*After viewing the pre-opening screening of the much-anticipated movie “12 Years A Slave,” I must say first and foremost, the cinematography, directing, and acting was superb!
The lighting and sound effects were so well balanced and clear that I was not inclined to wish (as I often do) I were at home watching the DVD with my remote so I could rewind for the things that were not so clear.
“12” is scheduled to begin a limited release in large markets on October 18. For those who have yet to see it, I will leave off using character names as I delve into my sideline view of this dramatized parade of atrocity based on a true life story.
Now, picture a free Black family man living up north, respected as an upright citizen, and reputable in his community for his talent as a professional musician, being deceptively lured by kidnappers to end up being enslaved on a plantation in the southern state of Louisiana. Imagine every shred of respect and dignity being stripped from you almost instantaneously. Imagine yourself being the brunt of continuous insult, and experiencing the anguish, the gut-wrenching agony of suddenly being subjected to hateful, sneering people taking complete control over your life.
That’s the real life experience of our main character that the cameras allowed us to see and to feel every bitter pill he was forced to swallow. Although there have been many other such period movies – from “Roots” all the way up to “The Help,” (I love that loaded line: “Minnie don’t burn no chicken”) and “The Butler,” “12” does more than tell the story – it shows the story. It makes you feel as though something like this could happen even today. Consider the current frequency of identity theft and today’s hidden slave trade (human trafficking).
The dehumanizing methods to keep the slaves in line – the whippings, rape, and separation from family – caused the slaves to assimilate to a psyche of survival that reverberates even to this day. The prevalent systemic issues are just as real today as they were then.
The opening scene in “The Butler” where the Black father is killed while protesting to the overseer for raping his wife was shocking, but because it was set in the 1920’s you could grasp as an observer the notion that there was some hope. But in the pre-Civil War case of “12” when one of the characters was whipped mercilessly (26 lashes I counted) over a bar of soap, there was no hope. I went as far as I could within myself to try and feel what the Blacks were feeling as they witnessed the flesh being ripped from her back. I wondered what all the non-Blacks in the theater were feeling (there were only three Blacks in the filled-to-capacity room). At one point in the film the main character slowly turned his head, looked straight into the camera as if he were asking the audience with his eyes, “Do you finally get it…do you see what we went through?”
Sometimes I ponder the thought of slave mothers praying for redemption; praying that for every lash, for every rape, for every lynching, retribution would be made. A provision in the U.S. Constitution, written in 1787, counted each enslaved person as three-fifths of a person (two parts short of being whole) in order to determine state representation in Congress. Ironically, an estimated 620,000 were killed in battle during the Civil War – that was 2% of the population. So it seems those two parts that diminished the value of the enslaved symbolically represented the 2% population loss in war casualties.
Make no mistake, the film depictions are disturbing, but “12 Years A Slave” is a remarkable movie that should stir the pot in sociological circles for some time to come. I highly recommend it especially for some of our younger generation who were not aware that during those days some White people did indeed have a consciousness and sensitivity to the plight of the enslaved.
By the way: At the end of the movie I felt like applauding but thought it inappropriate as it was a very somber atmosphere, as quiet as a mouse as we exited the theater.
Larry Buford is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer. Author of “Things Are Gettin’ Outta Hand.” Contact: [email protected] (213) 220-8101