my thoughts on Twelve Years a Slave, which I finally saw today, MLK day.
Thought 1: Brutally beautiful. My home state has never been so lovely or loveless.
Thought 2: Well acted. Some of the dialogue seemed stilted at times (and I haven’t read the narrative yet, so I don’t know to what extent this is a function of Northrup’s writing or the screenwriter’s. Still, the cast was brilliant (except for Brad Pitt, who I’ll get to in a minute), and I marveled at their sheer stamina.
Thought 3: Slavery was a horrible thing.
Thought 4: This movie was not for me. I don’t mean it wasn’t for me in a “not to my taste” sort of way. No, I mean it literally, in the sense that this was not a story that I needed to be told. I am not its audience. Nothing about it–not even the final moments when I cried–struck a new note, let alone chord, in me. Throughout the film I felt no connection, and I realized why when Brad Pitt showed up to dole out some long-haired Northern American salvation…
Thought 5: This movie is for whiteness when it is ready to see itself. I don’t know if this movie is for the 6 young white women who sat two rows ahead of me in the theatre, giggling and OOOOOO-ing every time Solomon fought back. They did not see why they should have been horrified. Perhaps the business with Patsy and the soap made things clearer, though–they were quiet after that. Perhaps this movie prepared them for itself in the end.
Don’t get me wrong: I see this as an important film if for no other reason than it takes as its source a black man’s story and tells it through a black man’s perspective. But it doesn’t tell me anything new–about the resilience of my people, of the evils of chattel slavery, of the treachery in the human heart. No, it is a mirror–as art often is–for white folks to see whiteness at its worst, even when it thinks it is being kind. How delightful to see several depictions of slave owners and masters and overseers–the range of (in)humanity in them and the women we meet as well. They are none of them redeemed by this film, and I am grateful for it. I live in a place that clings to some sad tattered image of a beautiful, chivalrous, righteous past, where there were more “good” slave owners than bad. This movie holds the mirror up to them all and says “here is your beauty alongside its brutality. You cannot have one without the other.”
I’m sure to be more coherent tomorrow. For now, I’ll just say that I loved that it wanted to be what it was and I’m tired of the fact that it has to be what it is. And that’s what I think about that.