Notes from the Telluride Film Festival: A New Look at American Slavery in ’12 Years a Slave’

TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE

This is a guest post by Atima Omara-Alwala.

From Red Tails to Lee Daniels’ The Butler and Django Unchained, there have been a lot of “Black Exodus” movies lately, and by Black Exodus, I mean every time there is major motion picture with a mostly African American cast (and usually a historical plot), every black person I know (including myself) goes to see the movie on opening weekend. Usually because there are so few movies, especially great films, that are made with African Americans as a major focus it’s an event to go see such a movie and we want to make sure Hollywood knows it has support.Well if there is any movie worth going to see whether you are black, white, woman or man, I urge you to go see 12 Years a Slave.

12 Years a Slave is based on the autobiographical account of Solomon Northrup, a successful, middle class African American attorney born free who lives in upstate New York with his family in the 1840s. He is kidnapped on his way to Washington DC to pursue a business deal and is sold into slavery at its xenith in the American South. The story accounts his experiences as an enslaved man and his struggle to get back to his family. British (and black) director Steve McQueen (of Hunger and Shame) directs an all-star cast of Chiwetel Ejiofor (Solomon Northrup) Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Alfre Woodard, and outstanding newcomer Kenyan actress Lupita N’yongo.

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Unlike Django Unchained, it is not particularly rough to watch in its violence. As a matter of fact, because I saw Django Unchained I think I was better prepared to see the brutality portrayed in 12 Years a Slave. To me the most brutal scenes were not of the requisite whipping or hanging of the slaves, but of the systematic emotional break down of Solomon as he realizes what has happened to him and no matter how hard he protests, no one will believe who he is, and if they do, they beat him physically or emotionally until he eventually gives up. Solomon’s breakdown from freeman to slave provides the most interesting twist, because it’s not just about a man who was born a slave, lived a slave, and died a slave. This story was about a freeman with the privileges and rights of any other freeman who had them ripped away. And it’s this that allows the viewer to see the full brutality of American slavery, and how it thrived off depriving the human spirit. It’s Solomon’s determination to get back to his family that keeps him surviving, but it’s his fear and occasional brushes with nearly getting caught, that increase his fear (e.g. writing a letter to his family when slaves aren’t supposed to read and write) and keep him a slave.

The movie does not shy from the gender dynamics that were also at play in American slavery through Solomon’s female counterparts. From a slave woman named Eliza, who is separated from her children, to Patsey (played by outstanding newcomer Lupita Nyong’o), who is the unfortunate object of her slave master’s sexual advances. Through Mistress Shaw, the black mistress of a white plantation owner (played with sass by Alfre Woodard) we hear of the “choices” that many enslaved black women have then as she tries to counsel Patsey.  Submit to the master’s sexual advances or feel the whip on your back and work hours in the fields, she admonishes. However, sometimes even if you submitted to the master of the plantation’s desires, it didn’t guarantee your safety. As Patsey finds out from her sociopathic Master Epps (Michael Fassbender), who has an obsessive fascination with her that results in him brutalizing her and others around her who might get in his way as he “pursues” her. One such object of Epps’ hatred and source of distress for Patsey is Master Epps’ wife, a Bible-thumping bitter woman (Sarah Paulson), who in a fit of jealous rage throws a glass at Patsey’s head when she sees her husband ogling her.

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Patsey can be the only the source of her violent hatred; and while Mistress Epps turns her spite on her husband occasionally, she is quickly reminded by her husband of her place in a patriarchal American Southern society–if he tires of her, she is gone. McQueen handles these situations with a frankness and humanity that is not overdone and he brings the best perfomances out of all his actors. The film got a standing ovation at Telluride, several times over, which is rare to happen at the festival. The music is by renowned musician Hans Zimmer. 12 Years a Slave is a must-see by all accounts.

See also: Facing the Horror of 12 Years a Slave

 


Atima Omara-Alwala is a political strategist and activist of 10 years who has served as staff on eight federal and local political campaigns and other progressive causes. Atima’s work has had a particular focus on women’s political empowerment and leadership, reproductive justice, health care, communities of color and how gender and race is reflected in pop culture. Her writings on the topics have also been featured at Ms. Magazine, Women’s Enews, and RH Reality Check.