ve ever had.
Having said all of that, anyone who’s seen the film will agree or flounder trying to argue that the transfer of Northup’s horrifying experiences within the physical and spiritual confines of slavery from print to film wasn’t an industry clinic in screenplay and film adaptation.
But enough movie love, now for a healthy dose of relativity. As much as I love this film, I loved the fact that it was even made more. This story needed to be told on film. In all my years of thinking I was well versed in what slavery was, I never seriously extended my curiosity toward the exploration of the inhumane reality that “free” Black people were sold into slavery right on North American soil. To further illustrate; Often when we think in terms of slavery, we tend to romanticize that Black People were only kidnapped, stolen and whisked away from the shores of Africa. I was ignorant in not considering how often “free” Black People were kidnapped, stolen and whisked away from the shores of the Atlantic, renamed and sold into slavery right here in North America.
In a way that Roots, Amistad, Beloved, The Color Purple, Glory, Imitation Of Life, A Raisin In The Sun, Queen and other film depictions of Black People surviving in a disordered world at the end of the white man’s whip and under the white man’s arbitrary control, 12 Years A Slave surpasses it’s cinematographic peers. I liken it to The Passion Of The Christ in the sense that, although we have the biblical and apostolic recount of Jesus’ tortured last days on Earth; Until Mel Gibson unabashedly displayed his torture on film, for me, it was merely a story.
Slavery is not a story. It is a poignant, relevant and historical reality as was the violence, torture and degradation. As is the social psychopathy that has thus evolved because of it. For me, this movie epitomizes living in “niggery” and is a point blank example of why I believe that no Black Person should use or condone the use of the *N* word and especially by other Black People. There is an abomination of power within that word and it is loaded with venom that has been used to dehumanize us from the dawn of the North Atlantic slave trade up to this very second in time.
Like many of you, I can recall the annual Roots marathon during Black history month and being expected to re-watch it year after year. My parents knew that it was important for me to see the human travesty that was slavery and that reading about it simply wasn’t enough. This is also why I insisted my teens watch this film. It wasn’t just that I wanted them to see a contemporary take on our history as North American Black People, I need them to understand that if there was ever a time to be a Black Person living in North America, it’s now. There is simply no excuse for average or sub par effort when they do not face the constraints our ancestors had to and who did not give up and accept the status quo and merely exist; They endured in the hope that one day their generations would live.
I remember my father being angered by the scenes in Roots and his explosions of emotion when he felt the anguish and helplessness of Kunta Kinte. Even into his mid 70’s, Daddy claims he’d rather have died trying to free himself of bondage by inflicting violence on anyone in his path rather than accept life as a slave. I’ve seen this movie in theaters twice now and both times, I kept wishing for Django to ride up and kill every oppressor in his path.
As a demonstrative period piece, this story allows for no heroes and makes no false pretenses about who people were in relation to the social hierarchy in this time. The white women in this film felt no disregard toward owning, degrading and brutalizing people and even encouraged it while, rare white people, who were intrinsically abhorred by slavery still referred to Black People as “niggers”. A reminder that language is ultra powerful when objectifying humans. I walked away feeling like the majority of white people in this time were absolutely terrifying because they were absolutely crazy.
The violence inflicted on human beings at the hands of other human beings is unfathomable and yet, I understand that in order for slavery to have been sustained, immeasurable violence, abuse, neglect and brainwash had to exist and the people carrying out this violence had obvious mental issues, although lucid enough to utilize the bible as a tool of obedience to assert power over others; It takes a disconnected and sick individual to not see a fellow human as a fellow human and deduce that they worth only the value that they serve as commodities.
In terms of history and violence as it relates to enslaving and violating human beings, we often neglect to validate herstory. Without giving any of the story away, Patsy is absolute misery personified. Patsy reminds us that Black Women existed for three reasons: To labor, bear commodities and satisfy the lust and desires of their controllers. The list of desires is open ended. Patsy is the reason I will never classify myself as a feminist for I believe the disdain, superiority, ignorance, insecurity and hatred portrayed by the white women in this film was an accurate depiction. It was was alive and kicking during the suffragette movement and the contemporary feminist movement is rife with discord now. I’m a womanist and my heart aches for Patsy who couldn’t be protected by men who had also been dehumanized and made powerless to protect themselves let alone others by the very same men who victimized her. There are no heroes in this movie. The actions of every character are motivated simply by social status, lack of choice and survival. At times, the imagery in 12 Years A Slave depicting this powerlessness is enough to make you vomit.
Overall, I think this movie is an important film and that it is a “must see” for a variety of reasons. As a period piece, Spielberg’s award winning Lincoln, which I actually found quite boring, pales in comparison. Canada’s own Lawrence Hill’s, The Book Of Negroes is being adapted to film and is set to release in 2014. Now this is a story I can’t wait to see on screen. Although the story is fictitious, it’s set to the degrading reality which is our history rooted in slavery and I am excited to see the heroine Aminata come to life and leap from the page. To watch Her evolve from a curious and sheltered child stolen African child to an intelligent, brave and industrious grown African Woman living within and beyond slavery in North America will be worthwhile.
Isn’t that what we’re all really doing anyway; Trying to live beyond slavery? There is no “post racial” era and Jim Crow hasn’t up and died. North America is still very much polarized in terms Black and White and, structural, intentional and institutionalized racism is typical. Are we really so far removed from the plight of our grandparents? Are we really so far removed from Solomon who probably never thought that as a “free” Black Man living in the North, he’d be sold into slavery; Like the Black Man whose rights and freedoms are infringed upon with racial profiling or, locked up for driving while Black with no access to decent legal representation? The Black Men and Women who’re handcuffed, arrested and humiliated for innocently shopping at Macy’s. Both the book and film are the recount of a fascinating and thought provoking experience but, now that we’re thinking and talking about it, what are we to do with the insight?
Light reflected is enlightenment infinite.