Monday, February 17, 2014

12 Years a Slave


Every year around Oscars time, I am finally spurred to watch one of the year’s cinematic offerings that I had yet to watch. Obviously, there’s more going on than the silly award categories and general media frenzy, like the fact that a film is still a big deal or considered an underdog for having black characters at its center (remember Beasts of the Southern Wild?). Watching the Golden Globes, it was how glaringly obvious it is that Hollywood is still no place for diversity. I kept on wondering where Fruitvale Station was, and even beyond that, it seems like we only see people of color in mainstream media when they are in subversive, political, and therefore, “special interest” roles. There is a kind of insidious way in which this presence of the underdog nomination attempts to redeem or excuse the unbalance towards whiteness that is in mainstream media. Still, there’s no ignoring the fact that 12 Years a Slave is the movie everyone is supposed to watch this year. And it should be.

You probably already know this, but the film is an adaptation of the true story of Solomon Northup, a New-York born free man who is abducted in 1841 and sold into slavery in Louisiana. Reading some of the (admittedly hard to find) negative reviews, the critics focus on the kind of sorrow-porn that the film is, arguing that it does not explore Northup’s inner life as a character, that way in which the film others the villains makes it a bit easy (they are not us, and we cannot see us in them), and that difficult subjects still should not be hard to watch. To some extent, I agree, but I didn’t find the film hard to watch, and didn’t find myself turning away the way I do at many films that incorporate the body on the basis of pain. And still, it is important to know the extent of physical cruelty, when it is so far from us, and when the education we get in schools is somewhat sensitized to a white perspective.

In terms of exploring his inner, psychological life, I do feel that not all films need to be set up for this, that it is a ridiculous need, and that, nevertheless, the film is not completely devoid of that exploration. It still houses threads of confused sexuality, tangled empathy, and personal frustration. The frustration that Northup feels at finding the berry juice he collected to be too aqueous to write with is a true moment of horror. One of the most powerful points of the film is the way in which characters encounter other suffering bodies and people. When a man who was kidnapped alongside Northup is saved by a lawyer producing his papers, he leaves without a glance back. And Northup does not do something so different to Patsey, the woman he leaves behind on the incredibly cruel plantation that occupies most of the film’s running time. These abandoments remind us that Northup’s story is far from unique. Each time that Northup does something we would root for, I couldn’t help but to be paralyzed in the tension of what would happen in response to his subversion of power. The film successfully is a process in empathy, and importantly asks the question: what can resistant bodies do when there is no place for resistance?

Maybe I’m just a sentimental cheeseball, because all of the tear-jerking moments of 12 Years a Slave found their target with me. Perhaps it is because I spent summers of my childhood in the South; I know these trees and grasses well, have met women who sell their corn-husk baskets at the grounds of the old slave market, turned tourist attraction. Along with the intensity of bodily pain portrayed, the camera also reveals images of intense, languid beauty, somehow managing to not make the scenes pastoral and sweet. To supplement the previous question: how are we supposed to express life, which is beautiful, in the context under which it is forced to exist? Perhaps this is too hard to ask, and too hard to do. And yet, there is memory in the Spanish moss. 12 Years a Slave serves a graceful and horrific reminder that although we may not live in the same circumstances, we certainly live in the same world.

          -Isabel Stern

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