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Thoughts on the Film 12 Years a Slave

10/20/2013 07:25 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

It's a surprise to me that after seeing this film with all of its brutality, its exhibitions of man's grotesque inhumanity to man, that what I feel is relief. I tossed and turned the night after seeing the film and listening to Director Steve McQueen and his two main stars, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender discuss their experience of making the film. It is the story of a free man of color who lived with his family in comfortable circumstances in Saratoga, New York. He's hard working, resourceful and a devoted husband and father. In his honest pursuit of more income for his family, he is hoodwinked into traveling to Washington, D.C. where he's kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Deep South. Solomon Northrup spends 12 years trying to keep mentally and physically alive and whole with the hope that somehow, someday he'll return to his family and the life he had before this nightmare began. In pure storytelling terms, it doesn't get much better. But, this story actually happened.

The next day, after seeing the film, I noticed a new energy inside me, a feeling of power and strength. I felt a kind of psychic comfort: I was cared for, I had been honored, my grandparents and their grandparents had risen from the ground in spirit and said in my ear, "Yes." My spine straightened, and my chin was steady, my eyes open and fierce. Why? Because the film gets it right. Hard as it is to watch at times, the film gets it right. I lived. I survived. I learned to read, write, to be strong, to make a contribution to my society. I cheered at the end of the screening because Mr. McQueen and his cast and crew got it right.

How do I know this? Because like legions of others who feel a distinct lacking when it comes to positive stories about black people, I read history. Because though my high school American History textbook had only two paragraphs about slavery, my family insisted that I read, that I know what I came from, how I survived. 12 Years a Slave is one fine telling of the survival story. It comes directly from the source -- Solomon Northrup, the man who experienced the horror and lived to tell the tale. His book was published in the 1850's. How can anyone think black people could've struggled and prevailed against never-ending negativities if they were not very strong, very special people? We have died and died some more for centuries, and we are still here and we need to be recognized in this way as well. This film is an honoring of my history, and I am grateful.

I've rarely felt anything like that after seeing a film that included scenes of slavery -- not Band of Angels, Jezebel, Gone With the Wind, The Foxes of Harrow (black writer, Frank Yerby's novel notwithstanding) and God knows not after seeing Birth of a Nation -- which I had the great misfortune to see at a screening in New Orleans years ago. There are many other films from Hollywood that show scenes of slavery. There are precious few that seriously got it right, Amistad being one of them. No matter what amount of Hollywood screen time given to the historical journey of black people, (i.e. American history) more often than not, I've been left with feelings of shame, anger and defensiveness. I had no heroes on the silver screen to shore me up. I searched those old films for something to hang my hat on. By and large, over the years, Hollywood chose to show slavery rife with happy contented slaves, loving their "masters" and "mistresses" like they were saviors and not captors, singing and dancing, crying when the "master" suffered, impatient if another slave suffered a slight and frowned "ungratefully" -- a nonsensical reading of history that wears thin quickly. While watching some of those old films, I found myself wishing the slaves would crush oleander and put it in the gumbo pot. Which is not to say that strange relationships did not develop and prevail between many masters and slaves. Who had the power? Which is not to say that every once in a great while, something made it through the Hollywood mill that didn't embarrass, anger and degrade me.

But knowledge is definitely power and though Birth of a Nation sent me flying out the door in a fury, what it taught me -- which didn't come together in my brain for years -- was that the industry I'd staked my career life on, began its extraordinary journey thinking of me and my people as less than human, as animals, as ignorant, as servile, as sexual maniacs, as perennial "boys" and mammy-caretakers, incapable of anything worthwhile. When it jelled in my mind that I was up against an extremely thick brick wall, I said, Denise, you can't win this one. Get out and lobby for a "change of venue," for the destruction of everything Birth of Nation and its sorry derivations spewed into the world with the hope that future generations will call it what it was/is: a racist diatribe against black people that forms the psychological basis for far too much of what Hollywood produced over the years. Update: until Hollywood's hobbled attempts to right some of its wrongs began in the second half of the 20th century. It wasn't much but as we used to say in the hood, "it beats a blank!"

Those images created in Hollywood have been sent soaring throughout the Universe and have probably done more to dishonor us, to destroy our ability to be seen for who we really are than any other product, text, painting, poem, ever created. It dawned on me that though there certainly were literate men, knowledgeable men who knew better in this industry, the industry, by and large, sided with the South in most (not all!) of its representations of American History and certainly in its representations of black people. I grappled with my understanding that though the North won the war, the South certainly won the peace and Hollywood was on board that train, much of the time (not always!) waving its own version of the Confederate flag. We - black people - were to be discarded, joked about, talked about as if we had horns, degraded, always degraded, sometimes in the subtlest of ways, ways that creep into the viewer.

When, in Casablanca, Ingrid Bergman's character refers to Dooley Wilson's character, Sam, as a "boy," well, need I say more? Do I love this film? Yes. Have I seen it a hundred times? Yes. And, every time I must get through the scene of the famous actress referring to a grown black man as a boy! It interrupts my suspension of disbelief. I am embarrassed for the actor. I am angered by this degradation of his manhood.

One of my favorite (not!) scene types has been of the black man saving the white man then, sadly, dying himself: putting "massa" before self. Hogwash! Another favorite is the black man who isn't powerful enough to fight his own battles, needing a white savior. This was so pervasive in film that when Danny Glover beat three white guys in the saloon scene in Silverado, my mouth dropped open. Sometimes these scenes and actions are not at all subtle: they are blatant, pervasive and stultifying. Black characters are expected to give their hearts and souls to white people and be grateful for the opportunity to serve. These images are degrading to my sense of self, to my sense of the value of my own family and community. During slavery, a black person had to behave this way under threat of whippings or worse. There's been no need to continue that madness in film for all the years since the beginning of the industry.

Though the recent film, Lincoln, was barely (tangentially?) about our journey, and beautifully done, I felt such emptiness after viewing it. Why? Where was Frederick Douglass -- even a paltry letter from him? Lincoln, in the film, spends screen time reading letters. If there was no time for a screen appearance by this black man who had a direct impact on Lincoln, why not a letter from him? Something to say that black people were not just cannon fodder and maids and butlers and slaves even then: Frederick Douglass was a toweringly brilliant man, and he wasn't the only one. He was a hero for me, for us. But, alas, he was not in Hollywood's version of that historical period though in truth, we were "in the mix" in more ways than one even then. I've already heard all the reasons why Mr. Douglass wasn't included. None of them hold a spit of water for me.

Along came Django Unchained, a rocket-blast of a film with a broad mix of cartoonish characters and extremely serious moments. Truly, I didn't know whether to laugh and/or cry. I did both. I was "relieved" to see slavery sequences that matched the scholarly research on that institution, available for anyone to read. A door was held open here on the true nature of the brutality endured by slaves. The love-story intrigued me, as we haven't seen very many black man/woman love stories on film. I, probably like a many other black people, watch some Hollywood films teasing out what I need, whatever I can find, if it's there to be teased out. I certainly did that with Django.

My memories of Roots are spotty, but I do remember thinking, whose story is this? Why am I feeling disturbed -- not about the representation of a part of my history -- but about the way it's presented. Alex Haley was a friend. I have a signed uncorrected proof copy of his incredible book. We talked of these things heartily. But when Roots came to television, I was stunned by what I didn't feel that I thought I would. I know I'm in the minority here. I also have been around long enough to know that a part of the huge reaction to Roots had to do with the fact that even that much of our history hadn't ever been seen before on the screen and people, black and white, deeply wanted to see something about our historical journey in this country. It was huge, and that was good. But the visual storytelling whispered to me, "This is good but it's not enough yet. Slavery was worse than this. It was a world-class abomination. A world class holocaust."

Perhaps I had grown weary of seeing anything about my history presented to me by whites in an industry that more often than not "disappeared" me or worse, degraded my humanity. I guess I didn't trust it. And, rightly so. If you know that people would rather see you on screen pushing a broom, unable to speak, unable to write, unable to be anything but a servant or a criminal, why would you feel comfortable with those people telling your true story? That would be idiotic at best.

At any rate, as fast as it appeared, the entertainment industry closed that door and went right on producing film after film and television show after show as if we did not exist, as if we all, white and black, were not standing on the shoulders of those forgotten people -- the good ones and the horrid ones -- who carved out this country, brick by brick, sugar cane stalk by stalk, cotton boll by boll, "yes, ma'am" and "yes, suh" by "yes, ma'am and "yes, suh." Chris Matthews said on his show in discussing The Butler with two of the stars of that film, "Your people have been here for a long, long time." (Paraphrased.) Yes. We have been here for a long, long time, but you'd never know it if your only reference was film out of Hollywood! My ancestors' bones are all over this country. The floor of the Atlantic Ocean is strewn with them. The rivers and bayous are treasure chests of the remains of my people. They speak to me constantly.

12 Years a Slave treads into terrain so rarely visited in film. As we've often seen before this extraordinary work, slapping something up on the screen is not enough. The bigger part has to do with the care, the attention to detail, the truth-telling, the presentation of a dramatic history that is foundational, the compassion for all the characters -- even the dreaded and dreadful ones. 12 Years achieves that and so much more. All in this film are human beings: plagued by complexity, by greed, by hatred, by love, by confusion, by disdain, by consternation. There is also the landscape, photographed to great effect: Louisiana -- ominous and beautiful at once -- the sky, the swamps and bayous, the trees, the Spanish moss, the soil, the sun, the heat. Beauty and sorrow juxtaposed. They all come to vibrant life in this film. It is a complex tapestry of the very soul of American history. It is a story of survival, mental and physical, it is a visualization and particularization of humanity: the brutalized and the brutalizers -- everyone different, all lost in a way, all astounded by their experience, all on a journey in and through American history.

Denise Nicholas is an Actress and Author of the award-winning novel, Freshwater Road, included in Professor Samuel Freedman's List of best books on the Civil Rights Movement, The Daily Beast, Aug 27, 2013.