The Horror and Humanity of 12 Years A Slave
With Avril Z. Speaks on October 21, 2013

As I still try to gather my thoughts after watching the acclaimed film 12 Years A Slave, I am left with several questions.

Prior to its release, the film has seen more than its share of buzz. From early rumors of it’s likely Oscar victories to it’s brutal depiction of slavery, 12 Years A Slave has been a much-talked about film for quite some time. It was the latter point that caused me to enter the theater questioning all the hype. I had heard countless times that it was a hard film to watch, and that the brutality was relentless, which left me wondering about our expectations as a society when it comes to this aspect of American history. After all, why would we expect anything less than brutality in any type of realistic portrayal of slavery? Have we been so brainwashed by our Hollywood endings that we've forgotten what it's like to feel pain that has no salve?

McQueen’s depiction of the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in New York who is lured to Washington, DC and sold into slavery for twelve years, indeed does not let up. For two hours, audiences are exposed to the torturous existence of plantation life, from senseless beating, to rape, to total dehumanization.

McQueen does a masterful job at portraying the beauty of the southern landscape and then destroying it with the garish reality of the situation. By the end of the film, even though something good happens, there is nothing to cheer about. The cycle continues.

Steve McQueen has said in interviews that 12 Years A Slave is not a story about race. He says he set out to tell a human story about the loss of dignity and the fight for a man's mind. I tend to turn up my nose when people dare say that a film about the horrors of slavery is not about race. Racism is one of those societal ills in America that just won’t seem to go away. It’s no wonder, since much of the racism we encounter is a direct result of the indoctrination that came with slavery.

I wonder if McQueens British descent makes him say things like that. In a recent interview with acclaimed author, filmmaker and culture critic Nelson George, McQueen states that "I am British. My parents are from Grenada. My mother was born in Trinidad. Grenada is where Malcolm X’s mother comes from. Stokely Carmichael is Trinidadian. We could go on and on. It’s about that diaspora."

His response reminds us of the reality that the institution of slavery did not only affect America. It's effects were international. Although historically, Britain ended its slave trade before America, the machination of this atrocity was already still in motion all over the world. Slavery affected everybody - from the sugar plantation workers in the Caribbean, to the female concubines in Savannah, Georgia, to the white slave owners everywhere who lost their own souls. Yet, somehow McQueen does, in fact, manage to capture it all in a way that we do actually get a look inside the humanity behind this evil.

One scene that stood out to me was when Solomon (given the slave name Platt) is almost lynched. As the overseer hoists him up the tree and he dangles with a noose around his neck, another overseer tells him to let him go because killing this piece of "property" would be a detriment to the debt the master already owed on the land. The overseer lets Solomon down, but only a few inches short of his feet actually touching the ground, leaving Solomon to scuffle around on his tip toes to try to keep himself from asphyxiating, as he is still bound and tied to the noose.

This scene plays out masterfully in a wide shot that lasts what feels like an eternity. But what was so mesmerizing about this shot is that as it lingers, you begin to see signs of how life goes on in the midst of this man gagging, still partially dangling from a tree. In this same wide shot, the rest of the slaves emerge from their quarters and begin to carry out the days work, for any reaction to this atrocity could cost them their own lives. In the distance, the overseer paces back and forth on the porch, watching Solomon gasping for air, allowing him to suffer just short of death in order to teach him a lesson about staying in your place.

What do you tell your kids after you have witnessed the horrors of slavery? Or better yet, what do you tell your kids after you have experienced the disappointment of injustice? How can someone fully embrace humanity when they have seen it at its worst?

I would imagine that a man like Solomon doesn't come home and tell his kids that they can be and do anything they want in this world. I would imagine that a man like Solomon doesn't come home and tell his kids that they can trust the system.

Little is known about the real Solomon Northup and his life after this ordeal. Maybe he was able to still remain positive, but after sitting through 12 Years A Slave, I think that that would be terribly difficult. Could a man like Solomon still teach tolerance? And then what how would his kids explain their father’s experience to their own children? And then how would their children explain it to the next generation?

On a recent trip home to Atlanta, GA, I remember my grandmother admonishing us not to laugh too loud while having dinner at the Golden Corral because the white people would be looking at us. Growing up, I remember my mother refusing to watch any movie that dealt with slavery, civil rights, or the treatment of blacks in the south, as her own form of protest. We don't often talk about it, but people like my grandmother and my mother have seen some things. They have lived through Jim Crow and some of the worst behaviors of our history.  The scars that slavery left behind still linger in the American psyche, however those scars are rarely discussed in open spaces. 

And yet here we are in 2013. While we may have survived slavery, many recognize that its effects still linger. Mass incarceration has become, in the words of author Michelle Alexander, "The New Jim Crow." There are still disparities in the public school system. Racial profiling is still on the rise, and issues like the Trayvon Martin incident and partisan politics continue to divide the country.

Yes, 12 Years A Slave is hard to watch. Yes, it is brutal and it does not let up. But perhaps it's that type of candor that's needed to heal the wounds that slavery has caused and have never been bandaged. Perhaps we need to drown in our sorrow for this tragedy, perhaps we need to sit in its brutality in order for us to reconcile our race with our humanity, and finally talk together about what it means to have justice for all.

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