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Post by Admin on Fri Oct 18, 2013 10:17 pm

Music as a Southern Symbol of Lost Freedom in ’12 Years a Slave’
Aural Fixation By Allison Loring on October 17, 2013

12 Years a Slave tackles many issues throughout its narrative, doing so in the elegant and unflinchingly honest way only director Steve McQueen can deliver. Hans Zimmer’s score works well to reflect the action on screen, playing almost like a horror score at times, but music becomes more than just something accenting the background and driving the emotion, it is also a major part of the story.

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a violinist and his talents have not only helped provide him a comfortable life, they have made him a respected member of his community. Solomon is certainly skilled, but it is also clear that he simply loves to play. Unfortunately, that love leads him down a path that changes his life forever.

In Saratoga, New York, Solomon is a free man who plays for pleasure and additional income, but once he is kidnapped and shipped south, all the talents and skills that made him a valued member of society could now get him killed. Freeman (Paul Giamatti), the slave trader in charge of getting the highest price for his latest “stock,” quickly utilizes Solomon’s talents and has him play during his human auction as those around him are sold off and families are ruthlessly broken apart. The idea that upbeat music would keep those being sold and separated seem less upsetting is the first glimpse both Solomon and audiences get of the logic existing south of the Mason-Dixon line.

The image of Solomon playing as people scream for their family members — people who they will likely never see again — is a stark contrast to the elaborate dinner parties and events he used to lend his talents to. This is a new world for Solomon, and music is valued very differently here.

Ejiofor himself recently noted, “Music was his [Solomon’s] way of feeling connected to the community and he was considered talented and special.” In this new environment, music becomes something Solomon performs at the command of his masters, so letting those masters know he is talented becomes a threat instead of something to take pride in.

Luckily, Solomon’s first master, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), is a kind man who acknowledges his talents and goes so far as to gift Solomon a violin – an object that becomes a source of comfort and hope for Solomon as he etches his family’s names into it. A physical representation of his former life. But Solomon’s comfort under Ford’s ownership quickly ends as he finds himself with a new, much more dangerous master.

Solomon’s new world is not without music as songs are sung out over the cotton fields, but these tunes are now accented by the threatening percussion of a lash being whipped. He and his fellow slaves also sing as they lay those fallen to rest, and this act of singing together feels reminiscent to the community Solomon lost, but there is a palpable sorrow in these songs which works as a bitter contrast to the joy creating and sharing music once held. Music no longer brings people together in happiness, it becomes a symbol mirroring both survival and loss.

Solomon’s violin, which was the last tangible connection to his life before his enslavement, starts to become more painful than comforting. When Solomon performs now, it is rarely for the pleasure of his audience. There are many difficult scenes featured in 12 Years a Slave, but as we watch Solomon playing at a “party” where his new master, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), sits drunk and demands his slaves dance for his entertainment, it becomes clear that music no longer means what it once did for Solomon. Something that had given him hope now acts as a raw reminder of the life he may never return to.

When Solomon played during the auction after first arriving in Louisiana, there were still some visages of his old life streaming across his face as he performed, but his new life as a slave and all the brutal things that came with it wear heavily on the notes. Watching his face as he performs for Epps makes it clear that he finally understands the true depth of the situation he is in, and there are no comforts there.

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Post by Admin on Fri Oct 18, 2013 10:40 pm

Despite Success Of '12 Years A Slave,' Many Stories Set During The Period Still To Be Told
by Tambay A. Obenson
September 25, 2013 1:38 PM

Praise for Steve McQueen's 12 Years A Slave has been near-deafening, with critics and audiences alike, who've seen the film ahead of its October release, appreciative of its attempts to capture, honestly, the realism and brutality of slavery in this country. And while I found it a certainly well-made, frank film, I'll also say that there's still an even more brutal film about slavery to be made.

In fact, I'll add that there are still countless stories about that grave period in American history to be told on screen, and we all should be curious and interested in seeing them realized. This is after all not just black history, but American history.

I don't think it's hyperbole for me to say that slavery is the foundation upon which this country, these United States of America, was built. And yet, in the 100 year history of the cinema, it's only now that a film of this scale and caliber, made for the big screen, that honestly captures the cruelty and inhumanity of slavery without any sensationalism, is finally a reality.

I'm sure I'm in the minority when I say that, after seeing the film myself a couple of weeks ago, I think praise for it is excessive. The problem here as I see it, is that, unlike the volume of films made about the Jewish Holocaust (a comparison some might not like, but is the most immediate other historical human tragedy that most of us are familiar with, and one that often draws comparison) on an annual basis, films that tackle slavery in the USA in any capacity (especially at such a high profile level, given the names involved in front of and behind the camera) are still very few and far between. And so praise for 12 Years A Slave, while I won't say is completely undeserved, could also be influenced by the fact that there just isn't anything else to compare it to, because, once again, films that tell stories about that period in our history, and that do so frankly, aren't exactly in abundance. So when a film like 12 Years A Slave comes around, it's of course going to attract a lot of attention, and all it really needs to do is be competent. If we saw a similar volume of slave narratives on screen as we've seen Holocaust-set tales over the decades, 12 Years A Slave wouldn't necessarily be this seemingly momentous, groundbreaking occurrence, which, if you've been paying attention, the praise for it seems to suggest. Alas, it really ought not be.

Some of us (black audiences specifically) groan when we hear of new productions of slave-themed films. But to be clear, for those perplexed by these objections, these are laments that are rooted more in the fact that there has been very little variety in terms of the representation of black lives in mainstream American cinema throughout the years, than a genuine aversion to slave narratives - a long-standing matter that's been discussed ad naseam on this site and others. There has to be a realization among all of us that slavery-set stories don't necessarily have to make slavery absolutely central to the narrative, nor do they have to always cause distress. Even though black people weren't considered human beings at the time, we of course, were. Amongst the many tales of incomprehensible inhumanity and savagery our predecessors experienced during the period, there were also stories of courage, of bravery, conviction, insurrection, and even genuine joy, happiness, laughter and love, no matter how fleeting the moments.

There are still those stories to be told about that period in our history, whether looking at slavery broadly as an institution, and the economics of it, or putting a magnifying glass over one person's very specific tale, taking place over a day or an entire life, or examining a single moment in time. And they don't all have to be wholly agonizing. Although, even if they were, we shouldn't turn our backs on them. They were still someone's story, whether it's a story we all want to see told on film or not.

An important understanding that Hollywood studio executives, production companies, film financiers, etc apparently don't seem to grasp, or maybe they do, but choose to ignore, is that black audiences long to see films in which black characters take complete control of their own destinies, absent of any, shall we say, *outsider* influence, no matter what period in our history the films are set. Although maybe that's a reflection of a reality that suggests whites consider themselves superior (whether consciously or not), and thus responsible for the progress of others they consider pitiable, meaning that they can't even envision a work of fiction in which blacks, and blacks only, are in charge of their very own lives.

Would the production companies and financiers behind 12 Years A Slave, consider Nat Turner's revolt as the basis for a film, if director Steve McQueen had brought that idea to them?

Also worth considering are those narratives that aren't necessarily based on historical fact. One can certainly set a story within that period, creating a fictionalized account of a life, or many lives, getting as creative and imaginative as one wants to be. Take Octavia Butler's Kindred for example. It's certainly not what we'd call a typical slave narrative, but she smartly incorporates slavery into this time travel tale that gives readers something of a history lesson, without the didacticism, all wrapped up in a thrilling adventure story.

And while I found Django Unchained problematic, it's also very much a fictional slave narrative, whose main purpose is to entertain, and not necessarily edify.

Another recent example is the well-made though not-very-well-known indie drama titled The Retrieval, previously highlighted on this blog, which centers on a young black boy who, along with his uncle, works for a gang of bounty hunters, in slavery-era USA, recapturing runaway slaves and tracking down wanted criminals. Any similarities to Django Unchained are superficial and coincidental. Directed by Chris Eska, the film premiered at the SXSW Film Festival this year, and continues to travel the film festival circuit.

My point here is that the possibilities are near-endless, and can be of any genre - drama, science fiction, thriller, horror, action, even comedy. The slave narrative doesn't necessarily have to be capitalized. There's a rich history here (of black history - in this case; of the Transatlantic Slave Trade), full of a myriad of tales of all kinds, mostly untapped, which could be fodder for countless films to last many lifetimes. If only there were more brave souls willing to see even a fraction of them realized.

So when you do eventually go see 12 years A Slave, about a month from now, don't walk into the theater with the weight of history (not only of slave history, but of cinema history as well), the near-deafening praise, the pressure, the expectation, etc, on your shoulders. Just remember, you're going to watch one single movie about this specific period in our history. Because I certainly hope that this won't be the final word on slavery movies in America, but instead the one that encourages a much closer look at those many momentous years in American (actually, global) history, where numerous untold tales are currently buried - tales of the inhumanity endured, for sure, but also of the triumphs, the loves, traditions and mythologies rooted in the cultures from which our ancestors were removed, and everything else between all the extremes, whether historical fact, or creative fiction.

Maybe one of them will inspire your next film...

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Post by Admin on Fri Oct 18, 2013 10:44 pm

Posted October 15, 2013 by Religion News Service in Arts & Culture

’12 Years a Slave’ prompts calls for racial reconciliation

Chiwetel Ejiofor as “Solomon Northup” in "12 Years a Slave". Photo courtesy Fox/Searchlight Pictures

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in “12 Years a Slave.” Photo courtesy Fox/Searchlight Pictures

WASHINGTON (RNS) The new movie “12 Years a Slave” may depict a bygone era in American history, but religious leaders hope it might spark increased attention about present-day race relations.

“It is the elephant in the room,” said the Rev. Barbara Williams-Skinner, a facilitator of the National African American Clergy Network, speaking at a panel discussion after a recent screening.

“If you even raise race today, you are ‘race baiting.’ You’re playing ‘the race card,’” said Williams-Skinner, who is also the CEO of the Skinner Leadership Institute.

The movie gives an unflinching account of the true story of Solomon Northup, a free man living in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., who was kidnapped and spent a dozen years as a slave in the South, wrongly accused of being a Georgia runaway.

Clergy and activists hope the movie that opens Friday (Oct. 18) — with its depiction of whippings and other degradation — will be a catalyst for churches to recall slavery and address the current state of the nation’s race relations. They point to controversies from the killing of Florida teen Trayvon Martin to the Supreme Court striking down a major provision of the Voting Rights Act.

(Left to right) Jim Wallis of Sojourners, the Rev. Michael McBride of PICO National Network, the Rev. Otis Moss III, the Rev. Barbara Williams-Skinner of the National African American Clergy Network and Galen Carey of the National Association of Evangelicals take part in a panel discussion after a screening of "12 Years a Slave" in Washington on October 9, 2013. Photo courtesy Brandon Hook/Sojourners

(Left to right) Jim Wallis of Sojourners, the Rev. Michael McBride of PICO National Network, the Rev. Otis Moss III of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, the Rev. Barbara Williams-Skinner of the National African American Clergy Network and Galen Carey of the National Association of Evangelicals take part in a panel discussion after a screening of “12 Years a Slave” in Washington on Oct. 9, 2013. Photo courtesy Brandon Hook/Sojourners

Sojourners, the Washington-based anti-poverty group, will be circulating “The One Church One Body Pledge” in hopes of starting a new conversation to improve race relations.

“Many white Christians and churches have no connection to what is being felt and said in black churches nationwide — both about fear for their children and fear of losing their voting rights,” the pledge reads.

It urges supporters to seek racial reconciliation and help the church become “a multiracial community.” It calls on them to “repair our criminal justice system” and urge Congress to “restore the integrity of the Voting Rights Act.”

Sojourners’ founder, Jim Wallis, tied the stories of families separated in “12 Years a Slave” to often-forgotten African-American children who attend inadequate schools or live on streets where hundreds are shot each year.

“It’s still going on every damn day,” he said.

The Rev. Michael McBride, a Berkeley, Calif.-based advocate on mass incarceration with PICO National Network, said he hopes the movie will encourage people to view the punitive aspects of U.S. society as excessive and not “grounded in Scripture.”

Michael Fassbender as “Edwin Epps,” Lupita Nyong’o as “Patsey,” and Chiwetel Ejiofor as “Solomon Northup” in "12 Years a Slave". Photo courtesy Fox/Searchlight Pictures

Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps, Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in “12 Years a Slave.” Photo courtesy Fox/Searchlight Pictures

The film sometimes addresses questions of faith, including a slave master quoting from the Bible at an outdoor worship service, legitimizing his authority to control and whip the slaves gathered before him.

“The faith that they had in the film was really capitalism in drag,” said the Rev. Otis Moss III, pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, speaking of the slave owners depicted in the movie.

Galen Carey, vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals, said there’s no “one step” that will move the church on race relations. But “authentic encounters” in local churches can help.

A small group at his Columbia, Md., church discovered a sharp racial disparity among its members over whether they’d listed themselves as organ donors on their driver’s licenses. Black members recalled notorious medical experiments on unsuspecting black men in the mid-1900s.

“Every single African-American in our group said, ‘No way would I do that ’cause we can’t trust those people,’” Carey said. “And every white person said, ‘What do you mean?’”

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Post by Admin on Sat Oct 19, 2013 12:07 am

The Reel World | 15 October 2013
Slavery on film: What is Hollywood’s problem?
Tom Brook

A new film, 12 Years a Slave, stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as a free man who is sold into slavery. Michael Fassbender plays a cruel plantation owner. (Fox Searchlight)

A new film, 12 Years a Slave is attracting attention for its brutal depiction of slavery. But why have directors been reticent to tackle the subject until now? Tom Brook reports.

Slavery is a dark chapter in US history. And surprisingly few Americans seem to know the full horror of what the country’s slave population had to endure. Over the years Hollywood has been reluctant when it comes to filling in the details. But is this down to audience disinterest – or is there a deeper issue? “There still are a lot of Americans in the marketplace who don’t really want to see the reality of slavery − and Hollywood being a business may be wary about showing too much of that,” says Screen International film critic David D’Arcy.

But now a forthcoming picture, the highly-praised 12 Years a Slave from British filmmaker Steve McQueen, is about to bring Americans what many view as the most realistic and bold portrayal of slavery ever seen on the big screen. It opens next week in US cinemas and it’s a film that could both educate and inspire − as well as alienate.

The film is based on the published memoir of Solomon Northup, a free black man from Saratoga Springs in New York who was kidnapped into slavery in 1841. Northup was stripped of his identity, given a new name and sent to toil on Louisiana’s plantations. The film shows his mistreatment − and that of his fellow slaves - in all its full horror. Steve McQueen maintains he had a straightforward goal: “I just wanted to make a film about slavery because it was something which hadn’t been actually looked at before in depth − and it was just a gaping hole in film history and I thought I want to investigate. I want to look.”

That assertion has provoked the ire of the long-established New York film critic Armond White. “Anyone who believes that 12 Years a Slave is breaking new ground or has something new to say,” he says, “they’re probably unfamiliar with the fairly long history of movies that have dealt with slavery.”. In fact debates over slavery in cinema among directors, critics, scholars and the general public can get quite heated − and there is plenty of disagreement. “Slavery is a very controversial topic to discuss within American cinema,” says Professor Dexter Gabriel, who teaches a class on slavery in cinema at George Mason University. What many would accept is that the hodgepodge of Hollywood films that have tackled slavery have often featured negative representations of black people.

Characters or caricatures?

Professor Gabriel cites pictures like the 1939 classic Gone With The Wind: “Most movies that we’ve seen on slavery in American cinema have been the old plantation epics,” he says. “Hollywood depicted slavery where the slaves were depicted as happy, as jovial and in really demeaning stereotypes such as the Mammy or the Uncle Tom.” But some will argue that these plantation epics weren’t always presenting slaves in a negative light. The Mammy, a caricature of an African-American matron that many find offensive, was famously portrayed by Hattie McDaniel in Gone With The Wind. But the character is viewed as well-drawn by critic Armond White. “Mammy is a full-blooded character, not a stereotype at all − and she stands equal to the white characters,” he says.

When it comes to portrayals of slavery many would agree that it wasn’t a story told on the big screen that had the most impact but Roots, a TV miniseries, broadcast in 1977.The series chronicled what happened to a young African sold into slavery and brought to the US −and half a century later its finale still holds the record as one of the highest-rated TV programmes in history. Professor Gabriel points out that Roots presented slavery to the American public from a specific perspective − one which perhaps made it easier for viewers to relate to the plight of slaves. He says it was “a very middle-class version of slavery, where the slave experience is almost turned into an immigrant story so that it fits in with the United States.” Armond White, in what many might see as an exaggeration, sees the impact of Roots as being dramatic. “I think it’s fair to say that before 1977 most Americans had no idea that slavery had ever existed,” he says. “They didn’t know what it was like at all, and Roots revealed all of that. It changed Americans' perceptions of their own history.”

Slavery has also been tackled by Steven Spielberg, one of Hollywood’s greatest storytellers, both in his 1997 picture Amistad and in Lincoln, which was released last year. Amistad portrays a 19th Century mutiny by slaves who took control of the ship La Amistad off the coast of Cuba − as well as the legal battle that took place after their capture. “I think Amistad is one of the great movies in Spielberg’s filmography,” says Armond White, “because it looks at slavery as an aspect of law in America and it examines the legal aspects that pertained to slavery. It’s about how men create laws and how men respond to laws.” But Spielberg’s Lincoln didn’t hold up so well in several assessments. “We were treated to a film that was ostensibly talking slavery but was really about great white men who helped end slavery,” says Professor Gabriel.

Quentin Tarantino’s recent Django Unchained, a revenge fantasy in which a freed slave joins forces with a German bounty hunter to retaliate against an evil plantation owner, won two Oscars, critical raves and made a ton of money at the box office. But it has also been interpreted in less than flattering terms for its portrayal of slavery. Professor Gabriel is one of its critics. “In Django what we got was a very fantastical version of slavery based much more on modern notions of black masculinity and swagger than anything to do with the slave experience.”

“For me the problem with Django Unchained is that Tarantino seemed to make a joke of a very tragic history,” says Armond White. “He seemed not to take it seriously. He likes to play with movie tropes and Django Unchained is really his version of a 70s Blaxploitation film.”

Brutal reality

With 12 Years a Slave about to arrive in US cinemas some are asking if it will redress the balance and finally bring audiences a more accurate representation of slavery.

Variety’s chief film critic Scott Foundas admires the picture and thinks it will at least give audiences a hefty dose of reality. “I think 12 Years a Slave is unique in terms of motion pictures in trying to have this very plausible realism,” he says. “In terms of this kind of brutal realism it’s pretty much unparalleled in the history of American movies.” And Screen International film critic David D’Arcy definitely welcomes a more visceral screen portrayal. “I think we want to see the blood and the grand emotion,” he says. “I don’t think the depiction of it is about the legalities or the shady evolution or anything like that.” But not everyone welcomes such a graphic approach. When asked about the picture’s brutality, Armond White, who is African-American, says he “felt sickened by it.” He adds, “I think 12 Years a Slave is not very enlightening to me for someone who has heard about the history of slavery through personal anecdotes of family and community.”

Despite his protestations, the vast majority of US critics applaud this movie − and Oscars watchers believe it will earn a trove of nominations. But 12 Years a Slave’s more immediate concern is its fate at the box office. With so many Americans historically tentative when it comes to confronting the horrific details of slavery, will sufficient numbers want to see such a brutal portrayal when the film opens in the US next Friday?

Fox Searchlight Pictures, who’re backing the picture in America, are no doubt anxiously waiting to find out the answer.

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Post by Admin on Sat Oct 19, 2013 12:16 am

The Root
Published on The Root (

Home > Hollywood Finally Catches Up With History
Hollywood Finally Catches Up With History
By: Salamishah Tillet
Posted: October 15, 2013 at 12:50 AM

12 Years a Slave is the first film based on a story by one who actually lived through it.

(The Root) -- Steve McQueen's masterful 12 Years a Slave has already changed history in two major ways: It is the first Hollywood-backed movie on slavery directed by a black filmmaker, and based on Solomon Northup's 1853 oral account, it is the first film ever based on an actual slave narrative.

While the former results from the dearth of black directors who are able to get historical dramas funded and distributed by major studios, the latter reveals a more troubling truth. Despite the fact that nearly 200 narratives were published in the United States and England between 1760 and 1947, filmmakers have almost completely ignored these materials.

The result has been a rigid typecasting of enslaved African Americans as either sambos or superheroes in Hollywood's most successful films on slavery. In the 1939 box-office smash Gone With the Wind, slave characters like Prissy, Mammy and Uncle Peter humorously submit to their mistress. Inversely, Quentin Tarantino's hugely successful Django Unchained has both the butler Stephen, who gladly serves his master, and the slave protagonist, Django, who singlehandedly overthrows an entire plantation.

Missing from these flat representations are the complexities and contradictions of plantation life that dominated the slave narratives and actually enabled most enslaved African Americans to survive and, as in the case of Solomon Northrop, outlive their oppression.

That is, until now.

While the turn by 12 Years A Slave to the slave narrative might be new, it lags historians and other artistic mediums by more than 40 years. Politicized by the changing racial climate of the 1960s, American historians began to reject the then widely accepted thesis of historian Stanley Elkins' 1959 book Slavery, which purported that the institution was so psychologically infantilizing to African Americans, they developed dependent "sambo" personality types.

Believing that Elkins' thesis willfully ignored the testimonies of former slaves, historians began challenging the longstanding assumption that plantation owners' records provided the most accurate and objective accounts. By 1972, the first two books that consistently used slave narratives as primary sources -- John Blassingame's The Slave Community and George Rawick's From Sundown to Sunup -- were published and changed the study of slavery forever.

At the same time, African-American writers like Octavia Butler, Barbara Chase-Riboud and Ishmael Reed began adapting the first-person slave-narrative form in their novels. Its impact on the literary world was so vast that a new genre -- the neo-slave narrative -- was born, while the slave narrative continued to serve as inspiration for later works by African-American artists and performers as diverse as choreographer Bill T. Jones, visual artists Glenn Ligon and Kara Walker, jazz musician Wynton Marsalis and most famously for Toni Morrison's Pulitzer-prize winning novel Beloved.

Why, then, has Hollywood taken so long to catch up? Part of the problem is that unlike the plethora of movies on other historical atrocities such as the Holocaust, there are so few films on American slavery. But unlike movies on the Holocaust, which allow American audiences to understand past trauma and mass violence as a phenomenon that happens outside the U.S., films on slavery reveal the paradox that continues to haunt us -- the peculiar marriage of racism and freedom upon which the nation was founded.

Our cinematic amnesia about slavery has also come with a huge cost: The most popular films feature white characters who always outsize slave characters, like the sympathetic slave owner (Scarlett O'Hara), an antislavery statesman (Amistad's John Quincy Adams) or a charismatic sidekick (Dr. King Schultz of Django).

This preoccupation with white protagonists, which also dominates Hollywood's treatment of Native Americans (think Dances With Wolves), does so by softening the reality of slavery and purposely denying the lives and opinions of those who endured it the most.

Twelve Years a Slave, on the other hand, begins to do for contemporary Americans what the slave narratives did on behalf of the abolitionists. It rips the veil off the horrors of slavery, while humanizing the enslaved African Americans. It does not portray Northup (brilliantly played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) as either an accomplice to or the sole avenger of slavery. Rather, it zooms in on the ordinary violence of his life, making him a three-dimensional character who simultaneously accommodates and resists his subjugation in order to simply remain alive.

It also shows slavery as America's ultimate irony. It was both a mundane and menacing institution that produced pathological slaveholders (intensely played by Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson) who derived their pleasure and wealth from the psychological and physical torture of slaves. In response, the majority of enslaved African Americans had few options: a slow acceptance of their fate, small forms of resistance, rare escape or death.

Through the characters Eliza (a passionate Adepero Oduye) and Patsey (a poignant Lupita Nyong'o), we are also reminded of Harriet Jacobs' famous words in the slave narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: "Slavery is terrible for men, but it is far more terrible for women."

And while 12 Years a Slave clearly builds on the work of a preceding generation of artists and historians, it has also cleared a space of its own. By privileging the testimonies and voices of the slaves themselves, it gives us a new cinematic story of slavery as exceptionally violent and quintessentially American.

Salamishah Tillet is an associate professor of English and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of Sites of Slavery: Citizenship, Racial Democracy, and the Post-Civil Rights Imagination and the co-founder of A Long Walk Home, a nonprofit organization that uses art to end violence against girls and women.

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Post by Admin on Sat Oct 19, 2013 12:41 am

October 11, 2013
An Essentially American Narrative
Interviews by NELSON GEORGE

Amid comic book epics, bromantic comedies and sequels of sequels, films about America’s tortured racial history have recently emerged as a surprisingly lucrative Hollywood staple. In the last two years, “The Help,” “Lincoln,""Django Unchained,""42” and “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” have performed well at the box office, gathering awards in some cases and drawing varying degrees of critical acclaim.

The latest entry in this unlikely genre is “12 Years a Slave,” the director Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir. A free black man living in Saratoga, N.Y., Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into brutal servitude in the Deep South. During his ordeal, he labors at different plantations, including the one owned by the sadistic Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who has a tortured sexual relationship with the slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o).

Following a buzzed-about preview screening at the Telluride Film Festival and the audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival, “12 Years a Slave” arrives in theaters Friday amid much online chatter that it may be headed for Oscar nominations. But Mr. Ejiofor, who portrays Northup, and Mr. McQueen, known for the bracingly austere “Hunger” and “Shame,” both say that getting audiences to see an uncompromisingly violent and quietly meditative film about America’s “peculiar institution” is still a challenge even with the presence of a producer, Brad Pitt, in a small role.

While the material was developed by Americans (including the screenwriter John Ridley) the director and most of the major cast members are British, a topic of concern among some early black commentators.

On a sweltering afternoon in SoHo last month, the author and filmmaker Nelson George led a round-table discussion at the Crosby Street Hotel with Mr. Ejiofor and Mr. McQueen. Joining them to provide a wider historical and artistic context were the Columbia University professor Eric Foner, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery,” among other books; and the artist Kara Walker, whose room-size tableaus of the Old South employing silhouettes have redefined how history and slavery are depicted in contemporary art and influenced many, including the “12 Years a Slave” production team. Current civil rights issues including the New York police practice of stop and frisk, recently declared unconstitutional; sexuality and slavery; Hollywood’s version of American history; and the themes of Obama-era cinema were among the topics of the sharp but polite dialogue. These are excerpts from the conversation.

Q. I wanted to start with contemporary analogues. One thing that came to mind was stop and frisk, a way the New York City police could stop a black or Latino male. I thought of Solomon as a character who, for a lot of contemporary audiences, would be that young black person. [To Mr. McQueen and Mr. Ejiofor] When you were seeking a way into the slave story, was what happens now part of that?

Steve McQueen Absolutely. History has a funny thing of repeating itself. Also, it’s the whole idea of once you’ve left the cinema, the story continues. Over a century and a half to the present day. I mean, you see the evidence of slavery as you walk down the street.

What do you mean?

McQueen The prison population, mental illness, poverty, education. We could go on forever.

Chiwetel, how did you balance what’s going on in the world with [Northup’s] reality?

Chiwetel Ejiofor That wasn’t the approach for me. I was trying to tell the story of Solomon Northup as he experienced his life. He didn’t know where all this was going. My journey started finishing a film in Nigeria. The last day, I went to the slave museum in Calabar, which was four or five rooms and some books, some interesting drawings of what they thought happened to people when the boats took them over. I left the following day and came to Louisiana. In my own way, I traveled that route.

Professor, your reaction to the film, its place in the contemporary discussion about slavery.

Eric Foner I believe this is a piece of history that everybody — black, white, Asian, everybody — has to know. You cannot understand the United States without knowing about the history of slavery. Having said that, I don’t think we should go too far in drawing parallels to the present. Slavery was a horrific institution, and it is not the same thing as stop and frisk. In a way, putting it back to slavery takes the burden off the present. The guys who are acting in ways that lead to inequality today are not like the plantation owner. They’re guys in three-piece suits. They’re bankers who are pushing African-Americans into subprime mortgages.

Kara, what are your thoughts on this?

Kara Walker There’s a uniquely American exuberance for violence or an exuberance for getting ahead in the world and making a name for themselves. I’m talking about the sort of plantation class that fought for the entrenchment of the slave system. That’s not something that can be overlooked when you think about the mythology of what it means to be an American, that one can become a self-made man if one is white and male and able.

Foner One of the things I liked about the movie and the way it portrayed violence, it’s pretty hard to take sometimes. But what it really highlights is the capriciousness of it. The owners, at one moment they’re trying to be pleasant, and the next moment they’re whipping you. You’re always kind of on this edge of not knowing. In fact slavery is like that at large. You don’t know when you’re going to be sold away from your family. People like to have some kind of stability in their life, but you can’t as a slave.

Servitude and Sexuality

There’s a lot of things to say about sex in the film, but one of the things that is going to leap out is Alfre Woodard’s character [Mistress Shaw, described in the book as the black wife of a white plantation owner].

McQueen In the book, she doesn’t say anything. I had a conversation with John Ridley, and I said: “Look, we need a scene with this woman. I want her to have tea.” It was very simple. Give her a voice.

Walker It’s not that it was that uncommon. That planter would be sort of the crazy one, the eccentric one, and she’s getting by.
From left, Mr. Ejiofor and Mr. McQueen.
Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

From left, Mr. Ejiofor and Mr. McQueen.

Ejiofor It was against the law to marry, but it did happen.

Foner There were four million slaves in the U.S. in 1860 and several hundred thousand slave owners. It wasn’t just a homogeneous system. It had every kind of human variation you can imagine. There were black plantation owners in Louisiana, black slave owners.

Walker I was going to ask a question about a black woman who appears, a mysterious woman Solomon has sex with. She has sex with him, rather. I thought she was going to be a character in the film, and then she wasn’t.

McQueen Slaves are working all day. Their lives are owned, but those moments, they have to themselves. I just wanted a bit of tenderness — the idea of this woman reaching out for sexual healing in a way, to quote Marvin Gaye. She takes control of her own body. Then after she’s climaxed, she’s back where she was. She’s back in hell, and that’s when she turns and cries.

Solomon has a wife beforehand. In the film it seems as if he lived with Eliza [a fellow slave]. Then obviously [he has] some kind of relationship with Patsey, a friendship. But I wondered about Solomon’s own sexual expression.

Ejiofor His sexuality felt slightly more of a tangent. I think the real story is where sex is in terms of power.

Foner Remember, this book is one of the most remarkable first-person accounts of slavery. But it’s also a piece of propaganda. It’s written to persuade people that slavery needs to be abolished. He doesn’t say anything about sexual relations he may have had as a slave. There’s no place for such a discussion because of the purpose of the book.

Walker But in “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” [by Harriet Ann Jacobs] and other slave narratives written by women, that’s always kind of the subtext, because there are children that are produced, relationships that are formed or allegiances that are formed with white men in order to have freedom.

Foner Harriet Jacobs was condemned by many people for revealing this, even antislavery people.

Walker Yes, but it’s always the subtext. Even “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” It’s like, there’s little mulatto children, and that’s the evidence.

Unlike most American directors, you’re not cutting all over the place. You put the camera there, and you let us experience the moment that is part of the lore of America, the slave master raping the black female slave [Patsey].

McQueen I didn’t want people to get out of it. Within that you see his actual love for her in a way. Obviously, the love isn’t given back to him, and it’s a horrendous rape.

Walker Staying on that scene and coming back to Patsey over and over, she is abused and deteriorating and wanting to die. We don’t need to see that scene over and over again.

McQueen I have huge sympathy for Epps, though. He’s in love with this woman and he doesn’t understand it. Why is he in love with this slave? He goes about trying to destroy his love for her by destroying her. The madness starts.

A View From Abroad

One of the things that has come up in early response to the film is a question from some black folks in America about the perspective, the fact that you are both foreigners, as it were.

Walker It will never be right for the black folks in America, I’m sorry. You can say it’s a historical document ——

McQueen Can I jump in there, please? I am British. My parents are from Grenada. My mother was born in Trinidad. Grenada is where Malcolm X’s mother comes from. Stokely Carmichael is Trinidadian. We could go on and on. It’s about that diaspora.

Ejiofor When I was in Savannah, Ga., they were telling me how they used to have special chains for the Igbos [a Nigerian ethnic group]. I told the man, “I’m Igbo.” Not having any sense of the internationalism of this event is a bad thing. I loved the fact that there were people from different places coming together to tell this story.

McQueen The only thing you can say about it is: Why was this book lost in America?

Foner Obviously, it wasn’t a best seller. Maybe it will be now. But it’s widely known. It’s used all over the place in history courses. Along with Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, this is probably the most widely read of what we call the slave narratives.

The Past in Hollywood’s Lens

Foner [To McQueen] I think it’s good that you are not a Hollywood director. Most Hollywood history is self-important in a way that this movie is not.

Walker The audience is intelligent. They could actually stand in Solomon’s shoes and go through the adventure together instead of the kind of voice-over Hollywood black Americana thing. That’s what I’m talking about with ownership. Over the years, you have this kind of heavy-handed style of narration. Cicely Tyson comes out with the makeup on and tells her story in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.”

Can I bring up those heavy-handed Hollywood movies, since we’re on that topic? “Lincoln” as well as, obviously, “Django.” It seems like in the last few years, there have been black historical dramas that have been made out of Hollywood. We can throw in “The Help,” “The Butler.” There’s one theory that this is all a reaction to Obama’s presidency.

Ejiofor There’s probably not one cause. I’d say that’s true for a couple of those movies. Obama gets elected. People think we haven’t done the Jackie Robinson story yet. And some of these stories are great stories. The received idea has been it doesn’t sell well. But you have a couple of movies do incredibly good business.

Walker But Obama also wrote his autobiography. I think that might be a part of it, not just that there’s a person in power, but that he’s a best-selling author, getting large portions of America — black, white and other — to become a part of his story.

Foner The daddy, I suppose, of all this was “Glory,” which came out in the late ‘80s. “Roots,” of course, comes before that. All of them suffer from what I see as the problem of Hollywood history. Even in this movie, there’s a tendency toward: You’ve got to have one hero or one figure. That’s why historians tend to be a little skeptical about Hollywood history, because you lose the sense of group or mass.

Ejiofor But that’s movies as well.

Walker I was going to disagree a little bit. I didn’t find him particularly heroic, in that Frederick Douglass sense. He’s a little bit more compromised by more than just slavery. There’s this past, what he does or doesn’t do for Patsey. All of that makes him a much more complicated figure in a way.

McQueen I don’t think we should underplay Obama’s presidency and the effect of these films coming to fruition. The problem is: When he’s not the president anymore, will these films still exist?

The Historical Moment

[To the filmmakers] There’s a lot of talk about awards for the film. Is that relevant to you?

Ejiofor I’m always nervous when people start talking about hype and heat. It’s a story about a man who went through something remarkable. I feel like that still deserves its own reflection.

McQueen I made this film because I wanted to visualize a time in history that hadn’t been visualized that way. I wanted to see the lash on someone’s back. I wanted to see the aftermath of that, psychological and physical. I feel sometimes people take slavery very lightly, to be honest. I hope it could be a starting point for them to delve into the history and somehow reflect on the position where they are now.

[To Walker and Foner] What are your feelings about the impact it will have on people?

Walker I’m a sponge for historical images of black people and black history on film. It doesn’t happen often enough, and it doesn’t happen artfully enough most of the time when it does happen. I came away with this really kind of awful sense that I didn’t want to leave. The texture of the film made me want to stay in this space that would not be hospitable to me. Thinking also about who would see the film, I think about my parents, in Georgia. I think about the theater where they will see the film. People will go to the mall to see one of those Tyler Perry films and action films. Would this film make it there, and if it did, would it translate? My hope was that this film would reach that audience down there and have that sort of complicated space open up for them that wasn’t just an easy laugh or an easy cry.

Foner I think this movie is much more real, to choose a word like that, than most of the history you see in the cinema. It gets you into the real world of slavery. That’s not easy to do. Also, there are little touches that are very revealing, like a flashback where a slave walks into a shop in Saratoga. Yes, absolutely, Southerners brought slaves into New York State. People went on vacation, and they brought a slave.

McQueen I think people are ready. With Trayvon Martin, voting rights, the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and a black president, I think there’s a sort of perfect storm of events. I think people actually want to reflect on that horrendous recent past in order to go forward.

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Post by Admin on Sat Oct 19, 2013 1:11 am

Does It Actually Matter How “True” Our “True Story” Movies Are?
By Jason Bailey on Oct 11, 2013 10:15am
[Does It Actually Matter How “True” Our “True Story” Movies Are?]

Look, it’s not that I make a habit of reading the message boards at IMDb, a pool of intellectualism falling somewhere between an Ain’t It Cool News comment section and the bathroom wall scrawlings of a particularly noxious truck stop. But when I was on the site a couple of weeks back while writing my rave of Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips (out today in wide release), my a posting labeled “The Real Story…” caught my eye. At which point, I executed an eye roll that nearly gave me a migraine. Here they go again, I thought. You see, it’s prestige movie season, and since “true stories” are such proven awards bait, we’re going to have to hear a whole lotta nattering about the details and inaccuracies in all of them. It’s as much a yearly ritual as the Oscar derby itself, and nearly as ridiculous, because such nitpicking has next to nothing to do with the value of the films themselves.

“Hope the film doesn’t forget about the rest of the ‘heroes’ on board the Maersk Alabama,” sneers the IMDb poster. “After all, Capt. Phillips became a hero by virtue of sailing his ship into pirate-infested waters, being captured immediately and held hostage until freed by the Navy SEALs.” He (I’m assuming it’s a he; the handler is “goatdiddler”) then proceeds to give a point-by-point description of what happened during the hijacking of the Maersk to ensure that “the media” (oh, The Media) and the film don’t give “the real heroes short shrift.” Here’s what’s hilarious about the post: Everything that he describes is, to the detail, part of the film. His message was written on September 24, three days before the film’s world premiere at the New York Film Festival. He was fact-checking the movie sight unseen.

But that’s the reflexive crouch adopted by everyone from anonymous commenters to major new organizations now: that any film based on true events must be considered for its total historical accuracy first, and its artistic value a distant, barely mentionable second. CNN and ABC have both run sensationalistic stories about the “controversy” surrounding the film (and the lawsuit from crew members that questions his heroism); sadly, neither story is any more informed than IMDb’s “goatdiddler.” The issue of Phillips’ culpability in the Alabama’s route is raised and handled satisfactorily in the film, but little matter — those reports don’t seem to have seen it.

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This is by no means a phenomenon exclusive to Captain Phillips. Awards chatter has surrounded 12 Years a Slave since its festival run began last month, and for good reason — it’s a harrowing, powerful, emotionally exhausting film, one of the year’s best. But nearly a month before its release, here’s The New York Times, carefully noting doubts about both the veracity of the memoir that inspired it and that book’s authorship. Wikileaks, an organization that really should have more important things to do, is combating Bill Condon’s upcoming The Fifth Estate with an annotated screenplay and “talking points” about the film’s inaccuracies (down to its assertion that Julian Assange dyes his hair).

And it’s not a phenomenon confined to “true story” narratives. Gravity was released on October 4 and swiftly knocked out critics and moviegoers with its brisk intensity. Two days later, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson took to Twitter to knock it down a few notches by poking holes in the scientific details, because as we all know, science-fiction films are notorious for never fudging the science.


Such babble does nothing to diminish the power of these films — I don’t retroactively regret the tears I shed at 12 Years’ brutal lashings if someone tells me they landed on the backs of composite characters any more than I second-guess the force with which Gravity moved and excited me simply because Tyson wants to know where Sandra Bullock’s space diaper was. But there’s a smugness to these attempted takedowns (and to those who crowingly share them on your various timelines), an ugly implication that they’d like you to feel, to some degree, like a sucker for being transported by these experiences — and an unspoken desire to ruin them for you with their self-satisfied “fact-checking.” (There is also, as The Wrap notes, a tendency for inaccuracy “whisper campaigns” to accompany Oscar buzz, a rarely effective but frequently deployed strategy dating from 1999’s The Hurricane through last year’s Argo and Zero Dark Thirty.)

No one’s disputing the idea of preventing outright fiction from presenting itself as fact — but that’s not what we’re talking about in the cases of Phillips or 12 Years or most of the films that find themselves on the receiving end of these criticisms. When Roger Ebert wrote about JFK (another film that attracted more than its share of criticism over its “accuracy”), he clarified that while the journalists who were criticizing it want facts, as a film critic, “I want moods, tones, fears, imaginings, whims, speculations, nightmares. As a general principle, I believe films are the wrong medium for fact. Fact belongs in print. Films are about emotions. My notion is that JFK is no more, or less, factual than Stone’s Nixon or Gandhi, Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, Amistad, Out of Africa, My Dog Skip, or any other movie based on ‘real life.’ All we can reasonably ask is that it be skillfully made and seem to approach some kind of emotional truth.”

Captain Phillips (and 12 Years a Slave, and even Gravity) do that, and then some. In the process of doing so, characters may be combined, dialogue may be created, incidents may be compressed. These modifications are allowed (just as they are in adapting, say, books into films) and expected, as they are part and parcel of the creation of cinematic drama. They make movies that are obligated to correctly represent every tiny detail, you know. They’re called documentaries.

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Post by Admin on Thu Oct 31, 2013 5:13 am

The True Story of 12 Years a Slave

We break down what's fact — and fiction — in the new movie about slavery in the antebellum South
By Eliana Dockterman @edocktermanOct. 18, 201314 Comments

12 Years - 03
Francois Duhamel

The moving —and utterly brutal—film 12 Years a Slave tells the real story of Soloman Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free African-American man living in Saratoga who is kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery. Director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley film were largely faithful Northup’s 1853 biography, Twelve Years a Slave. Here’s how the film and the biography match up:

[Warning: Spoilers Ahead]
Soloman Northup was a free man living in upstate New York with a wife and two children before being enslaved

Ruling: Mostly Fact

Soloman Northup was indeed a free man who played the violin. He had a wife and three children, not two: Elizabeth, Margaret and Alonzo, who were 10, 8 and 5, respectively, at the time of his kidnapping. Sent to Louisiana, Northup is given the name Platt and is beaten when he protests he is a freeman. As a result of the incident, he hides his true identity for years.
On the South-bound ship, one of the slave traders murders one of the slaves

Ruling: Fiction

As in the movie, Northup and two others try to plan an escape from the ship. They got very close to executing their plan, but then one of Northup’s co-conspirators got smallpox and died. He was not knifed to death trying to save a woman from being raped as they show in the film.
Northup is sold to Edwin Epps after he gets into a fight with planation overseer of his first owner

Ruling: Mostly Fact

As shown in the movie, Northup’s first master, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), is a much more lenient man than the other plantation owners in the film and holds some affection for Northup. However, Northup had to be sold to a much crueler master, Epps (Michael Fassbender), when he got into not one, but two, conflicts with the overseer Tibeats (Paul Dano). The first one—in which Tibeats attacks Northup, and Northup is able to overcome him in the attack by hitting and whipping Tibeats—is depicted accurately in the film: Tibeats tries to hang Northup for revenge, but Ford stops him. The second incident, not in the film, involved Tibeats chasing Northup with an axe.
Armsby betrayed Northup by telling Epps that Northup was trying to write a letter to his friends in New York

Ruling: Fact

Armsby (Garret Dillahunt) was trying to obtain a position as an overseer with Epps, which is presumably why he ratted out Northup’s attempts to write home. As in the film, Northup is able to convince Epps that Armsby’s story is a lie. What the movie doesn’t show, though, is that this wasn’t the first time Northup had asked someone to send a letter for him. A sailor on the ship that brought Northup south sent a letter to Northup’s friends (but was unable to share Northup’s whereabouts).
12 Years a Slave

Francois Duhamel / Fox Searchlight
Mary Epps injures Patsey in a jealous rage

Ruling: Fiction

Northup does write in his autobiography about Epps’ affection for Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) — and the jealousy aroused in Epp’s wife. However, he never writes anything about Mary (Sarah Paulson) becoming moved to violence or, as the movie shows, hurling a decanter at her face. Patsey did, however, suffer greatly from Epps’ alternative affection and rage, getting both raped and beaten, especially when Edwin was trying to prove to Mary his lack of affection for Patsy.
Northup was forced to whip Patsey

Ruling: Fact

Patsey leaves the plantation to borrow a bar of soap from a neighbor. Epps did not believe Patsey’s story and compelled Northup to whip her as punishment.
Northup is saved, thanks to a letter written by a kind-hearted carpenter named Bass

Ruling: Fact

Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt) did have a discussion with Epps about slavery as portrayed int he movie, leading Northup to believe he could trust Bass with a letter home. Bass sent the letter and had several nighttime meetings with Northup to report back on the letter’s progress. For a good deal of time, the letter received no response, and Bass even offered to go up to Saratoga himself and tell Northup’s friends about the situation once he could afford to do so. However, Northup’s friends received the letter sooner than that: they make the trip South and save Northup.

READ: Richard Corliss on 12 Years a Slave

READ: sadds

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Post by Admin on Thu Oct 31, 2013 5:14 am

'SNL' Parodies '12 Years a Slave'
By: Lynette Holloway | Posted: October 27, 2013 at 3:26 PM

Screenshot of Saturday Night Live's sketch, "12 Days Not a Slave."

Saturday Live tried to poke fun at 12 Years a Slave, the movie chronicling the brutal era of slavery in the United States.

The sketch, "12 Days Not a Slave," features Jay Pharoah, a regular, and Edward Norton, the guest host of the evening. While visiting with his friend, Norton, at an all-white saloon, Pharoah, a newly freed slave, doesn't understand why other patrons are not happy to see him. He goes on to express how happy he is to have his freedom and says he wants to dance. But Norton urges him not to, saying, "Do not let white people see you dance. Once they see you dance, they will try to dance like you." At that point, Miley Cyrus makes a cameo appearance and proceeds to twerk, while wearing an 1860s-styled dress. It was a very touchy subject for a comedy bit.

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Post by Admin on Sun Nov 17, 2013 1:51 am

The Song of Solomon

The cultural crater of 12 Years a Slave
By Wesley Morris on October 24, 2013

It is a grim sight, the man hanging from a tree. His neck is noosed. His arms are tied behind him. The toes of two booted feet tap, tap, tap in the mud, neither foot firmly on the earth. Each skates a bit. But all that planting the entire foot guarantees is more drudgery. He continues to tap and struggle just the same — for hours and possibly days. The cicadas keep changing their tune. From a distance, we watch him. And from a distance, he is watched. Men and women leave their shacks and go about their duties as if the hanging man were a natural botanical product. They know him, and they know better than to help. He was bad, insurgently so. Now he hangs as an advertisement against insurrection. From a different angle, a finely dressed woman watches the man briefly from her balcony, turns around and heads inside. Children are playing. From the left, a woman, less finely dressed, sneaks him something to drink, and you feel the risk. She bets her safety to water this strange piece of fruit.

I've never seen a sequence that so elegantly uses duration to lay out an ecosystem of power and powerlessness, one that ripples across time, from the 1840s to the 21st century. 12 Years a Slave manages to do that again and again. It coolly clarifies the United States' lasting social underpinnings: the seeds of black anger, black self-doubt, black resilience, white supremacy, and white guilt. The director is Steve McQueen, a 44-year-old Englishman. The screenwriter is the American entertainment-industry veteran John Ridley. Both men are black, and the movie they've made radically shifts the perspective of the American racial historical drama from the allegorical uplift to the explanatory wallop.

The hanging man is Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a violinist, carpenter, husband, and father, whose 1853 memoir gives the movie its source material. Northup was born a free black man, and a series of non-chronological flashbacks show that he enjoyed his middle-class life in Saratoga Springs, New York. His wife and children leave for a three-week trip, and to pass some of the time, he accepts an invitation to accompany two performers (Scoot McNairy, Taran Killam) to Washington, D.C. He awakens in a cell, chained to a wall and accused of being a runaway from Georgia. His back is beaten with a board until the board breaks. Then he's whipped. In one of the flashbacks, a slave notices the Northup family walking into a shop and wanders, astonished, from his owner to gape at these unicorns. Now that man's disbelief is Solomon's.

The entire film presents savagery in civil terms. Paul Giamatti plays a slave trader who informs Solomon, with a slap, that his name is to be Platt. He goes on to sell a mother named Eliza (Adepero Oduye) to a New Orleans plantation owner named Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). He does so as she pleads not to be sold separately from two children. The pulse of Giamatti's character never seems to go up. He kicks one child, and makes the other demonstrate for Ford how "it's very like he will grow into a fine beast," while their mother is dragged from the room. Whether he's heartless by nature or circumstance is unclear. A well-appointed house doubles as his market, with men and women arranged for sale along the walls and Solomon playing his violin. You tend to see scenes like this in public, as tragic commercial theater. Domesticating it, as this movie does, compounds the awfulness.

Ford takes Solomon, too (the violin seems to impress him), and after Solomon beats a dim, bullying overseer (Paul Dano) and the overseer attempts to hang him, Ford cuts him down and ships him off to another, less benevolent owner named Epps (Michael Fassbender). On the Epps plantation, the burden of civility rests upon the shoulders of the slaves. Epps is a lunatic, and his wife, Mary (Sarah Paulson), is crazed with jealousy. With his red beard, drunken sexual appetite, and wretched insecurity, Master Epps chases, demeans, and insults the men and women he calls his property. When Epps greets a group of his slaves, he adds a shocking grace note to his welcome. He plants his arm on the head of a boy and leans. You can't take your eyes off the child. He doesn't move. He can't. That's not what furniture does. This isn't a psychological movie, but the roots of so much national pathology are here: the belittling of black men by whites and by themselves, the nation's ongoing discomfort with true equality and its easing fear of interracial desire.

The object of Epps's lust is a petite field worker named Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o). Patsey has a striking, specifically African beauty (in some shots, Nyong'o's skin is almost ebony). You notice her, as Epps has. He singles her out for her cotton-picking prowess and marks her as his extramarital favorite. She so hates the arrangement that she begs Solomon to end her life. He can't. Nyong'o spends the movie acting at a slow boil. It's Epps's reaction to a bar of soap that shatters the docility of her quiet performance.

The central dramatic question ought to be how Solomon will get back to his former life. Another movie might have kept track of time. McQueen lets the years simply accrue. Solomon doesn't know whether he'll be freed. His attempts to make contact with the North are thwarted. Either his fruity ink is too weak (even in the 1840s, blackberries are a vexing communication idea) or his messenger too unreliable. He just toils away in his allotted hell. When a woman rolls over and puts his hand between her legs, he abides. When one Sunday Solomon fetches Patsey from a neighboring plantation and the woman of the house, Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard), explains to her guests her strategy for survival, he simply listens. Woodard invests that monologue with all her flighty, baroquely accented authority. It's an exquisite piece of writing that acknowledges the cunning and self-delusion some slaves could deploy to make the best of a terrible situation. Ridley typed it up. Woodard turns it into cursive.

Some women used their sexuality. Solomon uses his violin. The notion of circumstance comes up once or twice in the film, and it haunts everything. Solomon believes that Ford will show him compassion because he can appreciate that they're equals. After Ford gets him down from that tree, Solomon begs for mercy. He tells his master that he's a free man. But Eliza has already warned him that any appeal to Ford's humanity would be for naught. They're businessmen; compassion has its limits. Ford cuts him down, yes. But he also leaves him bound and lying on his side. "You're an exceptional nigger, Platt, but I fear no good will come of it." There are few exceptions here. When a down-on-his-luck former overseer named Armsby (Garret Dillahunt) joins the field crew on the Epps plantation, he picks far less cotton than Patsey. But Epps doesn't have him whipped as he does the blacks. If anyone's exceptional here, it's Armsby.
12 Years A Slave
Fox Searchlight

The indictment of the racial power dynamic in that cotton bale–weighing scene might as well be an indictment of the same dynamic in the movies. 12 Years a Slave is an easy landmark. It's a rare sugarless movie about racial inequality. McQueen doesn't even give you any orchestral elevation. The score is hard and churning and sparingly used. The movie is about Northup, and at several points an audience is free to remember that most movies about the Civil War and slavery have been appeals to our higher, nobler selves. They've been appeals to white audiences by white characters talking to other white characters about the inherent injustice of oppressing black people at any moment in this planet's history.

This is how we get movies in which white lawyers defend innocent black men (To Kill a Mockingbird, A Time to Kill). It's how we get romances — Jezebel, Gone With the Wind, Cold Mountain — that use the antebellum South and Civil War as backdrops but feature either the most entertaining black slaves or almost no slaves at all. It's how you get Mississippi Burning, a thriller about three murdered civil-rights activists in which even the one-dimensional racists have bigger speaking parts than any black person.

It's how you get Cry Freedom, a thriller about Steve Biko (Denzel Washington) that mostly locks Biko into flashbacks while a white journalist (Kevin Kline) tries to flee apartheid-era South Africa; a movie about the death of Medgar Evers that's focused on his assassin; Steven Spielberg legislative historical dramas about white men fighting over who owns black people and what it means to do so. It's how you spend 35 minutes hearing Christoph Waltz talk and talk in Django Unchained and get nervous that Quentin Tarantino momentarily forgot what his movie was called.

The quality of these films is not the issue. A few of them are great. But after decades and decades and dozens of titles, you get the political point. Movies1 are the most powerful ways Hollywood has to say it's sorry. There is a kind of audacity in something like Lincoln, in which important white men get discursive about the moral quandary in which slavery mires the country. That debate required men to search their souls and vote accordingly. But after enough of these movies, you're just hot with insult. You have to stop accepting apologies, accepting, say, The Help, and start demanding correctives, films that don't glorify whiteness and pity blackness, movies — serious ones — that avoid leading an audience to believe that black stories are nothing without a white voice to tell them that black people can't live without the aid of white ones.

McQueen and Ridley turn that dynamic inside out. Their movie presents the privilege of whiteness, the systematic abuse of its powers, and black people's struggles to get out from beneath it. A different movie might have taken this story and turned it into a battle between Epps and the white men who feel a duty to free Northrup. That's what we're used to. There have been complaints that the movie is too violent, that it depicts too many lashings, too many cruelties, too much interracial abuse, that all the gashes on all the backs (what Toni Morrison poetically described as chokecherry trees) are just too much. But that's a privileged concern. Jonathan Demme tried to alter the imbalance with a film of Morrison's Beloved. It's a frustrating yet deeply moving (and now cautionary) attempt to bring art, history, and politics into the same Hollywood space. Demme damn near burned the house down. There are easier Morrison books to film. But that one might have been the most necessary.

For as much as the movies have elided blacks from the center of their narratives, it has also padded a cozy nest for white audiences. Racists have tended to be vanquished by white heroes so that a black audience could feel a kind of gratitude. That was the alternate kick of blaxploitation: It redrew the lines of hero worship. Black audiences could cheer for themselves. The 1970s were a bonanza for predominantly black movies. Playing Harriet Tubman, Jane Pittman, the mother in Sounder, and Binta in Roots made a saint of Cicely Tyson. That era didn't last. In the 1980s, black culture accelerated its permanent crossover into mainstream America, but the movies are still figuring out what, beyond comedies and action movies, that means. When it comes to race, Hollywood tells stories from the past or relies on ancient formulas because the familiar is easier to parse. The future? It tends to look a lot like After Earth.
Franco Origlia/Getty Images

McQueen was actually an ideal transitional filmmaker. He's a visual artist who had made some short films of varying strength and seemed to be looking for a way to make longer movies. His first two films — 2008's Hunger, about the starvation campaign of the imprisoned IRA volunteer Bobby Sands, and 2011's Shame, about a sex addict in Manhattan — were built around white men, both played by Fassbender. What you saw in them was a visual artist doing some thematic exploration of behavioral extremity. You don't watch either movie thinking McQueen had lost anything in changing mediums — well, except with Shame, perhaps his mind.

There the trouble was that all McQueen wanted to do was provoke. Watching Fassbender spiral out of control was the moviegoing equivalent of a small dog humping your leg. It was impossible not to worry that 12 Years a Slave would just be more humping. But here McQueen practices a kind of patience and restraint. Ridley's screenplay pushes him away from sensationalism. The film is full of wide shots, watchful handheld camerawork by Sean Bobbitt, who also shot Hunger and Shame, and striking visual flourishes. The camera, for instance, hovers above a wagon, so that when the tarp is rolled back on the men and women curled in the wagon bed the effect is akin to the opening of a tin of sardines.

McQueen isn't the first black director to do a slavery movie. He's not even the first one to make this one. Gordon Parks actually made Solomon Northup's Odyssey, an earnest, sanitized 1984 PBS American Playhouse production that I saw in elementary school about a dozen times when it was renamed Half Slave, Half Free. Haile Gerima's didactic, highly mystical Sankofa, about a fashion model transformed back in time to an American plantation, made film-festival ripples in 1993. And Gilbert Moses directed a quarter of ABC's Roots, the cultural event of 1977. McQueen's film doesn't have that show's scope (Roots was broadcast on eight consecutive nights in a bygone era of monoculture), its retroactive camp, or its urgent need for racial reconciliation. The power of McQueen's movie is in its declaratory style: This happened. That is all, and that is everything. No performance is bigger than it needs to be except perhaps that of Fassbender, who plays a dangerously silly man as though he were a dingo. McQueen has the character drunk on power, which allows Fassbender to cut a figure of flamboyance, a man who loves performing ownership.

Other actors come and go — Woodard, Quvenzhané Wallis, Chris Chalk, Michael Kenneth Williams, Brad Pitt — but it's Ejiofor's stoicism that stays with you. In other movies, he has managed to act past ridiculousness (he originated the drag queen in the movie that became the musical Kinky Boots) or rivet you with righteousness. Here Ejiofor has the challenge of being solemn without seeming passive. His isn't that dignified detachment that some actors have to go for with a film like this. He doesn't have to be a non-human deity. (That was some of the trouble with the Jackie Robinson we got in 42.) Ejiofor has a leading man's carriage. He moves from scene to scene in a state of forlorn rumination. After the opening minutes, McQueen doesn't waste time with flashbacks. He doesn't need to. The movie's right there in that woebegone face.
Kanye West
Andrew H. Walker/WireImage/Getty Images

When the film ended I just sat in my seat. I didn't know where to go. I didn't want to go anywhere. This isn't a post-screening lobby film. You don't quite mill about after. What could anybody possibly say? In part, that sense of speechlessness is a response to the film's muted artistry. In part, it's a response to the movie's transparency. For instance, you sometimes think the n-word has lost its power to appall, and yet every time it is used in 12 Years a Slave — as an appellation, a title, or a matter of fact — it hurts.

You hear the casual but hateful way in which Giamatti says it, and you wonder about the discomfort it must have caused him as an actor, or how Dano must have felt singing a whole bone-chilling ditty that uses the word over and over. Modern attempts to deaden its power by reclaiming it for casual overuse have not worked. The racist deployment of the n-word here only makes it more depressing outside the theater to hear two friends use any variation of it on each other or to listen to a 43-year-old superstar rapper use it nine times in a three-minute song about a white fashion designer. Hearing Woodard's character address Solomon as N----- Platt doesn't lessen the toxicity of the slur. It doubles it.

The film even permits you to see from 1841 all the way to the last couple months. What it costs to entertain is a central concern of this movie: Early on, we see how much Solomon enjoys performing, for appreciative, predominately white audiences. But over the course of the film he goes from accompanist to accomplice, from pride to disgust, providing musical accompaniment for atrocities, like the impromptu dances that Mr. and Mrs. Epps like so much. One night Epps blows into the slaves' quarters and rouses them awake. He shepherds them to the big house and commands them to dance in their nightgowns. It's such sad, uninspired dancing that you don't know what pleasure either of the Eppses could take from it, beyond the perverse power to demand they dance at all. Mainly, Mrs. Epps sees the evening as an occasion to chuck a whiskey decanter at Patsey's head.

I watched the joyless look on all those black faces and the amusement on the faces of their white owners, and I thought about last August 25. I thought of the handful of black burlesque dancers who jiggled and bounced in animal costumes for Miley Cyrus at the MTV Video Music Awards. Cyrus couldn't have known the uncomfortable history she had reached into, what it means for black people to perform this sexually, this anonymously for a white woman, but there she was traipsing, like Mrs. Epps, among her fine beasts, performing an otherwise good song whose title normally refers to a nonstop party but also encompasses a depressing legacy of ownership: "We Can't Stop."

Not long after Cyrus and her circus left the stage, Kanye West appeared. West is no stranger to concert circuses. But on this night, he arrived alone to perform a dismaying breakup song called "Blood on the Leaves." It warps a sample of Nina Simone's version of the lynching ballad "Strange Fruit" while West obliquely sing-raps about an abortion. As West begins the first verse, Simone says: "Black bodies swinging in the summer breeze," and the word "breeze" bleats like an alarm.

During the VMAs, the way West was photographed at the performance's start — in a tight close-up, his face to the right of the frame — doesn't prepare you for where it went once the song's stuttering-brass beat joins him. He leaped to another part of the stage and did a flailing dance. He was not a man. He was a silhouette, enshrouded in literal blackness. His proportions grew and shrank as he jumped around in the dark like a shadow puppet. West had negated himself, but he wasn't alone. He danced in front of an enormous light box that contained a large weeping tree. It was a piece McQueen made using a photograph of a New Orleans lynching gallows. And at various moments West got just close enough to be proportionate to its branches. "We coulda been somebody," West screamed, placing an emphasis on "body" as though the word made him sick.

If West knew about McQueen, he also probably knew about the work of artist Kara Walker, whose depictions of the antebellum South feature craft silhouettes doing vulgar and violent things. For most of the year, Walker had a ferocious show up in West's hometown at the Art Institute of Chicago called Rise Up, Ye Mighty Race!, which imagined a slave rebellion and was populated by her enormous stenciled silhouettes. It was more Django Unchained (crazed, confrontational, incendiary) than it was McQueen's movie.

West had managed to conflate both artists with his own art while offering an incidental rebuke of the fiasco that had preceded him in the awards show. He has a messy genius. Sometimes I don't think he knows where he's going with it. But sitting there paralyzed after 12 Years a Slave allowed me to appreciate anew West's loaded, taunting evocation of the past and how surreally far from it we've come. Men died on a tree that West was flirting with. McQueen's movie refuses to let us forget that.

This column has been updated to correct the release year of Shame; it was 2011, not 2012.

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Post by Admin on Fri Feb 28, 2014 2:11 pm

New exhibit explores true story behind '12 Years a Slave'
Posted: Feb 28, 2014 3:38 AM PST Updated: Feb 28, 2014 3:48 AM PST

Cincinnati's National Underground Railroad Freedom Center is offering a closer look at the nine-time Oscar nominated film "12 Years a Slave."

According to the The Freedom Center, the film is largely historically accurate, something that they say "we don't take for granted at a history museum."

With "12 Years a Slave" being up for Best Picture at the Academy Awards this weekend, the Freedom Center has a timely exhibit that deeper explores the film's story.

The film and the new exhibit follows Solomon Northrup, a free black man who is abducted and sold in to slavery in the pre-civil war United States. The exhibit features seven stations that give visitors a glimpse of slavery and the role of abolitionists through artifacts from Northrup's life.

A museum official told FOX19's Jessica Brown that one of the more touching pieces at the exhibit is Solomon's ‘Bill of Sale,' the documented transaction of being traded in to slavery.

"I think this spot really highlights how people were treated as property, and I think that's a really emotional part for folks taking the tour," said Freedom Center Coordinator Aissa Johnson.

The self-guided tour is a permanent exhibition now open at the Freedom Center and can be experienced with general museum admission.

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