Not a holiday movie: 12 Years A Slave

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This past weekend, Sean and I went out to see a movie. No, not one of those cutesy, uplifting family-friendly holiday features that are so popular this time of year. Far from it. We went to see 12 Years A Slave.

My God.

This is a film that you can’t really recommend to people because it’s basically asking people you like and appreciate to feel like they are getting kicked in the stomach for two hours straight.

But it is a very important movie that needed to be made. And more importantly, to be seen.

12 Years A Slave is the true story of Solomon Northrup, an antebellum African-American man who was born free and lived as a professional musician with his wife and two children in Saratoga, New York, and then was deceived into a false business proposition that led him to Washington, D.C., where he was then kidnapped and sold into slavery in southern Louisiana. He eventually is freed again and recorded his 12-year nightmare in a published book, thereafter dedicating himself to the abolitionist cause.

This movie is very, very, very, very hard to watch. There are graphic scenes of brutal whippings and beatings, utter dehumanization. It’s the kind of movie people walk out on midway through, and for those who make it to the end, they’re left emotionally vacant, silent, and…transformed.

The film’s choices are deliberately uncomfortable. I started squirming in my seat during one lengthy shot near the beginning of the film, when a character is nearly lynched and is straddling the line between life and death as he dangles among the Spanish moss from a tree, his toes barely supporting him on the boggy mud below. This shot stretched on for what must have been the longest three minutes of my life.

This movie is also very beautiful: featuring haunting panoramics of the Louisiana bayou country, the soundtrack of cicadas throughout. There is something perfectly chilling about the overlay of misquoted Scripture and African spiritual songs. And I’ll be shocked if Michael Fassbender doesn’t get an Oscar for his performance as the sadistic, abusive plantation owner Epps.  I thought Gravity was an incredible cinematic experience (it totally affirmed the existence of 3-D movies, in my opinion), but seriously…give this movie all of the Oscars.

I CRIED ALL OF THE TEARS AT THE END. ALL OF THEM. I heard the collective sobbings of women (and probably men, too) all around me in the theater.

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The fact that this movie follows a free man who must suffer the psychological, as well as physical, brutalities of slavery makes it not just a “black movie,” but a “human movie.” Although admittedly Sean and I had a collective feeling of self-loathing and horror upon boarding the train after, and finding ourselves in an extremely small white minority. White Man’s Guilt. It’s a thing.

Holocaust movies we can stomach despite their very real atrocities because that was them over there, not us over here. Slavery in the South? Well.

(Don’t even get me started on White Southerner Guilt. This is probably what fueled all of Faulkner’s Southern Gothic novel-writing.)

I read Gone With the Wind this summer and didn’t care for it as much as I felt like I was supposed to. This movie and story certainly throws that whole “Mammy” myth into the garbage. Solomon could have been any of those anonymous black, and falsely merry, slaves in the opening credits to Scarlett O’Hara’s story. And that’s the thing: this is one story among many untold stories.

This is the kind of movie that they should be showing in high school history class. But the parents would never allow it.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Not a holiday movie: 12 Years A Slave

  1. Nicole Resweber

    It’s been halfway on my list. You’ve confirmed that I need to make a point of seeing it.

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