I’ve gone through stages of interest regarding this film. When I first saw the trailer months ago, I wanted to see it immediately. The cinematography looked amazing. The cast, stellar. I’ve been an admirer of Chiwetel Ejiofor. …And it was a Brad Pitt, Plan B production. If you know me, anything Brad goes.
When the film hit the festival circuits, there was a buzz about the brutality. People walking out of screenings, etc. My perspective started to shift. So I spent a few weeks after it was theatrically released in a relative state of disinterest. Did America really need another black suffering narrative? Where are the simple stories of romance, beauty, culture? Where are films about black people, just being People in love, living life, experiencing its joys and pains in the context of family, work, travel, or play. Why do we so rarely see the black experience…without it being a black experience of suffering?
I didn’t want to love the movie just because it was about black history. And I didn’t want to contend that it was Oscar worthy just because it featured a black actor in a leading role.
But I finally went to see it. And it is not a black movie, about black people suffering. It is a sweeping universal cinematic tale of tragedy. And I’ve always loved tragedies. I live for epic, autobiographical, period pieces. Give me long, drawn out, sweeping shots of nothingness and very limited dialogue, and I’m hooked. What others find slow, I find breathtaking.
And 12 Years a Slave is just that. From the opening scene, I was captivated. Time cannot be counted. Each scene has an intensity and a longing. I wanted every one to end. Disappointed immediately only to enter into another scene equally as dulling. I sighed noticeably with each transition, but I did not cry. I had no concept of time. No concept of hope. I just wanted to be free of it. And the director, Steve McQueen, was brilliant in that he was intentional about not marking time. There were no remarkable changing of seasons. There was no over attachment to characters who you see grow old and die so you could say, Ah…there a lifetime has passed. Solomon Northup made no acquaintances, except the poor, miserable Patsey who I will say nothing further of here except that to think of her for too long now could make me silent with anguish, flood me with ancestral memories beyond my conscious recollection. …But back to Solomon…he made no acquaintances with whom he could share his suffering. He learned immediately one of the most psychologically brutal effects of American slavery imagineable…that to form attachments to any person, place or thing, is to suffer a worser fate, is to hasten the coming of despair. The result, Solomon didn’t share a thing with anyone. You were left only to discern his pain and anguish. You were invited into his mind. To consider what he was thinking. To confront your own limitation…that you will never really be able to relate. Ejiofor and McQueen mastered the cinematic art of “show don’t tell.” And another visceral life lesson I walked away with…that when Solomon did choose to be vulnerable, he risked everything. He was strategic in the sharing of his experience. He was no fool to believe an ignorant, hopeless slave (just reality, not a judgment) could offer him what he needed. So often in life, those who don’t know to aspire to anything more can only commiserate with us. Solomon wanted none of it. He was an educated man, he questioned their god because had tasted true freedom, hope, aspiration, love, life itself. And he would form attachment to nothing less lest misery overcome him. I was not prepared for the ending. It seemed as if suddenly, it was over. What act had we been in? Every one was the same agonizing, hopeless, nothingness. Subtle action. No dramatic attempts to free himself. Barely identifiable mid-point. No climax. I was disoriented. Even the musical score seemed to reveal little. How long had I been watching? His release came without anticipation. Was it really over, just like that? How long had he been a slave?
For 12 years he was a slave. And for 133 minutes, I let Steve McQueen hold me in solemn vigilance. It was stunning. If you love film, go see this movie.