by David Vollin
The closing of the film, “12 YEARS A SLAVE”, was not unlike both the tacit closing of a casket and the emotionally noisome deliverance of a newborn child in the same broad and timeless instant. The dread and beauty each so substantially and absolutely real, administered a final yet potentially unstable neutralizing effect upon the psyche of each and every person emerging from the last black and white flickers of text as the house lights mustered themselves to amber hues and then sought to revivify our confidence in those random objects which define the tangible world we have come to know as our own. Watching the film I felt as if I had been washed by and immersed in a rare and sacred ablution, as if I had ingested its clairvoyant potion enabling me to spectate whilst the fell and glorious history of a man named Solomon Northup and his troubled times re-lived their most intimate moments before me; and so by this voluminous liquid river of a film I was thus enchanted…
Very few movies have the ability to sting and kiss their audiences so. And I say so as a man who, watching this tragic drama play itself out in another man’s life knew it could easily have been his own. The plot unearthed the foul, decomposing corpse of the very soul of deceit, personified as slavery, the antebellum curse on a nations conscience, a cancer that was surely summoned from the empty heart of the most preternatural and diabolical evil itself. Revealed was the profane and dispassionate pathology of Slavery and of a nation bound with the same chains as its captors; bound both to a sadistic and immoral hell. It is the haunting interstices of the untold story here that chides us the most as we reckon with the reality of what suffering can truly be. No movie could ever convey the full extent that a man can suffer mentally and physically for the 103,680 hours that represent 12 brutal years of enslavement or for that matter for the totality of a life so enslaved. The story to be told, the lesson to be learned was not just the vile perniciousness of the practices of slavery but also the willingness of others to defend or to challenge it and the strength of those chained to it, to endure it and to defeat it.
The immediate and permanent shock-value of 12 Years A Slave is that we know it is real, shockingly real and yet as its centrally sinister and lugubrious plot seizes control of the viewer’s consciousness they realize that the surreal has established itself as a sobering testimony to the human condition. I tell you as a Black America man who has witnessed the unfathomable cruelty and candor of racism first hand that this story is not unfathomable; it is as real and as tangible as the very iron that was forged into shackles designed to kill the will of the human spirit itself. The main character Solomon Northup was very much like the mythical character Jonah swallowed by the most fiendish and random of fates and just as unexpectedly freed from its slavering jaws, the jaws of human enslavement.
The director takes great pains to show how southern slave masters institutionalized Christianity within their slave populations acutely in complete contradiction to the ways in which slavery was actually practiced and enforced. The slaves themselves rock back and forth upon a storm wrecked ship between the way scripture has been perverted to suit the argument for the divine right of one race to oppress and enslave another and their inherent sense of humanity, dignity and aspiration for self-determination juxtaposed by their own hyper-literal interpretation of what they understand or mis-understand to be the word of a god they cannot understand in the form of the bible. The film exposed religion as one of the central factors behind the docility of the slaves. Its powerful hex of fear and guilt transfixed the tortured population of slaves providing them with a diabolically perverted justification for their tortured condition. In their own twisted way I suppose these slave masters and slavery supporters alike must have had to force themselves to believe the lie of divinely ordained racial inferiority in order to live with the guilt and horror they must certainly have had to confront administering its fell directives in their daily lives. The film conveys all too well how slave and master became twisted into a Hellish drama centered upon the perversion of Christianity as interpreted from what those men believed to be the bible. The director presents Sunday worship as a family event in which the master becomes the minister preaching his self-serving brand of scripture. So the master is depicted administering holy Zion to his own family, white hired hands and the extended family of slaves under the yawning mosses of the Louisianan clime. Yet another difficult theme for American audiences to absorb because of the intense level of indoctrination they have been conditioned by in an overall system that has collectively chosen to ignore the raw and dirty issues defining the institutionalized operant conditioning of slaves into a religion that alleged to condone the sociopathic hatred and torture they were obliged to endure from the cradle to the grave… No one has thus undertaken this task with such uncanny eloquence…
The film leaves us wondering how Solomon Northup was moved after being heroically freed. His reunion with a family he no longer knew was private and emotional and appeared to have established a new and far more precious bond between them but one wonders how he was able to face white men again or rather how he equipped himself to move forward knowing that he was both betrayed and championed by them… The film exposes a great many of these social conflicts and contradictions many of which continue to chide us in twenty first century race relations in America.
The film also delved into the heretofore unexplored realm of interracial intimacies between master and slave revealing an indelicate and treacherous landscape shaped by the divine right of a master to take on a slave as a lover even when married and the Victorian dichotomy of indifference and shame that branded those who dared to delve into an emotional realm in a world that viewed them on the white side as a man and his animal and on the black side as a man and his victim. The candid and unexpected examination of a masters love and lust for his slave juxtaposed by his obligation to discipline that lover which he deemed to be above all his unequal and his property painted a deranged and socially corrosive picture of antebellum life. On the other hand it depicted slaves that had enjoyed the favor of their masters being lavished with all of the amenities of a white woman but ultimately subject to the dictates of their station as a slave should their benefactor die or fall upon hard financial times, it was a bonfire of vanities never before exposed and explicated with this degree of detail before.
So what adds up to an extraordinary story given the times all begins to make sense once the main character of Solomon Northup is masterfully developed. Well respected by white businessmen in the north Solomon found that he elicited the irresistible favor of his many slave masters in the south. He was indeed an extraordinary man discovering in the south how his genius would be envied and hated by the white employees of his masters who resented the favor in which he was kept. In no other place than this was the bonfire of vanities more heated. The politics of being smart and a slave have been here documented in what i believe to be an unusually well developed story line. Solomon Northup a respected business and family man in upstate New York is tricked, kidnapped and forced into enslavement as far south as can be imagined where he uses his wits to escape legally to be restored to family and home. There can be few stories more amazing and extraordinary than this...
The question has been raised so many times by critics regarding whether or not the film was an “American” film or foreign. The film was actually a British-American effort but it is truly only an American film in theme. That being said it is my opinion that not being a Hollywood “Baby” 12 Years A Slave, which has had a limited distribution in America was perhaps better suited to be made outside of Hollywood. American made films of this sort often get too watered down as an accommodation to avoid offending white audiences but an insult to the intelligence of its enlightened and informed white and black American audiences. The result often becomes a bland soup of mediocrity ultimately failing to convey any verisimilitude at all. But not this film! 12 Years A Slave is raw and uncensored, I was surprised at its candor and breadth realizing immediately that it was truly not conceived in the sad tradition of the American made film. If 12 Years A Slave had been made in Hollywood tradition it would have been censored to the point that the story would not be worth telling at all.
To its credit the film was beautifully acted, the set, costume and screenwriting were historically accurate and detailed with a fetishlike perfection. The camera and musical scores were perfect. Every detail of this film was exceptionally executed. One of the most moving scenes was the burial of a slave man who dropped dead in the middle of the cotton fields, a reality supported by many slave narratives I have read. The slave was beaten even after he had keeled over and died and when he was buried that evening the most soul rending blues/gospel hymn intercedes to calm our passions… One of the hallmarks of this picture, and a most effective conveyor of mood, a credit to the detail lavished by its producers, was the use of pause, deliberately extended moments of emotional contemplation expressed before a character responded or interposed within a conversation. This masterful and unique technique served to pull the scene out from the film itself and lay it upon the table in effect to magnify the poignancy and gravity of what was being said. As I said, it was masterfully executed as a cinematic technique sometimes with the cries of locusts, crickets and all of the beasts of the Louisiana Bayou in full concert whilst the viewer waited for the actor’s weighty response… To say that I had not at first expected such wittiness and craftsmanship or such unexpected artifice in a film charged with explicating such a sobering theme would be an understatement were it not that I was so magically overwhelmed by the product as delivered. In this way and man more the film was a success but mostly because the actors truly became those men and women, villains and heroes alike characterizing the truly acid pathology of a culture that is now little known save by historians, the antebellum south. If anyone desires to understand why racial tensions are what they are in twenty-first century America then surely they must understand what happened not only to Solomon Northup 174 years ago in 1841 but also what fate befell those like him most of which were never refurbished with their freedom.
I will not waste your time regurgitating the plot of the movie 12 Years A Slave as an enticement to provoke you to see it instantly re-served. You have seen the same theme many times before, “a man overcomes his obstacle”, it is a cliché, but this film is not and ultimately you must make the decision whether or not to go to see it for yourself! The point of my review is to point out the finest points which make this film unique, to excite the sensibility of human curiosity and to promise that it will be artistically satisfied if one is so inspired to venture there. Otherwise I should not bother to even mention the film and certainly not take time to write about it, to be honest, if not for the fact that I find it to be a jewel of great beauty to be shared. Nor will I say to you, “Go See This Film”! Because of this and that, have you not heard and resisted such entreatments before? I will say only this admitting that I am prejudiced because I greatly enjoyed the film. The movie, 12 Years A Slave is tremendous and it treats an uncomfortable aspect of history that heretofore has been avoided because of the obvious pathology and contradiction to religion and the egalitarian ideals of American freedom that slavery and racism represent. Therefore, if you go to see this movie do so not to prove or disprove what you have read here, rather do so because you desire to be enlightened and extract your own opinions and interpretations of what you have seen to play out before you.
Male Media Mind