Sunday, March 16, 2014

12 Years a Slave // Why, How and When

I watched an extraordinary film this morning -
12 Years a Slave, this year's Best Picture, tells the compelling and harrowing tale of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) - a free black man from New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery.

When Solomon is first captured, he is told that "survival is about keeping your head down,"to which he responds, "I don't want to survive. I want to live." Although it is this determination and stubbornness that keeps him alive and eventually sends him back home to his family, the 2-hour long cinematic journey in between is brutal and heart-rending.

Firstly, let's discuss how the film begins: the first shot of the film is of a group of slaves, lined up, with sorrow etched into their faces and taking orders from a white man who announces that they are going to be playing the "cutting game" - what a chilling first line. Then the camera shoots through the leaves (no pun intended) and slowly unfolds the sight of the slaves hacking away while their masters sit on trucks, fanning themselves... yet the morbidity of the first line, of the slaves' labour coined a 'game' by the white men, does not dissolve.
It reappears when Tibeats' (Paul Dano! Wow, he grew up) singing serves as the voice-over for the slaves' cotton-picking. It reappears when black children are frolicking in the background while Solomon is slowly choking on the noose. And it appears - sickeningly - when the slave-seller is doing the roll call right after Solomon is shipped to New Orleans. Dressed as a school teacher, complete with spectacles and a book, the slave-seller orders each of the slaves to stand up when their new, fake names are called. When Solomon refuses to answer to 'Platt,' things turns ugly; he hits Solomon and Solomon must concede. Thinking of 'school teachers' in such a context, I was reminded of the 'school teacher' in Beloved, a character who shows - as does this film - that: No slave owner is ever 'good.' There is no 'mediation.'

I do not merely refer to the rather obvious case of Epps (Michael Fassbender), but even Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Sure, Benedict looks all nice-priest-y with his curled locks and blue eyes, and one could argue that he attempted to buy Eliza's children; also, let's not forget how he gave Solomon a violin and  cut him down from the tree. BUT, harking back to what Eliza said - if Solomon were to inform Ford of his condition, what would Ford do? And indeed, how does he respond to Solomon's plea? "I can't hear this."

Similarly, Mrs. Ford seems initially sympathetic to Eliza's condition, but "your child will soon be forgotten" is hardly a comfort; moreover, "I can't have that sort of depression around" is as good of a death sentence as there ever was. Speaking of wives and women, Mrs. Epps, of course, is the cruelest woman in the film, envious of Patsey and hating the feeling of being 2nd-rate to the "queen of the field."As we watch her torture Patsey, there's an overarching question of: how could you do this to your fellow woman? And overarching that, the film revolves around the even larger question of: HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO YOUR FELLOW MAN?

Every time I cried in the movie (especially when Patsey was being whipped - all that pain for a small, white tablet of soap), it was because I found myself watching one of the cruellest acts a human being has ever done to another human being, another life - I was watching life at its darkest and direst. Not to sound melodramatic, I was crying for humanity. How does humanity churn out someone like Epps?

But to take this review in a psychological direction, let's talk about Epps for a moment. I believe Michael Fassbender delivered the best performance in the film. Epps is a madman. Definitely unhappy and angry - two emotional states that can translate into ugly, relentless and horrible violence. He is, in some ways, in love with his "queen of the field." Patsey is his highest asset, his most prized possession. He even prefers her to his own wife, and carries the child he bore with Patsey around delightfully. He is near-destroyed when he thinks Patsey has run away, and initially cannot even bear to whip her (a sight that his monster of a wife watches with inward satisfaction, Madame Raquin-esque). Thus Epps represents not only a specimen from the extremist-end of the racism spectrum, but also the type of insanely-devoted slave masters of the South; so obsessed with his property that he is madly attached to his slaves.

Musically, this film was also a success. I was very much affected by the violin playing throughout, be it a jive or some form of screeching coming from the crude hollowed stick fashioned by one of the Native Americans. Don't even get me started on the broken strings, the broken violin on the floor - dashed dreams, a crushed past ... perhaps it is because the rippling of tightened strings and the rub-wood noise are all familiar sounds to me. Let's also not forget the songs sung during the cotton-picking, and Roll, Jordan, Roll in particular is stunning. Solomon's facial expressions when singing that song are gut-wrenching; the scene in general reminded me of the community gatherings in Beloved.

Alas, it is only Bass, the Canadian (Brad Pitt), who finally risks his life for Solomon. I nearly forgot Pitt was in the movie, it was a nice surprise when he showed up. But the problem isn't over when Solomon is finally saved. 

At the beginning of the film, one of the slaves who was captured with Solomon is released quite early. Although Solomon shouts his name, there is no response - and at this point, we wonder 'Why?' Why not help him?' But at the end, we understand. When Mr. Parker comes to rescue Solomon, and he bids Patsy goodbye, the question becomes 'How. How to help her? How to help those millions?'

So although the film ends with Solomon with his family, it is this last question and the image of Patsey, miles away with Epps the madman, that latches onto the audience. The question of How do we help these slaves - when put in a modern context, applies to not only slaves but also any human being in the dark abyss of torture, of unjust imprisonment, of repression.

So, 12 years a slave for Solomon, but uncountable years of suffering for all those who have been enslaved and are being enslaved. The 2.5 hour mark may signify the end of the film, but certainly not the end of the world's harsh cruelties. The question is not why or how after watching the film, but when -

When do I decide to do something about it?