In light of 12 Years a Slave obtaining the Oscar… wait, it hasn’t won yet? Well, it will. I’m sure. This paragraph is written the morning of the Oscars and I trust that the Academy has enough intellect and moral strength…. um… well… anyway, we’ll see. So here’s my reaction to 12 Years a Slave:
The best movies are not intellectual. This is not to say that the great movies do not have an intellectual element. Certainly they do. The very best films stimulate thinking and conversation. However, at times also some not so great films do the same thing.
The greatest films do not remain just in the mind, however, but in the soul. It stirs your emotions: inspiring awe or anger; inciting romance or rage; stirring tears or trembling. There is much to consider, but it is also an experience in and of itself. It puts you in another person’s shoes and, for a moment, allows you to see the world as they see it. To wear their clothes and allow us to walk around in them, allowing others to react to us as if we were them.
For a few moments, we experienced what it felt like to be a soldier on D-Day in Saving Private Ryan. We could experience the ethereal beauty of music in The Double Life of Veronique. We could experience the dread of the supernatural evil in The Exorcist. We could sense the awe of the desert world in Lawrence of Arabia. We could feel the rage building up in us in Malcolm X. (Sorry if you didn’t experience those particular feelings when watching those films. Consumer response may vary.)
Certainly two films this year comes close to that: Gravity, that allows us to float with the astronauts and 12 Years a Slave that give us the barest taste of what it meant to be a slave, if we were not born a slave.
There is much in this film to intellectualize, certainly. Systemic injustice and how it touches everything in society. How the black was assumed to be property without proof. The differentiation of treatment between white and black and how that still affects American society. The use of religion and Scripture in unjust institutions. Smaller themes—just pay for one’s work, the loss of name as dehumanization, just and unjust use of violence—abound. All of these could be discussed forever.
But what I was constantly wondering was how much the director identified with this story. Steve McQueen—despite the connection in name with the white American movie star—is a black British artistic director. I wonder if he picked this story because if he were born at a different time, this might be his story. It might be him, having woke up with chains, told he was a runaway slave and given a new name, beaten until he accepts his new life.
The fact is, if I were born a different color in a different time, this could be me. Being articulate, being educated, having a northern accent and even being born free didn’t help Solomon. In a time of prejudice, it takes very little to be on the other side of the tracks. One dramatic change, and you are no longer well regarded, you are no longer loved. You become the outcast, the very bottom rung of society, no matter what you did, no matter who you are. So much depends on the story society tells about you.
I trembled as I watched this film. Not just at the atrocities Solomon and his fellow slaves had to suffer. But at the fact that so few did so little as to change this societal abomination. That the promoters of this evil used the very same words I do on a daily basis to teach people how to love and care. I wept at Solomon’s experience.
Just as the credits rolled, my phone rang. Don’t worry, I had it silenced through the film, but I decided to walk out and take the call. On a Saturday, I would normally be leading a day shelter and worship service for some fifty homeless people, but once a month I get a day off, which I occasionally use to watch a film I am highly anticipating. My day shelter leader, who used to be homeless herself, asked me about getting gear for Greg. The police came and took everything he owned except what was on his back. We didn’t have a tent, but we made arrangements to get him a tarp, a sleeping bag and a leather coat.
Today, more than ever, anyone could be at the bottom rung of society. Anyone. Suddenly, without warning, one could be thrust onto the street and become a criminal, an object of public scorn. And the only way to get past this gauntlet of shame is to clamber up the myriad of obstacles to become middle class again. The longer one remains on the street, the deeper the pit of shit one sinks into.
Who will help stop this societal injustice? Since I see it, whoever else will, I must participate in this evil’s demise. If only because I see it for what it is.