My thoughts on the movie 12 Years A Slave

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 .

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My delayed but still relevant thoughts on the TLC movie

Crazy Sexy Cool: The TLC Story aired on VH1 on Monday, October 21, 2013. It became the network’s highest rated broadcast in five years with 4.5 million viewers tuning in to have their questions about this dynamic trio answered. TLC is celebrating their 20th anniversary as a group, even in light of the death pf Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, the group’s rapper/lyricist in 2001. The group is known for such hits as “Baby Baby Baby,” “Creep” and “No Scrubs.” Much of TLC’s early appeal, the group came on the scene around 1992, was their unapologetic, badass, feminist style. They wore baggy clothes, colorful condoms underneath their glasses, edgy hairstyles, and weren’t afraid to talk about sex and sexuality. I mean the marched into Clive Davis’s office and took everything with their names on it off of the walls like they owned the place.

Watching their story really made me think about what a progressive time the 90s were for women. I mean if Lady Gaga had come on the scene in the early 90s, no one would have batted an eyelash. TLC was in the company of other powerful, musical women in every genre of music. Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Alanis Morisette, Salt N Peppa, Sinead O’Connor, En Vogue, Madonna, Da Brat, and Cindy Lauper were all chart-topping women who were unafraid to speak their truths, shave their heads, give their all, and shake their asses. They managed to have a fan base and sell platinum records, while keeping their clothes on and making bold, brazen statements about their experiences of  womanhood.

Then something happened. Around 1998/1999 female artists became more feminine in the stereotypical way. Overalls and flannel were replaced with dresses and skin tight jeans. Tennis shoes were replaced with stilettos. And “I Aint Too Proud To Beg” and “U-N-I-T-Y” were replaced with lyrics that provoke less thought and more ass-shaking in all genres of music.

It occurred to me in watching the TLC movie, that though their lyrics are evergreen, their image would never make it in today’s music industry. I asked myself, “Is it just a fashion thing?” I don’t think it is. I think that as a society and economy we have become less tolerant of difference and women’s empowerment. The 80s saw George Michael, David Bowie, Paula Abdul, Parliament Funkadelic, The Commodores, Rapper’s Delight, The Runaways, and a whole lot of other people who were different, but not deficient. These acts would be outcasts in 2013, because now everything is globalized and standing out is intolerable. Of the women of the 90s that I listed above, Queen Latifah and Madonna are the only ones that consistently remain in the spotlight. And their images have become much softer.

WHAT HAPPENED TO THE WOMEN ON THE EDGE??? Why did we decide that it is better to be charming than daring? When did we decide that we’d rather a love song than a song about love? 

I don’t have an answer, just some food for thought…

Things that have annoyed me this week

  • I’m so over blog posts being treated as news and news being treated as blog posts. And news outlets have done this to themselves by not explaining their relevance to the public and not diversifying their newsrooms. In communities of color it’s even worse because all we do is get our “news” from bloggers.
  • Some Pakistani teenage girls got shot by the Taliban and started an education reform movement and our government has the nerve to “shutdown,” because they can’t get their way. I’m over everything and everybody.
  • The government trying to make us think they came to a solution
  • African Americans have the nerve to complain about lack of representation in network television shows. Then instead of watching Blair Underwood in Ironside on NBC, they blow up Twitter talking about Preachers of LA on Oxygen.
  • The Real Housewives of New Jersey Reunion
  • http://www.slate.com/blogs/behold/2013/10/15/endia_beal_can_i_touch_it_explores_gender_race_and_generational_gaps_in.html

Empathy and vulnerability

The researchers concluded that “the present work finds that people assume that, relative to whites, blacks feel less pain because they have faced more hardship.”

I watched Oprah’s Lifeclass Part 2 with Dr. Brene Brown last night. She is a sociologist who studies courage and vulnerability. Brene Brown started gaining national recognition when her TEDTalk based on her book Daring Greatly went viral.  Essentially in her research she was searching to find out what made the happiest, most success and fulfilled people, happy, successful, and fulfilled. She found that those people were the most courageous and that courage requires vulnerability. If you are not vulnerable you are unfulfilled because you are not living authentically because you have all of these walls keeping you from living your best life. Got it? If not, here is a link to her TEDTalk. She had a wonderful section of the talk about vulnerability for minorities and LGBT communities, but it was too complex and awesome to capture in a quote. Here are some of her quotes from last night’s Lifeclass on opening yourself up to vulnerability:

  1. “I want to be able to say ‘I contributed more than I criticized.'”

  2. Cool is an armor.

  3. Everything is not supposed to be happy and comfortable all the time

  4. There are no prerequisites to worthiness. 

  5. Empathy is the antidote to shame. 

  6. Write your story on the arena walls.

  7. When perfectionism is driving, shame is always riding shotgun, and fear is the annoying backseat driver.

 

Then I read this article by Jason Silverstein on Slate.com titled “Racial empathy gap: Why white people don’t feel black people’s pain”  

 

I have not read the study and this is not an endorsement of the research, just food for thought.