Movies: You Can’t (and Shouldn’t) Avoid 12 Years a Slave

From left, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o and Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave, currently in theaters.

From left, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o and Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave, currently in theaters.

David Evans, Regal Radio

“The psychology of the children of slaves, it runs deep…”

Talib Kweli (of Black Star), “What’s Beef?”

In theaters for the past month, Steve McQueen‘s (Hunger, Shame) 12 Years a Slave, a masterful, yet brutal film, is based upon Solomon Northrup’s slave narrative of the same name, which tells the story of his experience of being duped into accompanying two men to a faithful trip to Washington D.C., where he would be captured and sold to slave traders bound for New Orleans.

A successful musician, family man and, most importantly, a free black man in New York state, Northrup spent the next twelve years working on three plantations in Louisiana until he was able to forward a letter to his family in New York telling them of his situation. After some time his freedom was secured again.

12 Years stars Chiwetel Ejiofor (American Gangster, Children of Men), Michael Fassbender (Shame, Inglorious Basterds) Brad Pitt (who also helped produce the film), and a solid supporting list of both well known and up and coming actors (Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Alfre Woodward, Sara Paulson, Lupita Nyong’o).

The film has received a great deal of critical acclaim, it is seen by many as the current front runner for Best Picture at the upcoming Oscars, it has received an almost perfect score on movie review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes and has won awards and plaudits at several notable film festivals where award-winning films are usually screened (Toronto, Hollywood, BAFTA, and Hamptons International). The acclaim of 12 Years far outpaces the film’s money generation, it has performed humbly at the box office, making around $26.5 million as of November 21 and has been avoided by many African American movie goers, the reasoning for many being that viewing the brutality of slavery as depicted in 12 Years will evoke strong feelings of anger.

Having seen this film, I can relate to those sentiments. Interestingly enough, these conflicting feelings did not stop many African American film-goers to see another film dealing with slavery.

Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained was released last winter and became the highest grossing film in a series of hits released by the popular director, it also garnered him a Best Original Screenplay Oscar award.

Telling the story of Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave freed by a white bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) who enlisted Django to assist him in his collecting of bounties on rogue slave masters. Django earnined over $30 million in its first weekend and over $400 million worldwide . Though excessively violent and arguably exploitative of the treatment of African Americans during slavery, the film was popular among many black film goers, only receiving mixed reviews amongst leading black thinkers and creative forces, Spike Lee being the most vocal.

The popularity of Django leads me to be confused with the the possible black backlash against 12 Years. As early as September 12, nearly two months prior to the wide US release of 12 Years, Orville Lloyd Douglas of the The Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom, wrote a piece stating his distaste for both that movie and The Butler, which at the time was enjoying a strong box office run. Douglas would write that, “I am convinced these black race films are created for a white, liberal film audience to engender white guilt and make them feel bad about themselves.”

Douglas goes on to criticize black people’s inability to get over slavery and asks “why doesn’t anyone want to see more contemporary portrayals of black lives?”A point that you can say has been squashed by the recent success of The Best Man Holiday.

Before writing Douglas off as oblivious to the lingering social effects slavery has on African Americans even today, it is important to note that Douglas is a Canadian of Jamaican ancestry, whose studies and writings are grounded more in gender and sexuality issues, and not that of black history. However, its not hard to find African Americans who share sentiments similar to Douglas, or who just want to avoid witnessing the pains of their ancestors being beaten brutally.

Despite the feelings of anger or despair the film is likely to bring forth in many, 12 Years is a film necessary for black movie goers to see. While watching it I was able to identify where significant parts of African American culture originated from, stewed within the peculiar institution of slavery. Among the many psychological and spiritual indentations formed then that remain with black people today: the introduction to wide spread Christianity (in Western Africa, where the majority of slaves came from, people either practiced polytheistic religions indigenous to their region or Islam), usage of alcohol, diets consisting mainly of pork and cornmeal and the social hierarchy system based upon the light or darkness of skin color. All of these things were explored in the film.

Both of Solomon Northrup’s slave masters in the film — Ford (Cumberbatch) and Edwin Epps (Fassbender) used the Bible to deal with their slaves and did so in differing purposes. Ford used the Bible as a teaching tool, while Epps basically used its words as justification for the white man’s enslavement of the black race. Barely treated pork and cornmeal was the the main food Northrup and the other slaves ate in their quarter (occasionally they were given offered biscuits by Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson much like a dog’s owner would offer treats to their pet) both still stand as staples in the “soul food” genre of cooking that is wholly identified with black Americans. To slaves on the Epps plantation, alcohol was given in order for them to perform in at late night dance parties to entertain their masters, there Northrup would play the violin, which he was classically trained in.

Lupita Nyong'o as Patsy picking cotton in 12 Years A Slave.

Lupita Nyong’o as Patsy picking cotton in 12 Years A Slave.

The hierarchy of slaves based upon skin color is also explored in the film, most pointedly through the involvement of the slave masters with some of their darker-skinned female slaves. Patsy (Nyong’o) is put through a harrowing set of circumstances by Master Epps after showing her prodigious ability to pick cotton.

This leads to a sexual relationship that becomes far from a well-kept secret. Defying the anger of his wife, Epps continues to has sex with Patsy, who is repeatedly punished by Mistress Epps and is eventually beaten raw by Master Epps in his efforts to not seem soft on his “property.”

Viewing historical films like 12 Years or The Butler, or other such films that deal with the atrocities of slavery and the Jim Crow era can be difficult for African American moviegoers. It was difficult for me to watch, but throughout I knew 12 Years was necessary for me to watch — the millions people of African descent who endured slavery did not have a choice in deciding the paths their lives would take, that simple fact is something that I think many of us today take for granted, its something I wish I could have conveyed to the woman sitting in front of me at the screening I attended, who continued to say “Oh hell no! They would’ve had to kill me…” throughout the movie in reacting to the brutality she saw done to people who look like her.

And contrary to Douglas’ claim that there “numerous black films that have covered civil rights and slavery” in the past twenty five years, I can only think of seven films (Django withstanding) that depict slavery in a historically accurate manner: Glory (1989), Sankofa (1993), Alex Haley’s Queen (1993), Amistad (1998), Beloved (1998),  Lincoln (2012) and now 12 Years. Of the seven, only two have been made in the last fifteen years and 12 Years is the only one that specifically explores the brutal nature of slavery.

Why go see 12 Years A Slave, because it’s about time a movie like this has been made. African American history and the culture of our people goes back much further than the Jim Crow Era and Civil Rights movement, it even goes back further than the Civil War era. As well, black directors if they try can can make films about subjects other than romantic comedies, gangster films and men who dress in drag.

We should support work that emboldens black filmmakers to make important statements and to address the essential aspects of what it has meant and what it always means to be black in America.

Follow Regal Radio on Twitter @regalradio1 and David Evans @davidevans9

3 responses to “Movies: You Can’t (and Shouldn’t) Avoid 12 Years a Slave

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