I was not exactly looking forward to seeing 12 Years a Slave when invited to see it at The Academy of Motion Pictures at special screening before it opens in theaters Ocober 18. It's not that I wasn't interested in the subject. I grew up in the South, and my parents were civil rights activists. I attended school in the first integrated class in Nashville thanks to a Federal Decree. Roots was my all time favorite mini-series. I studied the history of the South at Vanderbilt University and the laws of slavery at Tulane Law School. I had read all the important books on slavery and by slaves, or so I thought. I was afraid to see 12 Years a Slave because I just couldn't take another Django Unchained with violence that felt portrayed though the eyes of the slavers -- with cinematic lust for the brutal carnage that sickened me, but did not enlighten about the curious nature of the human slavers or move beyond cinematic tropes to show slavery as it was: from the real daily humiliations to the nearly unfathomable cruelty and terror that kept the evil institution alive. But I had hope that the great director Steve McQueen would deliver something better, and I was excited to hear from him and the actors in conversation after the film. So I went; I wept; I stood, and I applauded. I also learned more than I have from any other source about the reality of our nation's divided history. I have three big reasons why you should get in line to support this film on October 18.
First, it is our great fortune that director Steve McQueen's wife, a historian in Amsterdam where they live, rediscovered Solomon Northup's book of the same title, published in 1853. Director McQueen says reading 12 Years a Slave triggered the same sense of discovery and love for Northrup that he had for Anne Frank when, as a child, he first read her diary. Solomon Northup's book, 12 Years a Slave, would be a valuable addition to the American History curriculum, and it would be sweet justice to his life to see this book at the top of the New York Times Best Sellers List. This film may indeed have that impact. I will not reveal any plot points in this post, beyond the historical fact that Solomon Northup, an educated free man living in the North, was kidnapped and sold into slavery in New Orleans, only to be freed after 12 brutal years.
Second, this film is a beauty. Any still shot could hang at The Met. McQueen directed his cinematographer Sean Bobbitt to capture the languid beauty of Louisiana: all billowing Spanish moss from stately oaks, endless sky and watery land, and colossal white plantation homes that emerge from the greenery like elegant ghosts. McQueen commented that he didn't want to separate the beauty from the horror, as he finds that they co-exist throughout history and the natural world. The camera does not ignore anything, from the wounds of the tortured, to the nimble hands of the beautiful enslaved girl Patsy, played with Oscar caliber truth by Lupita Nyong'o, hastily making corn husk dolls in the few moments she is not picking cotton, to all the emotions, from terror to defiance, in the expressive face of actor Chiwetel Ejiofor portraying Solomon Northup. Likewise, composer Hans Zimmer creates a score that is startlingly beautiful with sections of mad dissonance to underscore horror. Beauty and horror are united in the music, and the music is "not a period piece" because Zimmer wants the conversation inspired by his music to be about the present.
Third, this is a film we all need to see to understand our present. Alfre Woodard, who plays the enslaved mistress of a planation owner, says we avoid stories about slavery, but at the expense of ignoring the majority of our American history. She compares this avoidance to an adult refusing to recognize his childhood and adolescence. One simply cannot understand the present without understanding the past. One can look to the prison population in this country, or to the verdicts in some recent notable trials with black defendants, or perhaps even to the current government shutdown, and the appearance of confederate flags in front of the White House, for evidence that we are still a nation divided by race. McQueen points out that unlike in Amsterdam, where the Holocaust is openly explored and Anne Frank's home is a major tourist attraction, Americans tend to ignore slave history as if it's best to just move on. But there is great pain buried in that silence.
This film is an artistic wonder, and so necessary to the discussion of America's past and present. I hope you will see it with your own eyes and share your thoughts with me and everyone you know.
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