Twelve Thousand Years A Slave… and Counting…
12 YEARS A SLAVE is a great movie on its surface, is a horrible story when viewed in context of American history and is unspeakably terrifying when placed against the larger sociological canvas. I’ll explain all this in a moment if you’ll just stop fussing about the n-word…
on the surface
12 YEARS A SLAVE is the true story of Solomon Northup, a respected African businessman and violinist, living in Saratoga, New York in 1841, with his wife and two children, who was lured to Washington DC (where slavery is legal) by two men posing as circus performers hiring him as a violinist, and then kidnapped and sold into slavery. It’s an amazing plot point, but one that I’m presuming happened many times over in an environment where slaves existed alongside “free men.” If you were of the mind to consider black people property, then every African was nothing more than a walking flat screen TV waiting to be snatched. Northup was one of the lucky ones who happened to escape and write about it (Twelve Years a Slave, published 1853).
The movie follows Solomon’s literally death-defying journey from slave owner to slave owner in New Orleans, trying to plead his case as a free man to men conditioned not to hear the voices of slaves. There is unabashed nudity, shocking scenes of casual violence; flowery language to suit the era, pleasant to the ear (back then, even downtrodden people were more literate than the social butterflies allowed to stink up the internet tubes these days); performances are uniformly excellent, Brad Pitt playing his lovable self, Michael Fassbender going out on a limb to be despicable, and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o winning an Oscar right outa the gate.
Chiwetel Ejiofor is Solomon Northup (renamed Platt by his captors), in a blazing performance, courage tempered by mortal fear of masters who considered him a beast. Ejiofor consistently raises the level of every movie he is cast in as a B-star (LOVE ACTUALLY, SERENITY, 2012), and I’ve loved his work since he came to my attention in KINKY BOOTS (2005). At last he is “free” to soar as a leading man.
The smallest details clutch at our primal fears, as when Solomon tries to send a message to his family using blackberries. No, not the mobile phone – real blackberries, their juice as ink and a sharpened twig as a pen. In this age of instantaneous communication, the claustrophobia of being suddenly enchained and isolated is as sobering as a cat-o-nine-tails to the nubs of your vertebrae.
Benedict Cumberbatch is a sympathetic slaveowner, who reads the bible to his slaves – before they are sent into the fields to pick cotton. As if to highlight the incongruity of this act, it is juxtaposed with a slavemaster (Paul Dano) singing a song called Run Nigger Run. After a dispute, Dano would try to hang Solomon, but is stopped by one of the farmhands. Instead of being cut down, Solomon is left to dangle on tippytoe – while life goes on behind him casually. 12 YEARS is filled with scenes like this that seem “new” to our jaded slave-movie sensibilities. But is it saying anything new – or even original?
Epps the landowner (Fassbender), known as a “nigger-breaker,” is more the type of Whitey we’re used to: quoting from the bible to justify his whipping of slaves. His wife (Sarah Paulson) would jealously try to find any reason to thrash one of their female slaves, Patsey (Nyong’o) for Epps having an affair with her (which is the Whitey way of saying ‘rape’), and later, Epps would force Solomon to lash Patsey for his own rage at his wife and his slave-lust.
Brad Pitt, straight from the set of Weird Al’s Amish Paradise video, is a Canadian who detests slavery. He is Solomon’s salvation. But no matter Solomon’s illegal slavery, as a black man he was unable to testify against whites in courts, so couldn’t bring his kidnappers or anyone else to trial. Everyone walked free. Nothing’s changed, huh? Like I said – new? Original?
american history context
In the context of American history, 12 YEARS A SLAVE is horrible, not just for the fact of slavery per se, but that everyone was complicit. Even the good guys were inculcated to believe the condition of slavery was normal. Even those who liberate Solomon from his bondage, do so because he was being held illegally, yet they still abide by the fact that Epps owns “legal” slaves. It was all wrapped in a kind of gentleman’s agreement. It would take over a hundred more years to even raise the desire to abolish that technicality.
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “the origins of slavery are lost to human memory,” and it is “known to have existed as early as the Shang dynasty (18th–12th century BCE) in China.” Slavery’s existence predates history, i.e. writing. And its earliest records are from 20 centuries ago. So is it a dumb boast or an ignorant aggrandizement when people of the United States claim slavery as their very own invention, and/or embrace its soul-stink as if they are the worst/most famous offenders?
Funnily enough, a line from ABRAHAM LINCOLN VAMPIRE HUNTER sums it up: “Men have enslaved each other since they invented gods to forgive them for doing it.”
And the Oscar for Whitey Guilt goes to…
The most terrifying aspect of 12 YEARS: People looooove seeing African Americans as slaves. Really. It’s getting to be a habit. A bad habit – that even black people are embracing! Ultimately, 12 YEARS A SLAVE is the same old torture-as-entertainment that we’ve grown inured to in GONE WITH THE WIND, ROOTS, AMISTAD, GLORY, PASSION OF THE CHRIST. Whereas once it was a physical, tangible enslavement, the New Slavery is the media’s depiction of slavery.
Audiences would much rather see African Americans portrayed as slaves than as equals in white society. Doubt my cynicism? Look at the box office. Look at the awards. Yes, 12 YEARS is undoubtedly a well-made movie – but so is JUMPING THE BROOM, BEST MAN WEDDING, ABOUT LAST NIGHT (2014). Though you might dismiss some of these as unserious films, they are no better or worse than their white counterparts starring Jennifer Aniston or Matthew McConaughey. Why then, have these films won no awards? Why are movies like THE HELP or THE BUTLER (where uppity African Americans are “kept in their place”) considered serious, sober, educational treatises on American history, while other movies with a predominantly black cast that play an integral part of modern society (FIRST SUNDAY, DEATH AT A FUNERAL) are dismissed as fluff?
And is there an unidentifiable element in the film industry that allows the “downtrodden blacks” films to BE better made (more budget, more publicity, more acceptance in media outlets) than non-downtrodden films? A vicious element that grants the best resources to the films pitched about niggers and fewer resources to those pitched about African-Americans as fully functioning members of modern society? And this element feeds off itself – the “nigger” films becoming more prominent, spawning more “nigger” films, while natural selection attritions the “society” films…
Are we starting to see the real sociological horror lurking beneath the fake cinematic horrors portrayed in 12 YEARS A SLAVE?
Why make this movie? Director Steve McQueen and the cast tell us it’s to keep the discussion about slavery going. The question is: Why keep it going? (Unless you’re Republican.) If “racism” is not quite a dead issue, at least “slavery” – as represented in this film – IS dead. Picking cotton in the South has long since been replaced by OTHER modes of slavery. If they want to “keep the discussion going” then make a film about modern slavery – Stop and Frisk, or Stand your Ground, or Black and Nearby.
12 YEARS is nothing more than another easy grab at “nobility” – yes, the brutality and unthinking savagery of the slave owners is unconscionable (Paul Giamatti talking about the boy he is selling “growing into a fine beast”; Paul Dano singing Run Nigger Run; Michael Fassbender quoting the bible to justify his lashing as punishment), but there’s an undercurrent of fakery to it; the ultimate knowledge that it’s just art, that no matter how much they try to represent human bondage and backs split open from lashing, it’s just a movie – about a guy who’s going to escape anyway.
Has it occurred to these filmmakers – and to any who “enjoy” the movie (for whatever reason: as art, or history, or tittygawking) – that because people are still talking about slavery, slavery is still around? That because it is still prominent in media, it is not being eradicated? (It’s like that checkbox marked “race” on all government forms, hospital forms, arrest forms, airport forms – as long as that box marked “race” exists, race-ISM will exist.) Has it occurred to black people that when they represent themselves so often in media this way, it becomes a complacency, with whites comfortable seeing them this way? That a movie with the awards and recognition of 12 YEARS only exacerbates the black position as subservient. And with the black community crowing about this film being great, the whites are seemingly right in thinking that black people like being represented this way!
Rednecks know they don’t have to SAY “nigger” anymore – they can just say “appeaser” or “socialist” or “weak” or “Kenyan” or just come right out and say “Barack HUSSEIN Obama.” Dane Cook once cracked, “I’m not racist – I have a black president.” Even though many thought an African American president would curtail racism if not abolish it, the black debbil in the White House has proven to be like that checkbox on government forms: As long as he is there, it reminds the rednecks to be as racist as they wanna be. Twelve thousand years of slavery… and still going strong…