Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Why Twelve Years a Slave?

Last week I attended an afternoon showing of the film Twelve Years a Slave. I love movies, those with a message, those that brings me to tears, and the ones that have me laughing out loud. Often times I'll realize, in advance, that I'm going to be demoralized or brought down by a film but I go anyway because I feel as though I need to bear witness to the worst parts of human nature. (think Schindler's List)

 I also prefer to see every film that will be nominated for awards so that I can have some buy-in on Oscars night when I stay awake way past my bedtime til the bitter end. And...I read every film review available. When I'm told from such disparate sources as People Magazine and The New York Times that a movie is "necessary," I'm on it. Such was the case with the highly touted Twelve Years a Slave.

And now I'm going to ask again, "Why did we need Twelve Years a Slave?" What new ground did this film cover? What light did it shed on one of the most horrific episodes in United States history? I discussed this with friends last week, both of whom are around my age, lets call us 60+, and mentioned that I felt that I had learned more about the full history of slavery from reading and watching Alex Haley's Roots saga, not to mention the eye-opening Alice Walker novel and subsequent film, The Color Purple.

Anne and Beth had to remind me that it's possible and even likely that the reviewers of this new movie were not even alive when Roots or The Color Purple first came out. We would be going back to the late '70's or early '80's. Wow! That was an eye opener and, of course, they are most likely right. Still, isn't it incumbent upon reviewers to be knowledgeable about what preceded the current? Or are they only responsible for what's right before their eyes? I see both sides to this dilemma.

Let me say that, from the start, I took issue with the title, Twelve Years a Slave, even though I understand that it was taken from the book by Solomon Northrup, a free man who lived in New York state, was kidnapped in Washington, D.C. and sold into enslavement. Twelve Years Enslaved would have been the more appropriate title.

What bothered me the most about the film was that, contrary to what we know from history, it depicted the enslaved people on the plantations as both fearful and cowed, rather than as defiant and able to run, choosing death over enslavement. Granted, Solomon had a reason to live. His wife and children in New York had no idea what had happened to him because he had no way of communicating with them.

 Though he was a man of talent and knowledge, could read and write, Solomon had no access to paper and pen, a fact that is addressed in a frustrating scene where he tries to fashion a pen out of wood and ink from boiled berries. He painstakingly, and though the film doesn't show it, one gathers, writes a letter over several nights or even weeks, entrusting it to a "man of God," who's seeking redemption by working in the cotton fields. I'll say no more.

I've been looking forward to discussing this film with my sister with whom I'm usually in either complete accord or totally opposite. We are never wishy-washy when it comes to our views of movies and literature and we share a penchant for the dark side. I'll be curious to see if she agrees with me on this but I didn't see any Academy Award worthy material here.

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