As promised, I have collected my thoughts on a movie that I saw earlier this week (12 Years a Slave). Spoilers included!
But before I do, I want to reference a movie I saw earlier, and which some of you had discussed: Gravity.
Between the two films, Gravity is obviously the easier movie to digest, but both movies I would definitely say are must-sees since they are truly well-made films. Not only that, but they’re actually very similar in terms of themes: What underlines both messages?
The desire and the will to not just survive but to live!
That’s what Solomon Northup (played with exquisite brilliance by Chiwetel Ejiofor) says in the film based on his 1853 account of his experiences as a free black man from Saratoga, N.Y., who supports his wife and two children as a violinist, but is kidnapped in 1841 by two strangers promising him a lucrative gig in a circus. One minute Solomon is a free man, next moment he’s in chains.
Gravity works similarly, where one minute Sandra Bullock’s character is routinely fixing a satellite, while George Clooney waxes poetic about the spectacular view of space, the next minute they’re thrown off by an explosion that knocks them off course.
Both heroes spend the rest of the movie off kilter (Bullock flailing in outer space, Ejiofor trapped in the hell of slavery) until they find their way home (with either the help of gravity or grace – or maybe both).
They also feature spectacular scenes of beauty (of outer space, of moss-covered trees in the swamp lands of Louisiana).
More than that: they both recycle very similar scenes from earlier movies (think 2001: Space Odyssey for Gravity or any plantation movie for 12 Years a Slave) with a subtle difference (the POV 3-D effects in the former).
Here is where 12 Years a Slave gets interesting. The scene where Solomon Northup is hanged for being insubordinate to a white overseer is searing, intense, and goes on for an unbearably long time. Fortunately, he is given enough room to stand on his tippy toes, so he survives the ordeal, but this shot was an interesting one for director Steve McQueen to take.
Earlier, his artistic photograph, “Lynching Tree” (above), was featured in an exhibit this year and later used as backdrop to Kanye West’s “Blood on the Leaves” performance at this year’s VMA show. Most of us probably forgot about that performance, since we were mostly being offended by Miley Cyrus’s misbehavior. Still, it was an interesting visual, and in 12 Years a Slave, McQueen really hits home that legacy of violence, pain, and dehumanization. It still haunts me days later, as I was struck both by the beauty of the landscape and the horrors that such beauty hid.
Other visceral scenes, like the seemingly unending whipping of fellow slave Patsey (played to heartbreaking perfection by newcomer Lupita Nyong’o) by their cruel master Edwin Epps (portrayed with sinister cunning by the weirdly charming Michael Fassbender). There is this underlying sexual tension in the violence projected by Epps as slaveowner. He comes off as a combination of sex offender, pervert, batterer, and happy drunk. His oppression is based on the element of surprise (i.e. you just never know what he’s going to do next). And, yes, of all the scenes of Epps’ depraved violence, the one that made me sick to my stomach was when he walked around pantless while coddling a little slave girl. Just … Ugh!
More than anything, 12 Years a Slave is an honest depiction of the system of slavery: not just in terms of the violence but also in terms of the long dehumanizing process that went into it, all while our nation profited heavily from the exploited labor of unpaid workers (let’s be real about what was going on). From the constant scenes of cotton-picking, cane-cutting, and tree-chopping, McQueen visualizes that centuries-long history of a nation built on the whipped backs of slaves.
And yet, there are those moments of grace: of Patsey taking time in the fields to create corn dolls, of slaves finding rhythm in the work and creating songs to the beat, of a slave mother disrupting her master’s hypocritical Sunday sermon with her never-ending wails for her lost children sold away from her. There had to be grace among such people, for we who descended from our slave ancestors, would not be here today had it not been for their grace. Somehow, in the midst of brutality, they found the will to survive and to live and, like Bullock at the end of Gravity, to land on their feet after such a tremendous fall from grace that is the legacy of slavery.
More than anything, we have two films recapturing the strength and humility of the human spirit to triumph over crisis and cling to life and living. I hope you will get a chance to see both when they open in a theater near you.