Saturday, November 02, 2013

"12 Years a Slave" … by gimleteye

I hadn't thought there was a movie worth watching in megaplex land, but there is one: "12 Years a Slave". The film opened yesterday and traces the improbable, entirely believable story of a free black man living in Saratoga, New York -- prosperous and well-liked in his community long before the Civil War. In 1841, Solomon Northrup was kidnapped and sold into slavery through a choice to make some additional money while his wife was away on a cooking job. Without a trace Northrup vanishes from a life of comfort and happiness and is hauled into the world of slavers, slavery, and the cruelty of plantation life in the deep South.

Northrup survives and lives, thanks to the kindness of one stranger who writes -- 12 years after his disappearance -- to a friend in Saratoga. The friend arrives by coach in the depths of bayou country and literally plucks Northrup from despair, while leaving his comrades in the pit of slavery. As the horse driven coach pulls away, we pull away too.

In the coda, the director -- Steve McQueen -- notes for the audience that this story, based on a book by Northrup written after his escape, is one of the few documenting African Americans kidnapped from the north and sold to plantation owners in the south; a thriving human traffic leading up to the Civil War. The film does not rest in the broad visuals in the mass exportation of free men and women from Africa, but in the bottom feeders of economic growth that needed engines of slave labor to create wealth from cotton farms, supplying raw materials for the looms of New England.

The achievement of this film is remarkable. Although the film is two and a half hours long, its director captures in terse simplicity characters who succumbed to slavery and its evils that hang like inescapable heat over the bayou. There is scarcely a moment of the film that the characters are not sweating or crying the excretions of slavery. McQueen, through characters carefully drawn by writer John Ridley, shows the extent to which men and women are not only capable of the worst cruelties to others but of institutionalizing cruelty so it becomes a normative value. Director McQueen does this by extending excruciating compassion cutting back and forth between worlds at once terrifying in abject horror and the easy grace of wealth and masks that money affords. There are lessons, here, for the present too.

Like Shoah, the length of the film imparts anxiety: Americans cannot escape the legacy of slavery any more than Germans, the Holocaust, or modern examples of genocide. "12 Years of Slavery" is not only worth the price of admission, it would do well for Americans to watch the film and consider the debts of history -- particularly as applies to African Americans trapped in generational poverty -- to consider how, nearly one hundred seventy years later, indescribable suffering ripples from evil that was, in fundamental aspects, the foundation of the United States.


Ira said...

Sorry to hear about your white guilt. Neither I nor any living American has owned a slave. Meanwhile slavery continues to thrive in Africa.

Anonymous said...

Ira, no empathy huh? None of us have put a Jewish person in a death camp either.

Anonymous said...

Films like these only serve to relive and prolong the the pain. Every generation, every culture, every part of the world has its cruelty story. The Spaniards conquering the indians in Mexico and all over the Caribbean; the whites killing and burning native american indians; Christians burning witches, etc. I don't see what good can come out of films like these, except to add salt to the wounds.

Geniusofdespair said...

Because we should NEVER FORGET.