Wednesday, July 23, 2014

12 Years A Slave: Review

Lupita Nyong'o and Chiwetel Ejiofor, featured in 12 Years a Slave
Before getting to the review, I wanted to let you know about a blog I just discovered. The publisher and editor is Kimberly N. Foster. Here's the link:

And speaking of Harriet Tubman and the call to end slavery, I also wanted to offer a review of the film and winner of the latest Academy Award for Best Picture, 12 Years a Slave.

This is the cinematic telling of one U.S. man's true story. Solomon Northup was a real person who was born a free man in the north in 1808. He authored the book, 12 Years a Slave, about his capture in 1841 and release in 1853 from a white Southern hell.

What I appreciated was how the opening scenes might allow a white male viewer to see a Black man in 19th century U.S. as a free man, and how his horror at becoming a slave is not told through his abduction from West Africa, which might allow white people in the U.S. to distance ourselves from his plight. Northup, played superbly by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is "us" more than Kunta Kinte is "us". And for the purposes of a film most appropriately aimed at a white audience, this is crucial. Usually this is done by having the protagonist be white, reinforcing the deadly "Great White Man" myth, in such as in films like 1997's Amistad, 2006's Amazing Grace, and 2012's Lincoln.

I'm not saying the film is made (only) for a white U.S. audience: I'm saying that white people need to see and understand what this film is saying about us. And I'm not saying there isn't a collection of Great or Good White Men in this film. Brad Pitt's character, Bass, is one.

To me, the film brilliantly layers insult over injury, over and over. Each scene is another stark example of how whites conspire, on the institutional level and the interpersonal one, to control the bodies and destroy the dignity of Black people, here in the mid-19th century U.S. south. Each scene details the efforts of those enslaved to survive and not allow their humanity to be completely obliterated under the harsh and horrible lash of antebellum slavery.

The movie is brutal, graphically brutal, horrifyingly brutal, and unflinchingly honest in its depiction and portrayal of white men's sadism and savagery against Black people. In particular, it also depicts the complex relationship between white women and Black women, each group owned by white men. This is shown in the character of Mistress Shaw, played by Alfre Woodard.

But far more graphically, it is rendered through the tortured and tenacious humanity of Patsey, astoundingly acted by Lupita Nyong'o, who won the Academy Award for Best Actress.

A brilliant discussion of the legacy of colonial racist misogyny woven into the relationships of U.S. Black and white women may be read here in a brilliant piece by Michaela Angela Davis titled "12 Years A Slave: Rage, Privilege, Black Women and White Women". Here's the link, followed by an excerpt:
The women in the beautifully brutal film 12 Years A Slave were mangled and maliciously intertwined. The enslaved women lived like beasts and the “free” women behaved like savages, trapped together in a filthy cage of rape, rage and bitter resentment. A resentment so magnificent, it could freshly fester in the psyche of their daughters for centuries to come.

The twisted relationship dynamics between the two lead female characters Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) and Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson) in 12 Years A Slave are a horror.
The juxtaposition of such naked racist-misogynist sadism with feeble gestures at Southern white gentility is striking to me, reminding me of how fused the two are, and how dependent they are on one another. The white man who is only brutal is uncouth and risks revealing the putrid soul of whiteness to everyone who want to believe it is natural or God-given. The white man who is only genteel is not doing his job. His job is to rule over, exploit, and dehumanise Black people: to treat Black men as worse than non-human plantation chattel; to treat Black women as chattel and also as a rape object: chattel slave and sexual slave both.

We see how white men, more stupid and less stupid ones, are seduced by an unjust and inhumane ability to rule others. We see the gross arrogance, the supremacist self-delusion that he might be better because he is free, even while he is doomed to moral inferiority due to how he treats other human beings.

As you watch the film, or rewatch it, note how each scene carefully reveals another bloody-sharp facet of what U.S. slavery did to people: the rulers and the ruled, the owners and the owned.

I am led to see more deeply how this is still the case, with more slavery than ever, and at least as much denial that it ought to be abolished once and for all.