Friday, June 20, 2014

12 Years a Slave - How Long Until the Reckoning?

It’s the curse of almost any American movie about race relations to instantly become a political football. I usually ignore the outrage, because in general, these are message movies exploiting furor to distract from dearth of artistry—but 12 Years a Slave is a startling exception.

For one thing, it isn’t a message movie. Well, it kind of is, but it’s not the expected message. This movie isn’t about skin-color, or even prejudice—it’s about slavery. And it’s really about slavery. Easily earning its R-rating, much of the film’s length is spent portraying brutal violence—psychological, physical, and sexual, all this amidst the poverty and privation, hopelessness, nakedness, and cruelty that was the slavery of the American south. It’s graphic, but (except in, perhaps, a few instances) never gratuitously so, never sensationalist, never Tarantino. Indeed, my overall impression was one of restraint, with many long shots, silent but for the sounds of crickets.

And it’s a true story.

Solomon Northup was a free man, an immensely identifiable middle-class husband and father, played in this film by empathetic, self-possessed Chiwetel Ejiofor (Children of Men).

In 1841, Solomon is persuaded by a pair of circus-men to travel to Washington D.C., there displaying his talents on the violin. While there, he is kidnapped by the “Reverse Underground Railroad,” and shipped to Mississippi, where he is sold as a slave, twice, working on two plantations. The first of these is owned by an indecisive Baptist preacher, Henry Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), and the second by a sadistic psychopath, Edwin Epps (an extreme Michael Fassbender.)

By and large, the story is completely faithful to Solomon Northup’s 1853 blockbuster memoir, with a few notable exceptions (more on that later.)

Like most of us, Solomon takes freedom for granted. He presents his name and status like a badge of freedom, and expects to be heard, because he has lived in a free society all his life. An early beating beneath the streets of D.C. is the first of many indignities which begin to strip away this innocence. He has no rights. He has no freedom of speech, freedom to learn, freedom to travel.

Seldom have I seen a better representation of what it really means to be a slave. It’s far beyond the pettiness of snubs about skin-color, or “offensive” football team names. Coming into this state of being so swiftly, and from a position of such prosperity, is traumatizing. The closest modern-day equivalent is when an American, about the freest of all citizens on this earth, takes a wrong turn and ends up in North Korea. “Oh, sorry, I’ll just turn around, shall I?”

Solomon does not identify as a black man, but as a free man. The distinction is important. At the deepest level, it’s made clear that this oppression is not a result of shallow prejudices (or evil confined to any one race), but of power gone mad, and God’s law discarded in a struggle for survival. Late in the film, an abolitionist named Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt), makes this startlingly clear, contrasting a larger vision of scripture with the twisted fragments used by slavers to justify their actions. His words, rich with the language of Biblical judgment and justice, are taken almost verbatim from the book:

“Epps, when the law says [you may hold slaves] it’s a liar, and the truth is not in it. Is every thing right because the law allows it?…There’s a sin, a fearful sin, resting on this nation….There will be a reckoning yet…it’s a coming as sure as the Lord is just.”

When men are not seen as souls, they become property. This desecration of personhood has taken place all over the world, and has led to holocaust and genocide in many nations. What is specific to this story is its ability to tap into our cultural and physical history, taking advantage of sumptuous Mississippi locations captured in gorgeous cinematography, and glorious African music (contrasting with Hans Zimmer's Inception-warmed-over score). To my delight, the visuals were a highlight of the film.

It isn’t a documentary on the entirety of slavery, nor does it pretend to be—it is almost completely a first-person experience. To that effect, it sometimes glosses history to provide mood. A slave is stabbed, when he actually died of smallpox. Henry Ford is far more ambiguous as a character than the decent, though ideologically confused, preacher that Northup painted. Both of these things go towards intensifying the all-encompassing feeling of an unfair system. Even good men like Ford are crushed in the gears of the massive machine of survival, forced to horrific actions. Human action or vengeance is utterly, utterly futile in the face of such institutionalized cruelty.

Steven Greydanus pointed out that even our hero is helpless. There is no action-packed escape, no sword-toting savior who achieves victory over despicable enemies in the arena. He cannot save himself—a tremendously counter-cultural idea. Solomon’s only real act of defiance is his own sense of morality (steadily eroding), and a desperate embrace of African spirituals (perhaps the most moving moment in the film). Besides his intelligence and eloquence, Ejiofor’s greatest quality is that he does not portray Solomon as a noble, otherworldly paragon, but a fallible, broken human being.

And grace goes the other way. While never going so far as sympathy, we are shown that slavery has a terrible effect on oppressors, just as it has on oppressed: “no man of conscious can take the lash to another human day in, and day out without shredding at his own self.” It’s a rare film that lets me see myself in both the slave and master.

It does have its flaws, many of which I have mentioned. Once again, it is a very brutal film, and not for the faint of heart. Lupita Nyong'o (who I, somehow, have gotten all the way through this post and not mentioned) is phenomenal. It is an Important Film, but not in the Boring Info-Dump sense, but in the sense that I am glad I have seen it, because it has permanently affected how I view slavery. I have never seen a movie that makes me value freedom this much, or feel despair at this level. I think, ultimately, there is only one response:

I know you hear the cries of every soul tonight 
You see the teardrops as they roll tonight 
Down the faces of saints, who grow weary and faint in your fields 
And the wicked roam the cities and the streets tonight 
But when the God of love and thunder speaks tonight 
I believe You will come, and your justice be done, 
But how long? 
How long until the burden is lifted? 
How long is this the song that we sing? 
How long until the reckoning? 
~Andrew Peterson, The Reckoning

4.5/5 stars

Hannah Long

1 comment:

  1. I've had my eye on that movie for awhile, but haven't seen it. I'll have to ask if my parents have seen it...maybe they have and I just didn't know. From what little I heard about it before, it seemed like a good movie--although, like you said, hyped politically, which I've come to expect as well--I just haven't had the chance to see it yet. Sounds like a worthwhile one!


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