12 Years a Slave (2013)


A few years ago, my coworker related a funny scene from a movie she liked – I can’t remember what it was – and asked me whether I’d seen it. I answered, off-the-cuff, “Oh, I don’t watch black movies.” It sounded pretty bad, and she didn’t hesitate to call me out on it. Later, the line became a bit of a running joke between us, in those moments when the topic of race came up in conversation.

Of course, what I meant was something along the lines of “I don’t watch movies at all, really, including but not limited to comedies predominantly featuring black actors of the sort you’re describing, maybe in part because I don’t get some of the jokes.” But I suppose I also meant “I don’t watch black movies.”

What makes a black movie, anyway? Is 12 Years a Slave a black film, because it stars black actors, or was directed by a black man, or because it tells a story that is distinctly and uniquely a Black American experience? (That director, incidentally, is also British.)

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northrup is amazing in this role. Some of the most powerful moments are those with no dialogue or action; we’re left only to contemplate the shock on Solomon’s face as he tries to recognize the reality of his situation, the absurdity of it. We linger long on his near-lynching, see the background as people gradually resume their activities in the background, not daring to approach the man dangling on the end of the rope. It’s a frightening world, with little compassion or humanity – even sometimes among the slaves, who are themselves clinging to survival however they can.

This is a difficult movie to watch. It’s heart-wrenching, and even though it kind of has a happy ending, at least in the sense that Solomon returns home, the viewer is left with a sense of nausea at the idea of all those slaves who suffered this life. Maybe the hardest thing for me to fathom was the sheer resilience that kept them alive despite the hopelessness of their life. I recall reading something recently about modern-day plantation tours, where (white) tourists often asked, “But they treated the slaves well, right?”

Well, we even get a look at that question, in the form of Benedict Cumberbatch (who is great as Sherlock, but I had no idea what to make of his accent here). BC plays Ford, Solomon’s first slaveholder, and he’s portrayed as almost benevolent. He takes Solomon’s expertise into account, and praises him for his work. You’d almost think he’s one of those kindly slaveowners. When Ford sells Solomon, he portrays himself as stuck in a system beyond his control. He has debts, he protests, and so as much as he’d like to keep Solomon, he has no choice. In the end, Solomon is still just property to discard.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the ongoing controversy around diversity in Hollywood and at the Oscars. Something in it also forces me to question my decision to focus on Oscar-winning films for a year. By choosing to watch these movies – not only, but realistically, how many movies can you watch in a year? – I am also choosing to not watch others. And if the Oscars has excluded minority artists throughout much of its history, then what else am I missing? I do still feel that it’s worthwhile to watch canonical movies, but also recognize the value of delving deeper to appreciate things outside the mainstream, which are often also outside white culture.

My last blog post drew an interesting reaction (interesting, for starters, that I got a reaction at all). Somebody reacted negatively to my critique of Dances with Wolves, or not so much the movie itself, but in context with the Oscars diversity issue. He suggested that great art will find its audience, which is a nice sentiment – but I don’t think history supports it.

Great art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, unless the cleaning crew at the gallery made a grave mistake. Art is made by people, and exists in conversation between its creator (who carries a history of his/her own experience and interpretation) and the audience it finds. Engaging with art requires asking questions of all kinds, probably starting with, “Why I am reacting to this the way I am?” You do a disservice to yourself to limit your encounters with art (of any kind – writing, fine art, music) to things that resonate with your own experience.

When watching this film, I asked myself, what audience is this meant for, and for what reaction? It’s a difficult movie to watch, filled with white characters that are loathsome. There’s a sense of distance that I feel as a white person watching these figures, who are so blatantly racist and cruel. And yet, I can’t help seeing parallels in our present day. How many of us white people are well-intentioned and yet still blind to many of the painful realities of living as a Black American today?

This post, as it turns out, isn’t really about 12 Years a Slave much at all. It’s an incredible film, and certainly worth looking at in greater detail, but I think others have probably done that better than I can do. At the same time, I don’t think it’s a disservice to the movie that I’ve spent my time discussing the context in which I’ve experienced it. Maybe I don’t watch black movies. But maybe I should try harder to do so and see what I can learn.

Theme:  Plantation

First Time Watching?  Yes

Loved it/Liked it/Hated it – Thank God Almighty We Are Free at Last


One response

  1. Pingback: Meta-post: The Ranking | Year of the Oscar

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