The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Monday, November 04, 2013

Twelve Years A Slave (2013)

So…just saw 12 YEARS A SLAVE.  Let me begin by saying that a double bill of this and DJANGO would be the feel-good evening of the year.
Had to get that out of the way.  Humor keeps us sane.   Now what I really think: best movie on this hard, necessary subject I’ve ever seen.  And no, ROOTS wasn’t a movie, it was a 573 minute mini-series.   Magnificent, it is still television fare, with all the commercial breaks, tiny images and safe-in-your-living-room, “nothing over PG-13” fare. And it still emptied the streets and shook the nation.
I want you to consider that, prior to “Django”, there hadn’t been a major studio film with slaves qua slaves for something like 35 years.  And that I cannot clearly remember a serious dramatic theatrical film released by said major studio on the subject…ever.  
The closest I can think of was “Skin Game” with James Garner and Louis Gossett, Jr.   And as much as I love and respect that movie (and I do), they leavened the realities mightily with comedy.
As I’ve said, when people talk about “tired of slave movies” I have to think they are forgetting something critical: that not “Amistad” nor “Glory” nor “Lincoln” nor “Beloved” actually had any slaves in them.  Ex-slaves.  People on their way to being slaves.   White people discussing slaves.  But not slaves themselves, as actual characters, able to speak their hearts, bearing witness to what happened to the ancestors of almost every black person in this country. “Django” flirted with that brilliantly, making it endurable by placing the horrific images in the context of a Spaghetti Western revenge yarn.
Man oh Man, does “12 Years” fill THAT gap.  Beautifully (and, thank God, somewhat sterilely) directed by Steve McQueen, a black Brit, and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor in a performance of massive gravitas, “12 Years” tells the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in New York, who makes his living as a violin player and is shanghied into the titular 12 years of bondage.
I’ve never seen a story like this.   His education and obvious social standing make him the closest thing to a modern black man dropped into this nightmare imaginable.   Usually we see Africans, “others,” undergoing such ordeals.   No…this was different.  
I went in expecting a horror movie, with the slight emotional remove I generally have at times like that.    There’s a limit to how much empathy I want to extend.  Oh, if they do their job, though, that wall of reserve will crack, and there I’ll be with no defenses.
What did we see?  Well…let’s just say that not more than five days ago I heard someone talking about how white people would have recovered from slavery faster than blacks have.  Fine, everyone is entitled to their opinion.  I’ve heard that canard all my life (usually from people who have Southern ancestry), along with the “slaves were treated like family” line, and the “why don’t you just get over it?” line and even, God help me, the “in some ways, slaves were better off…” line.  Honest to God.  And yes, I’ve always resisted the urge to perform freelance lobotomies without anesthetic.  Somehow.
What people who say such things never ask is: how much would it take to turn ME into a slave?  How much pain?  Fear?  Isolation?  Hopelessness?  How much?  Because if you believe the millions of Africans reduced to slavery were like you, then the question of “how much would it take” to break you to that level is simply not something easy to consider.
On the other hand, if they weren’t like you, well, then…ahem…well, we don’t want to come right out and SAY this but…
You know.
The question is: what does it take to domesticate a human being?   Rip away his identity, his sense of self, impose a permanent neotenous  state where he will never dare rare up and demand to be treated like an adult human being?
Let’s just say that “12 Years” goes down that road farther than every other film on the subject I’ve seen, combined.  They finally nailed me with the scene where Northup, burying Old Uncle Jim, becomes aware that it is his fate to be worked to death. The slaves around him are singing a spiritual, and he resists.  As we have seen earlier in the film, the magnificent Ejiofor gives us a sense of dynamism behind those eyes, a trapped animal seeking a way out of the trap, out of the nightmare he has found himself in.  And finally, finally, in promises of Milk and Honey on The Other Side, he finds it, and begins to sing, louder than anyone.
THAT scene finally nailed me.  All my life, I’ve heard that escape from pain in black churches.   Heard them channeling pain, and despair, and fear into faith, lest it become despair, or even worse, the kind of violence that destroys everything and everyone you love.  And can’t remember a film that made the implicit explicit.
Blood and fire and death here…or milk and honey on the other side.  Pick one.
It is absurd that as a black American I can rattle off SOPHIE’S CHOICE, LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL, SCHINDLER’S LIST,  THE DIARY OF ANN FRANK, and EXODUS without really trying, but can’t remember a serious dramatic major film about slavery prior to this (or perhaps DJANGO, with the aforementioned reservations).    One is free to interpret this lack as one might.   I see it as something so painful, so huge, that it could barely be touched at all without screams of “Too much!  Too much!”  Out of twelve years of public school education, I have no memory of twelve minutes of discussion of this subject. Certainly, more time was spent on the mating habits of penguins.
I don’t consider it an accident that it took a British director and star to do this, either.  What that means is also up for interpretation, but it suggests to me that the subject, again, is so incredibly raw that many black Americans cannot look at it without feeling like they are staring into the sun.
I’ve heard a few people say it was too remote, too emotionally distant.  A lot more people say it was too much, too painful even to endure.  Something like this has to find a “sweet spot” between those extremes, and if you cut off the most extreme 10% at either side, and listen to critics and audiences, they may well have done it.
At least one major film staring directly at this horror, with the hopeful title suggesting that, yes, the horror ends, had to be made.   Every one of the millions of men and women who endured this had a story.  Perhaps future tales of the 250 years of bondage will be…oh, I don’t know.  Spy stories, love stories, supernatural or psychological horror, musicals, dark or screwball comedies, suspense, mystery, science fiction…who knows.  Anything is possible in the hands of talented, committed artists.  But first the cinematic vocabulary has to be established.  First a tale has to be told of someone who never stopped believing, never stopped trying, never lost himself no matter how far into the bowels of hell he went…and survived.
And TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE is that story, a story I’ve never seen, and for that I have nothing but respect.
Easiest “A” I’ve given in a long time.
Now, pardon me while I wash out my brain with DJANGO.


Shady_Grady said...

Incredible review. I do intend to see the film. The emotional rawness of the subject matter will be difficult though.

Anonymous said...

Among your many other spot-on insights, it does seem constant that it takes outsiders to meaningfully examine national atrocities like slavery or genocide. All the Shoah films you sighted were made by Americans or Italians. The one German production that grazed the Holocaust was Europa, Europa. Tellingly, that film examined the tragedy through the experience of a Jewish boy who escaped the genocide by hiding as a Nazi, i.e. far enough from the eye of the storm so we needn't be troubled by unpleasant images of Germans acting directly as murderous psychotics. Rather reminiscent of the legions of American films like Roots, Mandingo, etc which gingerly plumbed the murk of slavery to various depths, yet refrained from journeying all the way to Ground Zero a la Twelve Years a Slave (or perhaps Django). It's simply too painful for Germans. Americans or others to look directly and "fairly" at periods of their histories wherein they abandoned nearly every semblance of decency and betrayed every principle their present values extol. Only a foreigner with emotional distance and no historical connection to the events can competently perform such autopsies.