12 Years A Slave: Why I’m Glad it Won Best Picture
“Joyce is right about history being a nightmare –but it may be the nightmare from which no one can awaken. People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” –James Baldwin, “Stranger in the Village.”
If you follow me through social media you know I’m used to visiting plantation landscapes and dressing in the type of clothing enslaved people would wear. I’ve cooked the enslaved way in many states across the former Confederacy and Border states. I’ve picked cotton and worked in tobacco fields. I’ve been in rice and sugarcane fields in the Lowcountry and Lower Mississippi Valley dodging teenaged gators and poisonous snakes. Plantations blind with darkness don’t scare me and I almost take comfort from the spirits that have surrounded me. I have been in their presence—for real—and the ancestors have been both welcoming and irritated by my company.
I think I’m bad. I think I’m cool. I think I’m seasoned. I think I’m brave. I think I’m aware.
Then I go see 12 Years a Slave. All of that intellectual bravado ran like Eva for the nearest North Star.
If you don’t get why 12 Years a Slave won best picture, I’m going to have to break it down to you in terms that you can understand: tears and fear.
The opening scene is a Louisiana sugarcane field in the late 1840’s and a gang of enslaved men is learning how to cut cane for the first time. Most of them are victims of the domestic slave trade…the largest forced human migration in American history—larger than the Trail of Tears. For dramatic effect they wear “slave tags” not really common outside of Charleston, but effective none the less to show the dehumanization of Black life in the antebellum era. Our hero, Solomon Northup, a free man of color, a religious man, a faithful husband and devoted father, has already been duped, drugged, sold and shipped. We see him in medias res as he experiences a life terrifyingly foreign to him in the hell of the Deep South.
“All you fresh niggers….” says the white overseer. The line is real and pungent and stinking of the sort of commitment to the Satanic system that was American slavery. I, sitting in the theater, think I can hang. From that one line, I find I cannot.
I wanted to burst into tears and leave the theater. My chest felt like a gargoyle trampoline, I actually had to hold my heart in. With all of my commitment to not be an armchair culinary historian this was more than I could bear. This was right out of my worst interpreter’s nightmares.
What if I was doing a reenactment and it wasn’t really a reenactment? Maybe it’s a bad dream. Maybe I wake up one day and it’s all real and I’m trapped in the past. Maybe this is Hell. What if one day I’m on a site and I turn the corner and it’s all real—it’s not 2014 anymore and I can’t get out.
You see I’ve had that dream before. It’s a consequence of the work I do. A massively delayed reaction—by centuries and souls. “Joyce is right about history being a nightmare –but it may be the nightmare from which no one can awaken,” says St. James Baldwin. The man knew what he was talking about. Despite my own existence and that of people I love I wish this nonsense never ever ever ever ever ever happened. Some days I wake up and pretend that there was no 9/11. Some days I wake up and pretend there was no Shoah (Holocaust). Some days I wake up and pretend that there was no need to spill blood over the Holy Land or that there was no need for a Native American/First Nations Ghost Dance. And then I fantasize—what if there was not one slave ship. What if there was a moment in 1781 when it was decided—if none were free—nobody could be free. What if there was a moment in 1877 when the advances made through Reconstruction were not repealed but advanced. What if 6 million people had never been enslaved on American soil and another 2 million held in quasi slavery? What if we had the moral imagination then and now–to know what could be/could have been?
But that is not the case and here we are waiting on ceremony. We would rather passively aggressively hold our heads down in shame or to the side rather than face head on America’s original sin. We do this anyway in some of our daily interactions. I have seen people defer to silence in the face of open and outright hatred. All due respect to What Would You Do? It takes a lot of shots and takes to get to the one good Samaritan. I often feel that my attempts to address anti-Black prejudice in some of the Jewish and Gay male environments I have been in have gone ignored with uncomfortable smirks and frowns, pursed mouths, an unwillingness to call out or be angry about anything other than “Black” anti-Semitism or “Black” homophobia…Apparently articulate speech stops when the accredited oppressed dish on untouchables. It’s a bizarre dance we do—we don’t want a war and we don’t want reconciliation—so we are chained to our purgatory of national amnesia and fear of dialogue. Maybe this movie in its long term reach—will change that.
Maybe it takes a cast directed by a British Black man of West Indian extraction to face our worst fear—my worst fear—and tackle this devil called American slavery. I don’t care—as long as the deeds get done—and in this landmark picture—the deed did get done. For the most part—I have been critical of movies depicting slavery and enslaved life. The sugarcoating often has failed to get across the constant sense of dread and aching longing to be free. But there is also the bizarre fuzziness of slavery—the slaveholder Epps gently stroking an enslaved child like a toy—and we know this is not real affection but rather the grooming of a future victim. Maybe it’s the desperate attempt at kindness shown by Ford or Alfre Woodard’s character of black female plantation belle living the good life from the portico down.
What made this movie so monumental to me was the fact that there were no good cowboys and no good Indians. It was as real and true to history as could be in this respect. Solomon obviously has no concern or awareness of what’s going on miles to the South—until of course he’s trapped in it. Epps transforms his pseudo-love and affection into sexual abuse and sadistic violence. Alfre Woodard’s character isn’t exactly running an Underground Railroad stop out of her attic. Children play in the sight of an unflinching camera while Solomon avoids being lynched by balancing on his toes for hours in the stifling heat—his slaveholder’s wife looks on with interest.
The movie cannot do the actual life of Solomon Northup justice. It certainly cannot do Patsy justice. Telling a story is not redemption. It is part of reconciliation but it is not redemption. Patsy’s story alone—scenes where I could not watch because I was revolted to my stomach were balanced with a desire to step in and fight for Lupita Nyong’o as if I was fighting for all of my ancestresses held in slavery…defending their bodies and minds and souls. “I smell so bad I like to make myself gag…..Five hundred pounds of cotton—more than any man—and for that I will be clean…” I know it’s not a direct quote but that’s what seared itself into my memory. Steve McQueen doesn’t let you forget about the sight, the smell—the sound the feel and the taste of slavery.
Normally I cannot stand the obligatory sing-along music scene in Black themed movies—even Tyler Perry ones. The catharsis is not real…the message vague. Black people in pain make art it seems. But—when they bury a young man who drops dead in the heat of a Louisiana cotton field, an elder belts out an improvised version of “Roll, Jordan, Roll,” and Solomon has his catharsis along with me. I remember singing out loud as the chorus gathered strength, hot tears carving the dryness of my cheeks.
Gratitude came out of me—to my ancestors—to all of our ancestors. For being free now—relatively speaking—in relationship to them and all others enslaved in any form anywhere. Gratitude for Solomon and all others who left a narrative and would not let the world forget. I felt gratitude to Patsy for showing what the Black woman went through day in and day out. I felt gratitude to Steve McQueen for getting us all here…and for the standing ovation in the little theater in Bethesda, Maryland where I watched the film. I felt gratitude to the ‘interracial” couple behind me who brought their tweenage son to see part of his history.
Solomon’s eyes drift in a pool of tears and he knows this evil must and will end. Someday.
It seems to me the great concern of many when they hear whisper of slavery is the anger of the Black man and woman to the distraction of all other emotions, feelings, truths or learning. What will that “anger” motivate us to do? What does this “anger” mean for other people’s children? Will this anger foment resistance?
In 12 Years a Slave gratitude trumped anger. I certainly was angry watching this movie. It didn’t make me hate people. It made me angry at people who might watch this or hear of it—and still not get —–it…..That includes our sons who slay each other over turf. That includes people in positions of authority who perpetuate modern day Jim Crow through unfair sentencing laws, voter restriction, brutality and harassment by law enforcement and vigilante violence. It includes me on those days I lament my condition without even considering for one second that my one second of a bad day is not worth a millionth of one second of their worst days. There were no good cowboys and no good Indians then and there are no good cowboys and good Indians now. My anger certainly did foment resistance–against everything I don’t believe in and those times when I give up on myself and forget the ancestor’s debt.
So I decided to leave this film—well written—well adapted, well costumed, fairly accurate, and well performed—in a state of gratitude. Brad Pitt used his resources, connections and name to get this film the space where it could be seen. The historical character he portrayed was ultimately partially responsible for Solomon’s freedom—as was Solomon—who on pain of death used his ration of gathered berries to make ink to write a letter that alerted his friends and kin he was a captive. What about his white neighbor who journeyed into the heart of Dixie’s darkness to free him? What kind of bravery did that take? That man really believed in America.
I was grateful leaving the theater as it rang in my head, “I apologize for my appearance.” I can honestly say if I was Solomon’s son I would have gotten down and kissed my father’s feet and wept there until he was assured his apology was accepted. Watching the video roll of Solomon’s descendants just goes to show you—this man and his lovely wife Anne—an accomplished professional cook according to my fellow culinary historian Tonya Hopkins–left an incredible legacy.
I did not scream or yell when Will Smith announced 12 Years a Slave won. The wave just hit me—came back to me—a pounding heart, a breath of pent release, a soft gratitude and a prayer for Patsy.
Then came a sweet awareness—looking in the mirror—I carry in my bones the promise of the real America.
So do you.
Thank you Steve.
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