Traumatized. Violated. Those are the best words I can think of to sum up how I felt after watching Steve McQueen’s new movie 12 Years a Slave a couple of nights ago. I’ve seen very gritty and in your face realistic portrayals of many past and present injustices and while I’ve empathized, grew upset, and in many cases cried in sympathy and anger, I have never felt quite so “present” as I was for this movie. I felt like I had literally been forced to stand and watch a public lynching of people I knew and liked. Strangely enough it wasn’t even a murder scene that got me, it was a public beating and honestly I for the first time in my life understood a person’s level of despair and wanting to be put out of their misery.
For those unfamiliar with the movie, it’s based on a very real story that happened back in 1841 in America. A free black man named Solomon Northup was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the south where he was forced to work on a cotton farm and eventually ended up under an unbelievably cruel and thoroughly despicable plantation owner named Edwin Epps played brilliantly by Michael Fassbender. This movie takes you from the relative civility of the north and plunges you into Bizzaro World where people, oh excuse me…I’m supposed to say”niggah’s” are stripped and lined up like horses. Watching a slaver feeling the muscles on one man, showing his teeth and referring to what “good stock” he was, patting a black girl on the rump in the next row, separating one mother from her two children and telling her she’d get over it and forget them soon made me just stare at the screen with my mouth agape like a stunned guppy.
Unless this world ever becomes peaceful, orderly and a loving place, innocence is a dangerous commodity to have for too long.
This is only the beginning of a descent into a Dante’s version of Black hell in America that is difficult to describe and understand without being there and living it, but this movie does a damn good job at doing just that! You will be sickened, shocked and ultimately if you are white, almost make you feel like slinking from the theatre in shame even though you have nothing to do with these evil people. Thankfully Canada got a decent nod as Brad Pitt was one of the rare shining stars of hope that was instrumental in getting Solomon rescued and returned to his family back in the far more civilized north. He also argued quite well against the immorality of the concept of slavery for any man but of course this fell on deaf ears as the problem is people like these fine Southern gentleman don’t THINK of black folk as people. Ironic how they themselves demonstrated so clearly that in trying to elevate their own status and idea of humanity over others, it did nothing more than reveal them as amoral animals in many ways. The unlucky protagonist in this drama is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor who does an excellent job at expressing the anger, the helplessness and the soul sinking feeling of betrayal and hopelessness that keeps repeating as a cycle of life for these very difficult 12 years of hell.
This is a very difficult film to watch but oh so necessary if people are going to fully understand the lingering resentment over racial inequality and the past brutal travesties that were committed against a race that did absolutely nothing to deserve it. Actually scratch that…it’s impossible for people to do anything to deserve this. It is just utterly wrong on so many levels and there is no Golden Mean to be found here. The one whipping scene I referred to above had me honestly ready to break down in the theatre. I had to turn my head away as I was hyperventilating, I got dizzy and tuned out the movie and I still don’t have a clue what the last words were that the slave owner said to the girl when he finally finished beating the crap out of her and leaving deep gouges of train track bloody grooves all down her back. I literally had a brain meltdown. It took me an hour and a strong martini after the movie to finally process things and speak properly instead of talking like a half delirious person to my companion who accompanied me to the film. He mirrored my own reactions almost identically.
I like many movies and I’m not a harsh critic, so I will say many movies are “good” if I enjoyed them. This wasn’t a movie I enjoyed in that sense of the word. It hurt me and left an indelible stain on my mind and soul and I almost feel like a piece of my remaining innocence was forever lost. Is this good? I think so. Unless this world ever becomes peaceful, orderly and a loving place, innocence is a dangerous commodity to have for too long.
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Kendall is a local singer/keyboardist who moonlights as an occasional writer. His past work has included writing for Naked News, Xtra! magazine and now he’s trying his hand at this blog.