So I went to see the movie 12 Years A Slave with my parents last night. As we are in the bicentennial of the Civil War era and the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights, Black Power, and Black Is Beautiful Movements we have seen a lot of slave and black rights films, and we will likely continue to see them through 2016/2017. This is good news for black actors who need work and those movie-goers who are interested in stories about these time periods. This is not so good news for those who are over it already. I think I am starting to fall into the latter category.
Here’s what I’ll say about the movie, which is based on the book of the same name, written by the man who was the slave for 12 years. Solomon Northup was a learned, freeman, father-of-two from Saratoga New York who played the fiddle. The books is beautifully written and quite lengthy and covers a lot of ground on his experience as a slave. The movie does not capture the book, primarily because it can’t. Too much happens in the book for a film to capture. This book honestly should have been a mini-series. All of that being said, this movie is going to sweep awards season. The Academy loves boring, beautiful, historical films, and this movie is BBH to a T. There are beautiful southern landscapes (willow trees, bayous, swamps, cotton fields, gardens) contrasted with gruesome scenes of whipping, rape, and the annihilation of black families. We see a slave named Pat receive 100 lashes. We see Solomon be cut down from a tree after an overseer attempts to lynch him. We see Alfre Woodard portray a slave-owning wench-turned-housewife (brilliantly/tragically). The acting, directing, and cinematography are all just the type of Golden Globe/Oscar bait that comes out around this time of year.
So what’s my problem? My problem is that as we see these human rights issue films, we’re also seeing filmmakers spend a lot of time on mood-setting. Mood-setting is a ruiner of so many brilliant book-based films (ie My Sister’s Keeper and The Lovely Bones). In 12 Years A Slave there were so many long, uncomfortable, violent scenes that didn’t do anything but to set the mood/add shock value. And then it fell into the trap of presenting a “great white hope” rather than celebrate the endurance, resilience, and strength of the people who survived or didn’t survive such horrid conditions. (I won’t even go off of the whole “black people survived slavery” tangent though. Because in my opinion black people did not survive slavery, they endured and are still attempting to recover from the generational scars that it left.) For a 21st century audience there is no need to make us understand that slavery was cruel, violent, and bad. We get it. I don’t know if this is an attempt to “right” the “happy slave films” of the past, but I think as a culture we have gotten past the concept of believing that there was a such thing as a happy slave. So now, what are you trying to contribute to the cultural conversation?
I don’t say all of this to take away from the talent that created the film. There were no weak links in the cast and creative team for this movie. Everyone did their job, and well. What I want to know is why? Why put extremely articulate and intellectually aware slaves on screen and then render them powerless? In the book Solomon is writing about his trauma retrospectively, and instead of coming off as a retrospective, this film comes off as an “isn’t this terrible?” film. Well yes, it’s terrible. All of it was. Again I ask, what are you trying to contribute to the cultural conversation?
This is something that filmmakers articulate less in the creation of their work. This is too sensitive a subject to just try to capitalize on a trend, and I am afraid that is what is happening. The trailer is below .