In her review of '12 Years A Slave', Roxane Gay said: "I am worn out by slavery and struggle narratives. I am worn out by broken black bodies and the broken black spirit somehow persevering in the face of overwhelming and impossible circumstance." Despite the incredible praise that has been lavished on "12 Years a Slave", Gay and other reviewers bemoaned that the film is rehashing another version of the same tale, packaged for Hollywood audiences in yet another way. I have sometimes felt the same things about "historical suffering" pieces.
So I came into '12 Years a Slave' looking for something other than guilt and sadness. I came looking, perhaps selfishly, for strong performances by actors, and for elegant writing. I found both. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a free black man from the North who falls in among the untrustworthy, finds himself abducted and sold, and spends (obviously) a dozen years as the property of a lineup of southern white men. In his performance and in the screenplay, I found not just what I was looking for, but also some questions about human beings that I think elevate the film above melodrama and into the realm of art.
Human beings are all anyone encounters in John Ridley's screenplay, and they come in many shapes. Solomon's first hawker, a well-dress Paul Giamatti, tells his customer (Solomon's future owner Ford, played by Benedict Cumberbatch) "my sentimentality extends the length of a coin." Overseer Tibeats, played by Paul Dano, commands a new batch of slaves to clap for him on their first day as he sings a demeaning song about runaway slaves. In a chilling scene, a black woman who has gained a life of relative ease by marrying the white plantation owner who loved her invites Solomon to sit for tea and reflects eloquently on the world she lives in: "If [enduring Master Shaw's pantomime of fidelity is] what keep me from the cotton pickin' niggers, that's what it is to be. A small and reasonable price to be paid for sure."
Like almost everyone in the film, these characters are survivors. Slaves "say and do as little as possible" to avoid the whip or the noose, guilty slave owners must pay their debts, and the others scrape out their living where they can in the established system. Only Solomon seems to dream of something else, proclaiming: "I don't want to survive. I want to live."
But as the film shows us, living is barely an option. I rejoiced vocally when Solomon stole the whip from Tibeats and made him scream with whipping, and even breathed a sigh of relief when another overseer told Solomon that he would protect him, but the subsequent moments left Solomon hanging by his neck from a branch, his feet barely touching the ground and keeping him from death. In an agonizing long shot slaves and slave owners alike ignored the hanging man, save one girl who brought him a sip of water and hurried away.
It is in this and other scenes like this that slavery can be understood as it truly was--a monster of civilization, nearly indestructible and impossible to fight.
Praise is deserved for the many actors who contribute to this. Cumberbatch's Master Ford barely has four scenes, but his rich voice and manner embody the period and the kind of goodness that men like Ford offered--scripture, attempts at justice, protection, but in the end not much else. Dano's Tibeats is despicable, sniveling, and hateable. What a sad career that guy is having. And it's impossible to forget Michael Fassbender's wild, egomaniacal Epps, a lusty, boozing farmer. Fassbender plays him as part Nazi, part Shakespeare villain, reduced to nothing but desperate selfishness.
Solomon is a treat to watch. Ridley's text is heightened like Arthur Miller's Crucible, and no one gets it right quite like Mr. Ejiofor. His performance is at times so subtle as to almost disappear, but when the fire burns, it burns, and it's hard to take one's eyes off him. Lupita Nyong'o plays Patsey, Epps' concubine and the best cotton-picker on his plantation. Ebony-skinned, with wide eyes that rarely look at anyone, Patsey is a pathetic symbol of the race--hopeless, meaningless, making dolls out of grass and fighting the most desperately when it comes down to a bar of soap, as she screams at Epps: "I stink so bad I make myself gag!"
For those who saw the trailer and Solomon's vigorous declaration: "I will not fall into despair!" This statement is tragic. Despair is much of the film's purpose, and by the end the words echoing in my ears were not Solomon's wife's final comfort but instead Epps' wrathful cry in Northup's ear: "I own you! I own you!" In the end, Solomon Northup survives more than he lives, and we can hardly ask ourselves why after such a display of brutality and evil.
One of my favorite moments takes place at a graveside. A slave fell dead that afternoon picking cotton, and at the funeral a woman begins to sing "Roll, Jordan Roll". As the others sing around him, Solomon begins to sing in a pleading, anguished bass voice: "Roll, Jordan, roll--my soul arise in heaven, Lord, for the year that Jordan roll."
But as the film shows in Solomon's many scenes of playing the fiddle as a slave, and in contrast to many Hollywood approaches to racism, music is not life. Slavery was the birth of the music that shaped America, but like Solomon whipping Tibeats, this kind of music is still protest more than rejoicing.
The lash-marks of slavery may not be much felt in the nation's politics now, but it seems from my limited perspective that they are still felt in the people. Other non-whites still feel more comfortable than blacks in many aspects of American society. Black music may dominate above most others, but what about their lives? Are they (and people of all races) still trying just to survive? Have we forgotten that we can live? Are the words of the devil and other men, screaming "I own you!" still ringing in our ears?
I am still digesting '12 Years a Slave'. I imagine I will for a few more weeks, and I think I will think of it often for many years. The adage says we are doomed to repeat history if we do not know it, and I think 12 Years a Slave has taught me enough that I will refuse to be powerless. But goodness gracious, I'm glad that at least some of that is over.