Wednesday, October 30, 2013

12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens, NY

Once in a blue moon, I have wondered what my life would have been like if I had been born a slave. My ancestors probably were slaves. I don't know for absolute certain; I've never researched my family tree that far back, but I'd be shocked if it wasn't the case.

I've always imagined that if I got sucked into a temporal anomaly of some sort and was pulled back in time into the antebellum South of the early-to-mid 19th century, like the protagonist in Octavia Butler's Kindred (great book; you should read it), and was forced into slavery, that I'd sooner kill myself rather than submit. I think we can all agree that slavery is wrong, full stop, and that it's no way for anyone to have to live. 

Maybe if I were living in a sci-fi story and I was convinced there was a way out it might be different, but I'm not smart enough to whip up a frammistat of some kind that would generate a frequency capable of emitting enough chroniton particles to reopen the temporal aperture and return me to 2013. That's just make believe. (For now.)

I would miss my old life, my family and friends. Still, I like to believe that the act of defiance - of a person of color opposing a brutal, racist, immoral regime - would make the white people of that era stop and think about what they were doing, if only for a brief moment. It's probably the most one could possibly ask for. It sounds very heroic and noble, I realize that, and maybe it's more than a little self-serving to imagine myself capable of such a deed... but hey, it's my imagination. It's certainly not likely to happen. (**knocks wood**)

And then I saw 12 Years a Slave, which argues that it could be just as heroic to live. Make no mistake: Solomon Northup had absolutely no way in hell of knowing when, or even if, he'd be able to escape captivity. He had no one he could truly trust and almost no resources he could count on. True, he had something to live for, his wife and children, and that has a way of motivating one's will, but he was no dummy. He knew the odds were completely against him the moment he woke up chained in that cell.

About halfway through the movie, though, when another slave asks Northup to kill her because she just can't take another minute of being the plaything of their slave owner, he's shocked that she would even consider the idea, even after all he himself has been through to that point. Somehow, someway, Northup was able to cling to hope, even in a situation like his - a free black man tricked into being captured and sold into slavery.

America has done so much to try to crush the spirit of people of color in general. Even after the official abolition of slavery, many (though not all) white people's attitudes about blacks were already heavily ingrained and passed down, generation to generation, so that the notion of "equality" between the races has, at times, seemed like nothing more than a pipe dream - and yet, stories like this poke through. It's no wonder that his life has been made into a movie - twice!

So yeah, this is a breathtaking movie. I'm a wuss; I hid my eyes from all the beatings and whippings. I knew those scenes would be long and without cutaways, and I've read director Steve McQueen's justifications for filming them the way he did. I agree that the horror, the inhumanity, the sheer brutality of what was slavery in America needed to be part of the story; how ironic that it took a Brit to show us Americans our legacy. But I still couldn't look at it. You're a stronger viewer than I am if you could.

I liked the semi-Shakespearean dialogue, which is, I'm sure, a reflection of Northup's autobiography. I interviewed screenwriter John Ridley in 2007, back when he was making comics, following the success of Three Kings. (He wrote a great graphic novel called The American Way, about a black superhero in the early 1960s.) We mostly talked comics, but we also talked about his Hollywood career, and this is what he had to say at the time:
...It’s really hard to get a movie made. To get the right director, the right stars, the right chemistry, the right performances. It’s really hard. I’m at the point now where if a movie [of mine] gets made, and they give me credit for getting it made, that’s a big deal…. Everything changes. It changes in the studio process, it changes when the director comes in, it changes when the stars come in, it changes in the editing. People say the editor saved the picture in the editing. That’s what the editors do all the time. Their job is to take that footage and shape it into something…. So if you go into it trusting that what an individual writes is never gonna change, you’re gonna be slowly disappointed. From the moment you pitch it, the moment you take that individual story in and say "Oh, I’d like it to be like this," and the moment they say, "Okay, we’re gonna have George Clooney," he’s a great actor, great guy, nice guy – but he’s not black. So the minute you take that out, there’s all manner of story in there that’s gone.
I imagine this must have felt like a step up for Ridley. He'll get Oscar-nominated for his screenplay, I'm sure.

And speaking of the Oscars... I'm sure you're well aware of how 12 Years was proclaimed the Best Picture winner back in September. As I've said here before, it's a huge mistake to proclaim the race over so quickly. Everyone thought The Social Network was a lock to win Best Picture too, and look what happened. 

But let's imagine for a moment that 12 Years will win the big prize. What would that mean? As excellent a movie as it is, one cannot get around the fact that it's yet another period piece in which race defines how we see these black characters. When will the Oscar race see a black movie that speaks to who we are and how we live today? I've been writing about Mother of George almost all year long, a movie that has gotten its own share of praise, yet nobody's talking about it as an Oscar contender. Fruitvale Station made a tremendous splash upon its release, yet its shot at Oscar glory is fading. Why is that? I realize it's an extremely competitive year, and that Academy voters tend to have short memories, but that shouldn't be an excuse.

My fear is that if 12 Years does win, black period pieces will continue to be entrenched in the Hollywood mindset, and that between The Butler, 42, The Help, Dreamgirls, etc., quality modern-day movies like Middle of Nowhere or Pariah will continue to operate on the fringes, when there should be room for all kinds of black movies. I hope I'm wrong. I'm glad 12 Years was made and I'm glad it has become a success, but it would be a great shame if it (and maybe The Butler too) was perceived as the final word on black movies today, because it's not.

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