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12 Years A Slave

January 14, 2014

***contains spoilers***

The woman sat next to me during 12 Years a Slave flinched at every whip crack. (God forbid she ever watches Indiana Jones). She gasped at every display of African American ‘insolence’, foreseeing the consequences with dread. It was, quite frankly, annoying. My side eyed glance wondered what exactly she’d thought slavery comprised of, if she had thought about it in any depth at all.

Considering The Green Mile left me a blubbering mess I surprised myself with my hardiness. I think, equipped with some understanding of the violence and subjugation practiced against people of Native or African origin in the Caribbean, North America, South America, Australia and Africa over a period spanning 400 years, I escaped with only a huge lump in my throat just at the very end, when Solomon is escorted away, leaving the precious Patsey behind.

As annoying as the lady to my right was, she was only being human – looking at the 19th century with 21st eyes. This film had been described as ‘torture porn’ by a well known African American film critic but I disagree. Porn is excessive and gratuitous but there is nothing excessive or gratuitous about the violence in this movie. Instead, it is sickeningly typical. Even the depravity of Solomon’s eventual master can’t mask the fact that had Solomon been on any other plantation, his life would have been just as intolerable. In a spontaneous attempt to escape he randomly encounters two white men in the middle of a lynching, in the way one might encounter two people men in the middle of lunch. He himself is ‘semi-lynched’ and left hanging, whilst people and pigs pass him by, until his nice master who liked him because he saved him a bit of money with a handy raft device, arrives home to see is investment swinging in the wind.

This film has many successes. Its narrative is gripping, revealing small truths until it paints a full and honest picture of 19th century America. An America into which black people are divided into free black people or ‘niggers’, an America in which a black person can be saved only by a white benefactor and an America in which black lives are cheap. More so an America in which an intelligent and forthright individual can be coerced into compliance and before long, he’s singing gospel in the fields with the rest of them.

It hints at behaviours that still exist in today’s society. In the first act a man who is almost a victim of kidnapping reverently leaps into the arms of his good ‘massa’ who arrives to rescue him, in a scene more uncomfortable than any whipping. He avoided physical slavery. But his long established mental subservience will keep his behaviour in check. It was reminiscent, to me, of Kanye West’s rant against the fashion corporations that refuse to invest in his company. He won’t dance to their tune, so they won’t be his masters anymore. The real problem is that West still thinks he needs one.

I think its graphicness is a virtue. It is important that people understand what a whip does to one’s skin. It’s important that people see what a lynching was. It’s important that the muzzling and the rape is portrayed. Don’t blame Solomon Northrup for writing this book and Steve McQueen for filming it. Blame our white ancestors for doing it for as long as they did.

There is only one disappointment to be had in this movie, that is not fault of the film itself but of the society that will receive it. I don’t know when I will next see a mainstream Hollywood movie with a black male and female lead, let alone with a black family that is at the centre of the lead’s consciousness and drive. I don’t know whether we will next see a black male or female lead who is not morally compromised in some way. And in that lies the most depressing thing, the white supremacy it seeks to expose is the same supremacy that will lessen its cultural impact on the Hollywood film machine.

Lupita Nyong’o’s Patsey is a powerful character, whose  suffering is displayed with remarkable subtlety, even when she is screaming and sobbing in pain.  Halle Berry had to have sex with Billy Bob Thornton to get her Oscar, Lupita Nyong’o, if she wins one, will have certainly earned hers.

She is now the darling of the fashion world, who are keen to dress her like a doll. The fashion elite do love their  East Africans (Wek, Warie, Iman) gushing over dark skin, short hair, slender frames. This is the black femininity the fashions houses like – just how they imagine us to be. I celebrate her appearances in glamour magazines but racism doesn’t disappear in the two hours it takes to watch this movie and it won’t dissipate with every gown they use her to sell. Let’s keep our eyes open.

I think this is the final message I take from this film. It is after all, a snapshot, just one life story where there are millions more to be found. There was no happy ending to this film. Solomon left his plantation behind ten years before the abolition of North American slavery, and he left it behind with literacy and a talent for the fiddle. What of the millions with no property, education or self esteem? I guess those stories will be told on the big screen eventually. Truth be told, those stories are still being played out, in the continuing wrongs of the world, all around us.

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