Do Not Avert Your Eyes

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in "12 Years a Slave" (2013)

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in “12 Years a Slave” (2013)

It has taken me a while to write about 12 Years a Slave, which I saw several months ago, because so much has already been written about it. But with the film now back in theaters on the Cape, now is as good a time as any to weigh in. But also, as I hear more and more from people who have avoided it for fear of being too deeply affected  by it, I want to encourage you to see this film in a movie theater, while you still can. Although it is already available on-demand and probably will soon be on Netflix, the theater affords us a dedicated space for connecting with the characters and with the past that is not easily duplicated at home.

When I was 11 years old, my father took me and my brother to see Alan J. Pakula’s devastating Sophie’s Choice. While the horror of the Holocaust had already been brought to my attention by my Jewish grandmother (only in passing, like when a movie about it might have been on TV), and the film itself did make an impression on me, my deepest memory of this movie is of my father uncontrollably sobbing in the car afterward. He tried to explain to us why the choice Sophie had to make broke him down like that (for those who haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil it for you – go see it and then read this), and I think we got it on some level, but not completely. His reaction is testament to the power of the film, and it may be one of the things that drew me to study film later, in fact.

Sometimes movies are extremely difficult experiences and I don’t think that is a bad thing.

As you probably know by now, 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen, is based on the diary of Solomon Northup, a real-life African-American from New York State who, despite having been born a free man, spent 12 years as a slave in the South after being kidnapped. The film shows us his journey from freedom through slavery and back again, with some of the most wrenching, magnificent moments coming at the very end when Northrup finally does return home.

The film, while widely praised, has had some detractors who found the director’s choice to not allow us to look away (by cutting or moving the camera to a safer angle) too extreme for the violence and degradation represented here. But for me, the scenes in question are necessary and as uncomfortable and difficult as they need to be. They are not the most devastating of McQueen’s choices.

Much critical attention has been paid to a particularly violent scene in which Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is forced to beat a fellow slave, Patsey (Nupita Nyong’o) because her slave master (Michael Fassbender) is unable to do it himself. Yes, this scene is very hard to watch, but for me it is the more subtle scenes that are the most affecting. For example, there is an absolutely breathtaking scene where Northup is strung up to be lynched, but is saved at the last minute. While he waits to be cut down–his neck still in the noose, but feet lightly grazing the ground, enough to stay conscious–McQueen gives us a long-shot so we can see the other slaves, many of whom are children, going about their business as though nothing out of the ordinary is dangling from a tree. It is like a dream, but not. No one flinches, no one cries or screams, no one is surprised. The sounds of daily life, mixed with the birds chirping and sounds of an otherwise pleasant day, go on. It isn’t that McQueen is trying to show that these people don’t care about each other, it’s that this is the routine humiliation and violence of everyday life for them. That moment saddened me so deeply; it was more powerful a statement than anything I’ve seen on film in recent memory–certainly with regard to slavery.

The performances in 12 Years a Slave are flawless. Ejiofor’s powerful, subtle performance drew me in, and made me not only think about, but really feel, as a free person, what it would have been like to suddenly lose my freedom with no real hope of returning to my family and my life. And at the same time, while I did not identify with the white plantation owners/slave masters, I also saw greater depth in them than I had before. The direction is powerful and the editing choices, deliberate, painful, and beautiful in a way. And that is my point: something can be horrific and revolting to watch and yet profoundly beautiful in its embrace of the cinematic potential.

In some respects, it resembles Roman Polanski’s brilliant 2002 Holocaust film The Pianist, also based on the records of a survivor. In that film, Adrien Brody, (who plays the lead character) slowly descends from being an attractive, talented, middle-class young man to a half-dead, starving fugitive from the Nazis. Again, this is a painful film, but I can’t imagine a more cinematic and beautiful telling of Wladislaw Szpilman’s true ordeal. And yet, portrayals of Holocaust suffering–as devastating as they are in many, many films–seem to have obtained a level of acceptance that we still do not have, at least in the U.S., for slave stories. Perhaps Americans can’t stomach our own past, preferring to look at the atrocities of other cultures from a safe distance across the ocean, but I don’t think that’s it. I think we just haven’t been offered the opportunities to revisit this aspect of American history because we don’t have a lot of writers and directors interested in pursuing it. It’s taken a British director to bring this point home and he does so with great skill.

What do we want out of our movies? Is it only an entertaining escape, a good story, a pleasant evening with a friend? Why are our expectations–no, our demands–so low when it comes to this art form. When you’re at the movies, in the dark, looking up at that screen, you should be given an experience to take with you. And whether it is a thrilling, tightly constructed cinematic adventure like Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (especially so in 3D), or a piece of our history that we haven’t truly come to terms with even 150 years later, we should be made to feel something substantial. Filmmaker Werner Herzog has said, “the poet must not avert his eyes,” and neither should the  audience.

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