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12 years a slave (December 2013)

Updated: Sep 22, 2018

I saw it twice about a month apart, and I'm still haunted by it. Even beginning to read about it again gets me very emotional, it breaks my heart. For me, the lasting image is those long, beautiful takes of Solomon's face. I read his expression as the disbelief, the shock, the horror of the situation where he has found himself. It breaks my heart and maybe it always will.


I don't know that I'm done digesting my feelings about this film and its representations of the stories of countless early Americans. Much has been said about this movie. On local radio station, KMOJ, one of the community program hosts discussed how there are so few movies about slavery. It has been so swiftly swept under the rug, an ugly part of our history forced behind us, into the past, out of sight. Sure, there is Roots. More recently there was Django (which I haven't seen but I can't imagine compares). But there's just not a lot of media devoted to the real stories, the history, in an accessible, compelling, dramatic form, and I think that format is so important in reaching the masses, our modern culture. People relate to stories, humanity. This particular humanity is so ugly that many want to turn their heads and remain in the dark. But I think it's important to look at it, unflinchingly.


That's how I looked at it. Some of the beatings were so brutal, so sadistic, that I instinctually turned my head, squeezed my eyes shut, sobbed horrified and painful tears, but I forced my eyes open again. Because this was the reality and I need to see the truth. I believe we all need to see the truth.


The second friend I went to see the movie with is a White male, and initially he was scared to go because he thought it would be too scary. He also said that his mother, a social activist in her day, was also scared to see it. I understood, but it still upset and disappointed me. I feel that anyone who fights for any form of social justice, any person working with diverse populations, anyone who crosses cultures, anyone who has black friends and family, mixed friends and family, people who think we're post-racial... frankly any Americans in my opinion, should see this movie. With eyes wide open. It's our history, it's what the culture of our nation is based upon.


What I think is so fresh and helps bridge the gap in its context is the fact that Solomon was a free man, kidnapped and sold into slavery. This is the piece that helps us 21st Century people see the true horror of it through his eyes. It's like we have an ally, a guide in the viewing. Sometimes I think it's hard, or not as accessible, for Americans to relate to the experience of an African kidnapped and taken to another country. But this was a free man in America, an artist, an equal and full human being with rights in the north, taken out of his comfortable life with his wife and children, and put into this terrifying reality of slavery. Solomon observes other kidnapped free men, and contrasts them with broken men assumed born and raised in slavery.


There is a scene toward the beginning where one of the born and raised slaves has somehow been separated from his master and is frantic to get back to him. When the ship docks and his master is there to collect him, the slave is overcome with gratitude and relief. The master puts an arm around him and takes him back into his care.


There was a complexity to slavery that I think we don't often see. It's easier if it's a cut and dry case of good and evil, where slavery, masters, and all White people involved are evil. But this movie addressed some of the complexities in such a nasty, disturbing, and honest way.


Patsy was a petite, gorgeous, dark-skinned slave who the plantation owner described as a "queen of the fields." It was horrifying to watch his lust, admiration, and hatred of her all swirled together. Especially painful was a rape scene which illustrated those feelings of love, disgust, desire, and rage in such a powerful way.


So much of it was so hard to watch.


But it's the truth. This happened. This happened again and again, this story is not unique, it just hasn't been told in this way before. The cinematography was absolutely gorgeous, slow and leisurely, with long shots of trauma and beauty mixed up together.


My friend's father is a doctor, the whole family is medical, and they reveled over how people could've survived those types of beatings, the torture, given what was most likely medically available at the time. His dad also couldn't seem to get over the fact that if slaves were considered property, why would you destroy your own property? There are no answers to all of these questions, it's so complicated and dark. I'm amazed at different people's reactions and points of views based on who they are.


For me, the psychological torture and the mental adaptations they had to make to survive are what leaves me speechless. In the beginning we saw that brainwashed slave and heard conversations about keeping your head down, hiding your education for your own safety, and what needs to be done to survive. There is talk of uprising but it doesn't come to pass. Why? That physical and psychological torture, trappings, the systematic oppression to hold a people down in their place as slaves. It forces me to think about what it would take to break my spirit, to break my trust in humanity, and to think only of my own survival. It's a horrifying, tragic thing to think about. It haunts me. And I see Solomon's big, terrified eyes in a slow pan and it completely reflects my emotions.



I love that they had two of the White characters touch on the fact that there is certainly a psychological shift, accommodation, rigid denial or retreat that must take place in order to treat a fellow human being that way. In order to behave that sadistically, you've got to numb yourself or lie to yourself in a very committed way.


The first person I saw the movie with was an African American woman, my friend and fellow therapist. We were both dazed, traumatized, and in shock after the movie. She said to me, "Some of that is about 3 steps away from what is happening right now, today, in our community."


I'm still wrapping my mind around that.

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