Saturday, December 14, 2013
12 Years a Slave
"12 Years a Slave" is not a movie I particularly wanted to see. I don't know about anybody else, but the idea of watching Chiwetel Ejiofor get whipped by angry Southerners for two hours didn't exactly catch by fancy. In fact, I don't think "12 Years a Slave" is a movie I enjoyed, or anybody will enjoy. Children will be frightened, teenagers will be infuriated by the injustice of it all, adults will be terribly depressed, and the elderly will be ashamed for the whole human race. So its a movie for nobody, enjoyable by none, one that makes your day considerably worse. You walk back home after seeing it, and try to put back on the mask of your happy persona to your loved ones, tell them the movie was "okay", and meanwhile stare at the ceiling, desperate for answers that are not going to come. Its the biggest downer of the year.
The story of "12 Years a Slave" is based upon the actual events of the life of Solomon Northup, an African American freeman living in New York in the early 1800s. Solomon prior to his imprisonment was living as well as any African-American could ever hope to in that period in our country, with a fine middle class lifestyle and a growing happy family. That is until he was swindled by two traveling musicians, who brought him down to Washington, where was kidnapped just miles away from the centers of a government purportedly based on liberty and justice, and then sold into slavery in Louisiana. He toiled for twelve horrible years under several different masters, watching the misery and degradation of his entire race unfold, until finally he was saved, came home, and wrote his memoir with the help of writer, David Wilson. That "Twelve Years a Slave" was a major anti-slavery novel, coming out only a year after "Uncle Tom's Cabin", which helped build the abolitionist movement in the United States, which led to the Civil War and the destruction of the corrupt Southern society.
Happy endings aside, "12 Years a Slave" is not a movie that will leave you with very much to celebrate. Solomon Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor*, is not Oscar Schindler or Uncle Tom or even Kunta Kinte, he isn't a strong figure defying injustice, he's not trying his best to save as many as possible, and he isn't even defiantly keeping his soul and culture alive in the midst of slavery. He's just trying to survive, his independence and spirit break within a half hour, the rest of the movie is a man continuing as best he can, for any hope at all for going home. This is a movie without a hero, the only act of heroism occurs early on by a freeman-turned-slave played by Michael K. Williams, trying to save a Black mother from rape by one of their capturers. That hero is murdered**, Solmon Northup learns what happens to those who resist, a lesson that is taught again and again throughout this horror of a movie.
Steve McQueen's journey through "12 Years a Slave" is not really much of a in-depth character study or a character-driven drama. It keeps a certain distance from the audience, with its main character becoming silent even to us. The scenes do not move together as a general progression, instead characters and plots come in and go, as twelve years are condensed into two hours. Curiously Solomon Northup spends more time in direct competition with his slave masters rather than with his fellow slaves, he forever remains both below the White culture whom he feels affinity towards (he was basically an 1830s "Oreo" upon capture), and separate from the culture of the slaves he works with. Repeatedly the people he befriends are White. First a hypocritical kind-hearted slave owner played by Benjamin Cumberbatch, who for once in 2013 is not playing a supervillain like Smaug, Khan, or Julian Assange. Then he connects with a drunken White laborer who betrays him almost immediately, and finally makes the final connection with a Canadian played by Brad Pitt who saves his life (spoilers for a book over 150 years old).
The development of Solomon Northup's character is thus very subtle. He first attempts to get on the good side of Cumberbatch's slave owner, by using all of his talents and abilities. But even this is rejected, a slave with that much intelligence is against the perverted order of the South, and he is punished with a near-lynching. Even the overseer who saves his life makes sure Solomon remains hanging on the noose for the rest of the day, just so that the lesson is finally clear. And the lesson is clear. The next owner is a half-mad brute played by Michael Fassbender, a Southern Amon Goeth with a dangerous and tortuous obsession for a female slave named Patsy. Northup keeps his talents to himself, quietly picking cotton, completing errands, and surviving the best he can until opportunity to bring word to his family can be made. Even though most of the characterization is justified, Northup's isolation seems to be over-exaggerated, making for what I'd say is the lone mistake of the movie. Steve McQueen doesn't really film his characters for most of the movie, he's keeping them at arm's length to keep up this pristine mood and unrelenting beauty. If only there was slightly more humanity to the movie, the tragedy of the events would be so much clearer. Maybe if the plotting wasn't so much merely a series of things happening, instead of an evolving story.
The historical accuracy of the movie is essentially perfect. Suspiciously though, the movie covers almost every trope of the American Holocaust that was slavery. Families are torn apart, children are separated from their mothers, women are raped, men are broken, all while the slave owners continue a facade of Christianity, preaching to their victims of a God who created some people to be more equal than others. Its something of a Greatest Hits of slavery crimes, covering all the bases. We got Paul Giamatti showing off the nude form of a young Black female to hungry White buyers, angry White wives torturing the Black mistresses of their powerful husbands, and slaves perversely dancing and fiddling in forced joy for their master's pleasure.
I guess if there's a lesson from "12 Years a Slave" its this: slavery sucked. I know that's not exactly mindblowing, but I'm sure there are some assholes out there who might be mildly offended. The South sucks too, your Confederate pride is based upon a system of exploitation upon an entire race of people. Remember, slavery sucked for just about everybody, the slaves especially, but also for the thousands of poor White farmers who were locked out of the economic system. Rednecks weren't born, they were grown, by a system that gave them no place to contribute, all suffering under the plantation aristocracy. If your name wasn't Scarlett O'Hara and you lived in the South before the Civil War, you were going to have a shitty time. So what exactly were racist after the Civil War glamorizing with the Antebellum South fiction such as "Gone With the Wind" or "Birth of a Nation"? Nothing, it was all built on a lie, a historical revisionism that allowed African American suffering for an entire century following their "freedom". There's a great deal of misery in American History, our country has given a lot of people a truly awful time. So where's the silver lining?
There is none. Solomon Northup comes home, in tears, still half-broken from his ordeal. He apologizes to his family, who have continued their lives without him, his children growing without a father. And I can't help but wonder if he's apologizing to all those he left behind, all those opportunities he had to not resist and to save others, that he didn't take, all to have this moment, where he can finally go home. So much of his has been taken, so much of his children's lives have been taken.
And here we are, living in an America built by millions of Solomon Northups, built on the bones of so many ruined lives. And how do we continue? How can we accept the crimes of our forefathers and still believe this culture is something so special and beautiful that it needs to continue? I have no idea. Those are difficult questions, and I'm sure by the time we've seen "The Hobbit 2" and can talk about stupid bullshit again, we will have safely forgotten them.
* Pronunciation guide.
** This is an invented scene for the movie, it does not occur in the book, for a simple reason: it wouldn't have happened in the reality of the situation. Chalky White was valuable cargo, killing him would have ruined the profit margin. But thematically it was an important addition by Steve McQueen.