Will we ever see, on the big screen, a film about slavery that shows the community, the survival bonds, the working together of Slaves in the interest of their freedom or survival? I don’t know about you but, the ‘self-centered’ Slave who defies all other Slaves to serve his own interests has been done. We get it. We don’t need to see that, anymore.
Also, the idea that Slavery was ‘escapable’. Looking at Slavery as a temporary experience that was ‘escapable’- we’ve been there, done that. Don’t need to see it, anymore.
While watching ’12 Years A Slave’, it occurred to me that most Americans probably get their understanding of Slavery from the big screen. If that’s the case, we’ve got some work to do. If we are to look at, what I now refer to as, the ‘Hollywood Slave Canon’, one is left with the impression that Slaves could free themselves, if they simply put their minds and a little blackberry juice to it.
Most Americans, who want to deny the horrors of Slavery, want to believe that Slavery wasn’t all that bad, that Slavery was something “that happened”, “that it is over” and “we need to stop complaining”- are supported by these mythologies. Although a true story, when there are so few voices in this arena, the dominant mythology being delivered, in this film and ‘Django Unchained’, supports these uninformed beliefs. I suppose one could think, why didn’t all Slaves just “write to someone” or “pick up a gun” and get the hell out of it.
Slavery was a vile institution. Its purpose, its reason for being, was to keep people enslaved. The ‘runaway’ or the ‘rebels’ were met with a mighty and inhumane force to stop them in their tracks. And, serve as an example to the other Slaves that ‘escape’ was not an option.
So, why are we receiving the mythology that it was ‘escapable’? It is perfect for these times when we have a Black president. We have heard the refrain, “We have a Black president. We are post-racial”. It is a tricky thing, this America. We want to step over the dead Black bodies and the blood in the soil. We want to believe that we are all good people who never have to be accountable to the experience of Black Americans on these shores.
Steve McQueen is genius at breaking down an experience, to it’s emotional core and creating cinema out of that core. In ‘Hunger’, the experience was so distilled and unrelenting that, as a viewer, I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I was hopeful that he would bring the same level of intensity to ’12 Years A Slave’. He did and he didn’t.
There were moments in ’12 Years A Slave’ that were arresting. Thought provoking, disturbing. And, I could understand McQueen’s attraction to the story. As a brilliant friend stated, “Perhaps McQueen used a free man, who was taken into slavery, so that White people could feel empathy toward him, they could relate more.” Clearly, as we saw with the Trayvon Martin trial, there are a good number of White folks in this country who do not have the ability to empathize with the Black experience. So, I do believe my friend has a solid point. Do I think McQueen considered that when choosing the story? I don’t know.
McQueen’s journey from the UK, with a brief stint in the U.S., mirrors Solomon’s journey. And, although I jokingly feel this film was about his time in NYU’s Graduate Film Department, I do feel he could relate to Solomon’s journey more, than say, a more grounded Slave experience. A Slave, born into slavery, awakening to the horrors of it and developing a desire to liberate herself/himself and others from it. In choosing a narrative, filmmakers have to look at the arc, the scope of a life and an experience. We choose what speaks to us. Solomon Northup’s story spoke to McQueen.
As I listen to my Black American friends express their disappointment with the film, I try to imagine what Slave narrative would satisfy us. I suppose, someone born into Slavery and connecting with the other Slaves. We need to see that. We want an acknowledgment of the relentless brutality and inescapability of Slavery. We also want to hear the voice of the Slave. Because, I believe, as they speak their horror, their struggles, there will be a mirroring, an ability to relate, even to our current circumstances. To sing the injustices of the Black American experience, to wrestle with the desire to leave the institution, to wrestle with the fact that our families are here, for some, our children are here, our lovers are here. To mirror how the injustices hurled upon Black bodies invade the most intimate areas of our lives. That experience has not unfolded before us, yet. We hunger for it. We need to hear the voice of the Slave.
I would love to see a Steve McQueen ‘Director’s Cut’ -a silent version. Well, with sounds but, without words. Steve McQueen’s signature was delivered in the sounds and the visuals of the Slave experience: the churning of the boat slicing up the waters, the solitary bell ringing, the sound of the whip, Patsey’s cries, Mistress Shaw’s glare (okay, we could allow Mistress Shaw’s/Ms. Alfre Woodard’s dialogue, sh** was chilling), Solomon dangling in a quiet horror. This is Steve McQueen at his best, at his most artistic. When his radical imagination distills horror into breath stealing imagery, it changes us. The screenwriter John Ridley and the consultant Henry Louis Gates have not evidenced the same level of rebelliousness and fire that McQueen has in his belly. Those men feel conciliatory. McQueen is anything but. If only John Blassingame (read ‘The Slave Community’) was the consultant for the film. He would have given McQueen more information to feed and nurture his desire to find the minutiae of Slave life and deliver it from the sharpened end of the blade, not the handle.
Another thing that the ‘Hollywood Slave Canon’ is delivering with panache is ‘White pathology’. McQueen delivers. The performances by Fassbender and Paulson are subtle and bathed in a sickness and a crippling pathology. Watching Solomon negotiate their cruelty was illuminating. Yes, there is a sickness that Black America is up against. It oozes out of the pores of hate-filled Whiteness and we are constantly negotiating it. It was wonderful to behold. I am grateful to these films for delivering the epic and Shakespearean White pathological demon that haunts this country, even now.
Although I felt it a bit much that all of the major enslaved female characters were soiled by their masters, I did appreciate that McQueen wrote a clear narrative for the enslaved Black woman. He made it, perfectly clear that the sexual encounters and relationships formed between Slave master and the female Black slaves was rape. It was bondage. It was horrifying and ripped at the fibers of their being. Patsey’s cries for soap, Eliza’s defiant stance against the institution and Alfre Woodard’s haunting, veiled compromise-scorched the screen. McQueen made it clear that these Black women were suffering, in pain and not in step with their Master. They experienced an intimate suffering. The sensitive portrayal of the women characters, in this film, should bring a compassionate understanding and sensitivity to the plight of Black women in America. Film speaks to our subconscious. And, I believe, this was a game changer.
This film is a step. A great step. There will be more Slave narratives told. For one, I would like to see a love story. I would like to see how enslaved Black people loved one another, in spite of and because of, a holding on through the brutality of the institution. I would like to see a Slave rebel who wanted to free herself/himself, his family, other Slaves. I believe it will happen. We have to embrace it when it does.
Slavery is tough to deal with- for all of us. At points, I wanted to leave the theater because I felt that Slavery could not be fully rendered in a medium meant to entertain. But, that’s okay. It doesn’t have to be fully rendered. I am grateful that we are getting pieces of the puzzle. Black folks want to believe that we would have been a runaway or a rebel. White folks want to believe that they would have been an Abolitionist. We want to deny our relationship to the horror. We want to believe that we are not affected by it. We have learned to be ashamed of our ancestors who were Slaves. Perhaps, the Slave who ‘escapes’ makes some Black folks more comfortable with the story. Somehow, we need to find pride in this experience that we survived.
Although I don’t think anyone will capture the level of humanity and grace LeVar Burton brought to his role as an enslaved man, I do believe we have a lot more to see. I would love to see a Black American Director deliver a story about Slavery. Why hasn’t that happened? It will. McQueen has prepared us for it!