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Post by Admin on Thu Oct 31, 2013 4:45 am

We Can Be Heroes

12 Years a Slave, Schindler’s List, and the hero problem in American movies.
By Peter Malamud Smith

Note: This article contains plot details about 12 Years a Slave.
12 Years A Slave, Chiwetel Ejiofor as "Solomon Northup" Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave.

Photo courtesy of Jaap Buitendijk/Fox Searchlight

First things first: If you haven’t already seen the new film 12 Years a Slave, you absolutely should. You should see it because its always charismatic star, Chiwetel Ejiofor, is excellent and because the film is moving and harrowing. And you should see it because its very existence constitutes some kind of small miracle: It’s a film by a black director, with a black star, that’s all about slavery. How often do we see American pop culture acknowledge slavery at all? (Though director Steve McQueen is British, the film was shot in America and made primarily by American production companies.) America’s attitudes toward its greatest shame are by no means consistent. Denial is big. Our preference is to avert our eyes. A recent CNN poll showed that when asked about the Civil War, around 1 in 4 Americans sympathized more with the Confederacy than with the Union. And 42 percent believed slavery was not the main reason the Confederacy seceded.

That context gives 12 Years a Slave a moral urgency. Full of traumatic images that are routinely suppressed from national memory, it should be required viewing—especially for any politician or pundit who moans about our lost decency and the simpler values on which this country was founded. These distortions are still very much alive, and in light of the popular wish to forget, I can only imagine the struggles that went into getting this movie made. It’s a real achievement.

But there’s also a limitation built into the basic premise of 12 Years a Slave, and it stems from a limitation of American entertainment as a whole. Based on a true story, the film follows Solomon Northup, a free-born black man who, in 1841, was kidnapped by slave traders and spent 12 years in bondage in Louisiana. The trailer emphasizes Northup’s specialness: He was a well-educated man and a talented violinist. “I am not a slave,” he insists. “I am a free man!”

Northup’s narrative, published in 1853, sold 30,000 copies and helped to crystallize public sentiment against slavery. His story was necessary to tell then, and his status as a free man bound into chains makes 12 Years a Slave a vastly more compelling film. After all, the film needs Northup as an audience surrogate. But that narrative focus comes with a cost. What the film says about Solomon Northup is what so many American movies say about their protagonists: He was exceptional. (It’s the same message conveyed by last year’s awards-season slavery movie, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.) The implicit message of the narrative, paraphrased by Northup repeatedly, is: “I’m not supposed to be here!”

The primary way American entertainment understands suffering is as a prelude to catharsis. That Northup, indeed, wasn’t supposed to be there—and that his captivity ended with him reunited with his family—makes it, on one level, a familiar story: One man survives the odds, through some unbreakable psychic integrity. (“I will not give in to despair!” Northup cries—and indeed, he does not. Those who do are mostly removed from the narrative; it would be too unbearable for the film to stay inside their subjectivity.) There’s an unhappy, surely unintended counterimplication to that narrative logic, too: that everyone else, in some sense, belongs in slavery. Or, as a friend of mine put it, "If the regular slaves could play violin, maybe they wouldn't be in this position."

No doubt that's not an impression anyone involved with this movie wants to give, and in fact, the filmmakers make a few moves to supplement the film’s focus on a single exceptional character. For one, a note at the end reminds us that most kidnapped slaves were never rescued. There's also a remarkable shot in the middle of the film: After a slave dies on his feet in the cotton fields, McQueen puts us in the slave’s point of view as Northup buries him, as if to say, "This is how it could and did end for millions of people." But though the moment is chilling, it's not as effective as it might have been: We've never really met the dead man. He remains an anonymous adjunct to Northup's story. Only for the length of one shot are we asked to look through his eyes.

The filmmakers’ richest attempt to complicate the individual focus comes from a subplot about another slave, Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), who is raped by her sociopathic owner, Edwin Epps (a frightening Michael Fassbender).* These scenes are among the hardest to watch, but they are morally straightforward: Patsey suffers, Christlike, eventually asking Northup to kill her. Remaining noble, he refuses. But McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley almost complicate the relationship in a terrifying scene near the end of the film, when the deranged Epps forces Northup, at gunpoint, to whip a naked and bound Patsey. This is the moment when the filmmakers are most poised to challenge Northup's individual strength; slavery has simply put him in a position where it is impossible to stay pure.

Yet the film flinches here, I think. Patsey tells Northup that she'd rather he whip her than let Epps do it; remaining the perfect martyr, she absolves him. (Though the film is apparently very loyal to the real Northup's text, it's telling that this line is Ridley's, not Northup's.) He does indeed whip her, but Epps soon takes over, leaving Northup free to chastise him defiantly from the sidelines. So 12 Years a Slave allows Northup and Patsey's relationship to end with a tender embrace, as he regains his freedom. It plays as tragic, because we know how horrible Patsey's life will continue to be. But it's pure. The film limits the emotional and moral complexity here because it can't afford to risk our identification with Northup.

Here in the United States, we tend to identify with success, even if it’s eluding us at the moment. I think it stunts our compassion. Consider John Steinbeck’s great observation: “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Polls suggest that large percentages of Americans think they’ll soon be in the top 1 percent of wealth.

Not surprisingly, these tendencies manifest themselves in our media. David Simon—who created one of the few mass entertainments I can think of that’s honest about individuals’ odds against oppressive systems—has spoken sharply about this:

The thing that has been exalted and the thing that American entertainment is consumed with is the individual being bigger than the institution. ... That’s the story we want to be told over and over again. And you know why? Because in our heart of hearts what we know about the 21st century is that every day we’re going to be worth less and less, not more and more.

We're so acclimatized to individual catharsis in entertainment that we barely even notice it; we are hard-pressed to imagine other narratives.

So perhaps it’d be fairer to say the limitation is not with 12 Years a Slave but with us as an audience. It’s just so hard for us to identify with “the regular slaves,” in whatever form they may take. 12 Years a Slave is constructed as a story of a man trying to return to his family, offering every viewer a way into empathizing with its protagonist. Maybe we need a story framed on that individual scale in order to understand it. But it has a distorting effect all the same. We're more invested in one hero than in millions of victims; if we’re forced to imagine ourselves enslaved, we want to imagine ourselves as Northup, a special person who miraculously escaped the system that attempted to crush him.

The story of Solomon Northup is a powerful one, and this is an important film. But I can’t help thinking of what Stanley Kubrick is said to have remarked about Schindler’s List. Kubrick was friends with Steven Spielberg and admired the film, but with a crucial reservation: "Think that's about the Holocaust? That was about success, wasn't it? The Holocaust is about 6 million people who get killed. Schindler's List is about 600 who don't.”

Throughout 12 Years a Slave, sadistic slavers try over and over to take away Northup’s humanity. But they do not succeed. That, more than anything else, marks 12 Years a Slave as an American film. It may move through despair, but it’s on the way to another destination. In our entertainment, there is only so much we can take. Is it even possible to make a movie that tells the absolute truth about slavery? That, Northup or no Northup, for two awful centuries of American history, the individual was not bigger than the institution? We can handle 12 Years a Slave. But don’t expect 60 Years a Slave any time soon. And 200 Years, Millions of Slaves? Forget about it.

Correction, Oct. 21, 2013: This article originally misspelled the name of the character Patsey.

Peter Malamud Smith is the lead singer of the Aye-Ayes and the co-creator of the Great Gatsby for NES.

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Post by Admin on Thu Oct 31, 2013 4:48 am

Roya Rastegar
Roya Rastegar

Cultural critic, Ph.D., History of Consciousness

12 Years a Slave Reframed: A Narrative of White Racist Pathology
Posted: 10/25/2013 4:28 pm

Richard Wright described problems of violence and inequity in the U.S. along these lines: "There isn't any Negro problem; there is only a white problem." Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave is a narrative of this "white problem." Beyond debates of whether the film is historically accurate, overly sensational, too brutal, or tame, an expanded reading of 12 Years reveals a historical phenomenon rarely portrayed so explicitly on the silver screen: the pathology of white racism.

The film establishes Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) as an intelligent, respectable freeman of color, living with means and a beautiful family in Saratoga Springs until he is kidnapped and sold into slavery. Slavery is something that happens to Northrup. He must learn to adapt. His character arcs when he sings a spiritual with other slaves, marking a kind of acceptance of his enslavement. The audience can sympathize with Northrup's situation with the benefit of knowing that it will end. The title affirms it. Twelve years for Northrup, 133 minutes for the viewer.

But this is all too safe a viewing experience for a film that is meant to disturb. Slavery is not a universal experience and does not transcend race. Slavery did not just happen to white people.

The praise of the film as the "ultimate testimony to slavery" strikes me not only as disingenuous, but also dangerous. Other, at least more honest, reactions have been disappointment, disconnection, even, boredom. With the spectacle of violence (especially on the bodies of people of color) so well-worn on screen, this disengagement is because viewers are not able to empathize with the characters.

To elicit empathy, a character's fears, joy, flaws, and strengths must be felt, deeply, by the viewer. Northrup's situation is certainly compelling; it's devastating, horrifying. But in terms of his character's development, there is little indication of how Northrup humanly endures his enslavement. Instead, Northrup's character - as written in the film - serves a cipher through which the violence of slavery is visualized on screen. The female slave characters, Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) and Eliza (Adepero Oduye), are further symbols - of suffering, desperation, and grief. (Nyong'o and Ejiofor's performances are all the more remarkable because they inhabit their roles with gravitas by sheer force of talent, despite the thin development of their characters.)

Black British director McQueen's filmic interpretation of an American slave narrative pulls focus away from the characters of the slaves, to foreground instead the pathological racism of the white slavers, most notably in Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) and his wife (Sarah Paulson), who are significantly more developed, nuanced, and complex characters.

So, let's reframe 12 Years for what it is: a portrait of pathological white racism.

Racism is not about right or wrong. It is not something that can be turned on and off. Pathology seizes the entire body - not just of the individual, but the collective body of society. Pathology infects the way we see, and bleeds into the ways we experience the world.

In 12 Years, this pathology manifests through desire - not just sexual, but also social and cultural - to occupy, control, and consume everything until the myth of white manifest destiny is concretized in law, laid in the foundation of an entire economy, and preserved by culture. Religion, music, and dance masquerade this pathological racism as truth, beauty, love, and art. This pathological white racism did not stop with the individual slaver; it was the life force of slavery as an institution, and its legacy.

Slavery was not inevitable. Slavery was made possible by a pathological affirmation of white life over all other life. In an early scene, Northrup sits in chains confused about who sold him into slavery. The men he had traveled with were good men, they were artists. Pathology exceeds morality, and rationality.

12 Years must be read in the context of McQueen's work as a director. His forte is keenly observing pathology without letting viewers distance themselves with easy moral judgments, as evidenced by Shame (2011). Feeling bad about the suffering of others is not enough - particularly when this suffering is depicted in an aesthetically pleasing film set against a lush landscape.

How do we contend with the legacies of slavery in our daily life? Where do we locate ourselves in relation to images of racial injustice and violence? Is the pathology of white racism invisible to those infected?

These questions have troubled me since I saw 12 Years at the opening night of the 24th New Orleans Film Festival. The historic theater housed an audience that was more racially diverse than at most festivals, but still primarily composed of white people. I was there as a juror for the feature film competition. On the special occasion of the film's premier in the city it was both set and filmed in, the festival director quieted the audience for a surprise performance. Eight members of the OperaCréole, dressed in ball gowns and tuxedos, took the stage. They began to sing compositions written by Edmond Dédé‎, a freeman of color violin prodigy creating music in the mid-1800s. A few minutes into the performance, the audience began to chatter, quietly at first, and then progressively louder with each number. I could see the intensity and emotion of the singers, but I could not hear their song. There was just too much noise. The following night, three days after his release from nearly 42 years of solitary confinement, Angola 3 member and political prisoner Herman Wallace passed away.

Guilt is not an appropriate response to a film when white racism endures.

"Movies are an empathy machine," Rogert Ebert said. "Good films enlarge us, and are a civilizing medium." To be earnestly enlarged - and civilized - by 12 Years would mean to recognize the slavers' pathological racism as tied to one's own, even as it repels, and hold that difficult, internal confrontation long enough to cause a crisis within one's sense of self and place in the world. Empathy compels us to see ourselves reflected in the very things we judge as evil in others, to implicate ourselves in society's ills, and to rearrange our desires towards the building of a better life, for all of us.

In Toni Cade Bambara's ground-breaking novel, The Salt Eaters, a healer character asks the protagonist: "Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?... Just so's you're sure, sweetheart, and ready to be healed, cause wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you're well."

None of us are safe from the pathology of white racism. The most intimate corners of our lives and eyes have been infected. But are we ready to see it, and be well?

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Post by Admin on Thu Oct 31, 2013 4:48 am

Steve McQueen Creates a Complex Human Portrait of Beautiful Brutality
By tt stern-enzi · October 30th, 2013 · Movies
film_12yearsaslave_foxsearchlightpicturesFox Searchlight Pictures

Tags: Movies, Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave

From the first moment I walked out of the theater during a private press screening of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, I knew this film had the potential to spark discussion on the subject and history of race and race relations in the United States. It is a story rooted in that peculiar institution of American slavery, but it should be noted from the outset that the memoir (Twelve Years a Slave) upon which McQueen’s film is based is not a slave narrative. No, this is something much more than that because Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was not initially a slave. Northup was a free man, born free in New York, where he lived with his wife and children. He had worked in various fields over the course of his lifetime, prior to his 12 long years as a slave in Louisiana, but he had made a name for himself as a musician of some renown.

Yet, the film has triggered unusual backlash among black filmgoers, a sense of weariness from a perceived deluge of films about slavery. “Enough is enough,” callers seemed to be saying, when I appeared a month ago on a Nathan Ivey’s Sunday morning talk radio program, The Buzz, on 1230 AM. This story has been told and it’s time for Hollywood to unearth other narratives from black American history.

I caught myself doing a double-take in the studio, one that fortunately no one but Ivey could see. What about the panorama of experiences and perspectives that we’ve been privy to from the Holocaust? Since 1999, think of The Pianist, Schindler’s List, Life is Beautiful, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas or the soon-to-be released title The Book Thief compared with Lincoln, Django Unchained and now 12 Years.


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Django is pure escapist fantasy, while Lincoln, a presidential biopic, pushes black folks to the historic periphery. There simply aren’t that many compelling and unique takes on slavery, at least not enough to inspire an overwhelming sense of fatigue. And what about the idea of a truly artistic, critical examination of this period?

12 Years captures the salient events in the ordeal of Northup in stunning detail, blunt and raw and perplexing, all of which comes across in Ejiofor’s quiet, haunting performance. While there is extreme violence — the likes of which could have easily crossed over into exploitative excess — amazingly, McQueen wisely relegates the harshest aspects to the imagination. We watch Northup as he is forced by a sadistic slave owner (Michael Fassbender) to whip a fellow slave (Lupita Nyong’o), but the focus during the beating is on Northup. Thus, we see only the horror of a man caught in an untenable situation.

In another instance, we see Northup, hanging by the neck from a tree in front of the house of another of his masters; his dangling feet dancing for purchase, tiptoeing in the hopes of relieving the pressure of the noose, if only for a moment. Of course, his struggles play out before every eye, black and white, on the plantation. The other slaves fear coming to his aid. The whites go about their business, assuming that he merely got what was coming to him.

McQueen, the visual stylist that he is, uses the frame as a canvas, a moving compositional landscape to present the details in stark relief. Whereas with earlier works (Hunger, Shame), there was almost a desire to mash our faces in the misery of his characters and their situations, here he finds a desired boundary and stands ramrod straight at the mark, never stepping over it.

Northup’s hanging reminded me of the senselessly brutal rape sequence in Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible (a 10-plus minute assault on Monica Bellucci’s character in an abandoned subway station in Paris), but McQueen is not punishing us with the brutality simply because he can. He is showing us a reality of that time. The inhabitants of those surroundings would have seen such sights, likely on a daily basis, and would have reacted as they did either out of fear or indifference, and McQueen wants us to appreciate and own our response to the inhumanity on display.

Writer Italo Calvino (author of If on a winter’s night a traveler and The Baron in the Trees), quoted in Gates’ foreword to the new edition of Northup’s memoir, defined a classic as “a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” That sounds like a better definition of history.

McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, a rich and distinctly faithful adaptation of Northup’s experiences, begs us to continue this conversation by offering an artful and critical reflection on our past, present and future as a nation. (Opens Friday at Esquire Theatre) (R) Grade: A

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Post by Admin on Thu Oct 31, 2013 4:49 am

Michaela angela Davis
film schooled
Monday 11:30am
12 Years A Slave: Rage, Privilege, Black Women and White Women

Going insane was a luxury. It’s the going, that’s the treat. Going suggests travel, moving. There was no going. The madness was constant and still, sitting there, like a place on a map. It was where they lived, where they were from, born and bred into viscously mundane inescapable crazy. The women in the beautifully brutal film 12 Years A Slave were mangled and maliciously intertwined. The enslaved women lived like beasts and the “free” women behaved like savages, trapped together in a filthy cage of rape, rage and bitter resentment. A resentment so magnificent, it could freshly fester in the psyche of their daughters for centuries to come.

The twisted relationship dynamics between the two lead female characters Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) and Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson) in 12 Years A Slave are a horror.

A painfully vivid illustration of the dank gnarly negotiations women had to make with each other to survive the demonic conditions of American slavery. The film fearlessly exposes a suppurating historic wound between Black and White women so wicked and utterly honest, it is both repulsive and liberating to witness. The most telling scene:

We see the dark and sweet Patsey, doubly enslaved by virtue of her race and beauty, sway for a moment, let go like a girl, do a slow twirl. She is loose trying to lose herself, and she slips, for a moment, into a trance induced by the sound of her only friend Solomon’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) sad singing violin. His is almost music. She is almost dancing. It is all almost a human moment. All of a sudden she goes limp, drops, knocked back into the terror of her life, by a heavy crystal decanter hurled at her head by Mistress Epps. All of a sudden, she is once again a battered pile of dirty black woman parts wrapped in rags down on the floor. Mistress Epps is hate, full, guided and preserved by it. Patsey, the object, the affliction. She is, in Mistress Epps molested mind, literally the mistress. Her husband Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) is addicted to Patsey, a deadly habit he will not kick, not for his wife, not for her dignity nor her sanity. The Mistress publicly demands Edwin rid himself and her home of the disease that is Patsey. He not only refuses his wife, he comfortably humiliates her, claiming his desire for the puddle of nasty nigger wench at their feet. The Mistress is frozen, stunned powerless by her husbands white male supremacy while Patsey is dragged away into darkness.

Patsey and the Mistress Epps personify Black and White American women’s painful slave legacy. American slavery was an insidious economic institution devised to benefit a minority of white Christian men, predicated on systemically preventing others access or the ability to establish alliances. Society has discussed how slavery successfully branded Blacks as inferior and sub-human, yet have we ever fully faced the brain washing, torture and rape terrorism practices slavery inflicted on Black and White women? 12 Years A Slave makes it evitable. The film unearths excruciating old unaddressed inquiries:

“Are white privileged women jealous because their husbands had sex and lusted after (brutally raped) black women right in their faces?”

“Are they brewing in the bitterness because their protectors wanted, the ugly nappy headed, thick lipped, dirty, ignorant field wenches, over perfumed, well-read, well-mannered, meticulously bred proper pristine Christian white women?”

“Do they believe the enslaved black women, purposefully seduced their white men, did they think they wanted to be raped?

“Are black women in the eyes of white women, the original whores, the quintessential sluts?”

A sickening set of propositions, but the institution of slavery was such a sick situation for women to be in.

An evil woman is easy to understand. Mistress Epps makes clear white women bound in slavery were far more complicated than pure evil. She is in a tumultuous rage.

A white woman’s rage: privileged with no position, positioned with no power, powerful with no promise of independence, fidelity or safety. The white woman could not properly direct her rage at her husband, she could not rail against white male supremacy. She too was in hell and Black enslaved women where the only ones in the chambers bellow her. So she sent her rage down and with her hot hate burned what was left of the bitches. And the black women scorched beyond human recognition were left in pieces scattered and buried somewhere beneath hell. The concept of hell, like slavery, was designed to control and terrorize for eternity.

The relationship between the mistress and the slave woman was so poisoned from its inception it could never be healed, they could never trust, they could never work for liberation together. Is this our original sin? Could this be at the root of why Black women were cut out of the American suffrage movement when it came time for voting rights for women? Why many white abolitionist women turned their backs on the violence against southern Blacks to secure their own right to vote? Is this deep-planted resentment what caused Frances Willard to betray Ida B. Wells? Is this wicked characterization of Black women as illiterate harlots permanently seared into the psyche of white women? Is this why the feminist movement has primarily been reserved for white women of privilege? Could this be why many white American feminists could not share power with their black comrades? Has this unresolved trauma virus infected American womens’ movements? Black and White women were both f&%$#& by the American institution of slavery, only black women were raped, disgraced and discarded after. We have not admitted the unequal incest and it is impossible to heal from what you don’t acknowledge.

Yet once you see it, once you say it happened, the dismantling and mending can begin.

Black and White American women were doomed from the start, introduced through treacherous, asymmetric, viciously competitive, inhuman maddening circumstances. And perhaps it’s because we’ve never dealt with the underlying issues of our tragic start a hashtag like #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen can trend in the summer of 2013.

Women’s movements can’t move in America until we have courageous honest discourse about the sadistic historic foundation of the relationship. We were systematically cultured to distrust and envy each other. We were never meant to be sisters.

I say it’s time to define, for the first time, who we are as Black and White American feminists, time to be fearless, fully equal and free for real. #SolidarityIsForAllSisters

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Post by Admin on Thu Oct 31, 2013 4:55 am

'12 Years a Slave' Was Too Much
By: Demetria L. Lucas
Posted: October 22, 2013 at 12:04 AM

She Matters: The gut-wrenching, emotional film leaves anger, confusion and regret.

(The Root) -- On Friday I had what I thought was a brilliant idea. With a busy two days ahead, and a director friend insisting that the first day of a movie's opening weekend counted more than the other days, I would catch a late-night showing of 12 Years a Slave.

I mentioned my plans to a friend, Bravo's Bevy Smith, whom I bumped into at a restaurant before the show. She had already seen 12 Years at a press screening.

"You're going to see that tonight?!" she bellowed. "Tonight?! You might want to wait till morning and have a day to process."

I saw Roots, the (until recently) definitive depiction of enslaved Africans, last year and still managed to feel like carrying on even though everyone told me I wouldn't for a few days. I said as much to Bevy, who retorted, "Roots? Ha! 12 Years makes Roots look like Disneyland."

She was exaggerating, surely. So I ignored her warning, and did what I set out to do. Twenty minutes into 12 Years a Slave, after Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is beaten into submission in a way similar to how Kunta became Toby, I sank lower into my seat and muttered to myself, "Self, you should have listened to Bevy."

12 Years a Slave is more than a film; it's a cinematic experience. As I'm sure you've read by now in the many fawning reviews, it's beautifully shot and brilliantly done. Director Steve McQueen, a black Brit by way of Grenada, was an artist in a past profession, and his high-art stamp is all over the film, especially in his lingering gazes at punishments for the enslaved men and women, punishments that far outweigh their "crimes."

There's also superb acting, notably from Ejiofor as Northup and film newcomer Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey, a young woman with exceptional cotton-picking skills who is caught between her master's lust and her mistress's jealousy. Both actors have been touted as Oscar nominees, with Nyong'o, a recent graduate of Yale University''s School of Drama, expected to challenge Oprah Winfrey for her role in Lee Daniels' The Butler.

As good as 12 Years is, it is also the most awful experience I have ever had in a theater. At that same 20-minute mark where I acknowledged I should have waited to see it, I also wanted to walk out. As an unflinching look at the brutality of slavery, 12 Years is hard to take. Others stories of slavery such as Roots, Django Unchained and Amistad allow for moments of light or catharsis throughout or at their conclusion; 12 Years doesn't. It's unrelenting and harrowing, and it beats up the audience as much as it does the characters, then does it again and again before there's time to heal.

Even when Northup is rescued -- no secret, given the film's title -- there's little relief. He's free again, but what about all the others, the millions of enslaved black people, including and especially Patsey, who are left behind? Even though the entire audience is rooting for his escape, it's impossible to cheer when he does.

After the film, I sat in my seat and watched the credits roll along with my friend and the rest of the half-full theater. I wasn't so interested in the names on the screen; rather, I was too shell-shocked to move. If there's one criticism I have of the film, it's that it doesn't show what happens next to Northup once he is free. We know that he releases a book. (Those who have read it know that he unsuccessfully sued the men who kidnapped him.)

But I was more curious as to how any person who went through his experience is OK or even functional afterward. How does he reinsert himself into his family or into society? Does he sleep at night? Does he feel survivor's guilt? Does he ever regain the easygoing nature he had before he was captured? There are modern-day convicted felons who do less time with far less struggle and don't adjust. How does Northup?

When I finally left the theater, I walked my friend to her car and promised to hop in a cab to Brooklyn. Instead, I wandered, aimlessly, really, from Lincoln Center to Times Square (20 blocks) trying to (poorly) process what I had just seen. I thought about the remnants of slavery that still exist in our community, the way some black folk can't shake the tendency to consider "but how will white people react?" I thought about whether, though unshackled and legally whole, if black folk are really truly free. And I thought a lot about Patsey and black women's still, um, "special" relationship with white women, sometimes "sisters" in struggles, and other times competitors in work, life and love.

I thought a lot about subjects that I still haven't resolved. But mostly, I just felt empty and exhausted. 12 Years a Slave brought up a lot questions and a lot of anger, but offered few -- if any -- answers and no resolutions. I keep reading personal reviews about what an important film it is, how it is to black people what Schindler's List was to Jewish people, and every black person should see it. But I find myself wishing I hadn't, at least not without a therapist or African-American studies professor on hand.

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Post by Admin on Thu Oct 31, 2013 4:57 am

This Movie Is So Good It Hurts
By: Teresa Wiltz
Posted: October 18, 2013 at 12:36 AM

Violent and disturbing, 12 Years a Slave is almost unwatchable, but you must see it.

(The Root) -- You don't go to see 12 Years a Slave expecting a good time at the multiplex -- the title alone is enough to disabuse anyone of that notion. No doubt about it, it's a hard, hard slog, disturbing and despairing, gnawing at the spirit long after the last credits have rolled off the screen.

You should see it anyway.

The filmmakers have said that 12 Years, which opens in limited release on Friday, is the first film to tackle slavery head on. And while that isn't technically true -- Django Unchained, Glory and Lincoln are a few that come immediately to mind -- this is, without question, the most visceral, you-are-there treatment of the subject that I've seen. Where Quentin Tarantino's Django was the ultimate revenge fantasy, all blood splatters and Grand Guignol theatrics, 12 Years seeps into the psyche. You can't watch it without getting caught up in feelings of fear and mounting dread.

An example: A slave is being punished. He's strung up to a tree and left there hanging for hours upon hours, balancing on the tips of his toes, the only things keeping him from a snapped neck. All around him, life goes on. The only sounds are a symphony of cicadas in the Southern heat -- and the man's grunts as he struggles to keep his feet on the ground.

You can't shake this off.

Directed by Steve McQueen and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years is based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black New Yorker who was drugged, kidnapped and sold into captivity in 1841. As the title suggests, Northup labored on plantations for 12 years before he finally won back his freedom. He was one of the lucky ones, living to write about his experiences years later. That memoir is the basis of this film. The realness of Northup's story lends the film a sense of urgency.

It's interesting that many of the people involved in the making of this very American story aren't Americans: McQueen is a black Brit of West Indian parentage; Ejiofor is Anglo-Nigerian; Michael Fassbender, who plays the deranged slaver Epps, is German-Irish; and Lupita Nyong'o, who plays Patsey, the unwilling object of Epps' sexual obsession, is Mexican by way of Kenya.

Perhaps it takes an outsider to truly take on this topic. But then again, Colonial-era chattel slavery had international reach -- and still has impact today. And as the film demonstrates, slavery infected everyone who participated in that "peculiar institution," from the enslaved, who had no say in their own lives, to the slave owners who mortgaged themselves to the hilt so that they could own other human beings.

After Solomon is put in chains, beaten and shoved onto a boat heading for a Louisiana slave market, he quickly learns that all it takes is one false move, or one brave one, to end up dead. You protest mistreatment -- yours or others -- at your peril.

"If you want to survive," another enslaved "freeman" tells him, "Tell no one who you really are. And don't tell anyone you can read or write -- unless you want to be a dead nigger."

"I don't want to survive," Solomon tells him. "I want to live."

That desire to live drives Solomon as he's transported to a strange new world, a lushly beautiful one filled with malevolence, where people do what they can to get by amid all kinds of horror. There's Eliza (Pariah's Adepero Aduye), whose children were sold away from her, and so, all she does is cry 24-7, sobbing loudly for all to hear and signaling her distress, much to her mistress's disgust. But her emotions are the only thing that Eliza can control. Then there's Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard), a savvy slave at a neighboring plantation who learned early on that the way to a slaver's heart was through his crotch.

In this unsettling world, there are moments of kindness, but the kindness can be capricious, changing in an instant. Take Ford, the seemingly good-hearted slave owner (Benedict Cumberbatch of Sherlock), who sells Solomon to a much meaner master.

"You're an exceptional nigger," Ford tells Solomon, "but I fear no good will come of it."

McQueen is a director who's not afraid to go there. His 2001 film, Shame, also starring Fassbender, was a disturbing look at the despair undergirding one man's addiction to sex. In McQueen's hands, Solomon Northup is a fully fleshed-out person -- not a hero, but an ordinary man trying to survive under truly extraordinary circumstances. The tools in McQueen's arsenal: extreme close-ups, silent images of black men wearing muzzles, scarred backs and faces and missing limbs, interspersed with hazy flashbacks to Solomon's previously prosperous life with his wife and family, where white people called him "Mr. Northup" rather than "nigger."

There are times here when the cruelty the slaves encounter seems way over the top, beyond reality, particularly once Solomon ends up on Epps' plantation and the crazy really kicks in. It's a lot of a lot.

Despite the excessive violence, though, there is an air of restraint to 12 Years. Much of this is thanks to Ejiofor, who acquits himself admirably in the role of a lifetime. All of the performers -- from newcomer Nyong'o and Woodard to Paul Giamatti as a greedy slave trader and Brad Pitt (who produced 12 Years) as the lone abolitionist -- are uniformly stellar. But this is Ejiofor's movie.

Late in the film, Solomon, who'd always held himself slightly aloof from those who were born into slavery, stands by a makeshift grave. A slave has dropped dead on the job, right there in the cotton fields, and there's just enough time to dig a hole and sing a song before sending him on to glory. A woman belts out, "Roll, Jordan, Roll," and the others join in. Solomon stands silently at first, resisting. And then the camera homes in tight on his face as he surrenders. His face contorts, his mouth opens and he sings -- a man desperately trying to find some peace in hell.

Teresa Wiltz is a journalist based in Washington, D.C.

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Post by Admin on Thu Oct 31, 2013 4:59 am

'12 Years a Slave': Horrors Hard to Sell?

   By: Breanna Edwards | Posted: October 25, 2013 at 2:31 PM

The brutal honesty of 12 Years a Slave could make it difficult for the critically acclaimed film to make it into the mainstream.

The film's distributor, Fox Searchlight, is aware that showing slavery in an authentic light may be difficult for some viewers to watch, the Los Angeles Times reports. An unflinching look at whippings, lynching and rapes is a hard sell when most moviegoers are looking for a light night out after dinner.

According to the Times, Fox Searchlight has tried to channel advertising for the film toward some of the more positive aspects highlighting protagonist Solomon Northup's strength and determination in the face of absolute despair. "The materials have not tried to soft-pedal the film or mislead the audience," Fox Searchlight Co-President Nancy Utley told the Times.

"We're aware of it," Steve Gilula, Fox Searchlight's other co-president, added, addressing concerns that the film could be perceived as too difficult. "Our focus is making it successful and getting people into movie theaters."

That is not to say that the film isn't doing well. On opening weekend it grossed $960,000.

Kanye West and Sean "Diddy" Combs have spoken to the power of the film and the impact it has had on their lives. "This movie is very painful but very honest and is a part of the healing process. I beg all of you to take your kids -- everybody to see it," Combs said in a message on his cable channel Revolt TV, according to the Times.

The film is currently showing in 18 cities -- targeting those with a large black population. A hard look at the horrors of slavery still has to compete with other, less contentious, escapist films like Gravity and Captain Phillips. In addition, the film's lead actors, who have blown many away since the opening night, are not widely known, so the film doesn't carry an automatic audience through celebrity appeal.  

One thing is certain: The film's marketing team has its work cut out for it.

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Post by Admin on Thu Oct 31, 2013 5:02 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 Thu Oct 31, 2013 5:03 am

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.

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Post by Admin on Thu Oct 31, 2013 5:04 am

12 Years A Slave and the Jezebel Myth
2013 October 30
tags: 12 years a slave, black women, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Film, movies, racism, Slavery, social justice, steve mcqueen
by Chakka Reeves
Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

12 years women“12 Years A Slave” is the best film I’ve seen this year. My fandom for actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, who could read the white pages and reduce me to an emotional heap of feels, and director Steve McQueen (you must see his previous films ‘Hunger’ and ‘Shame’ if you haven’t) notwithstanding, the film was not only well done in every technical aspect, but it was heart-wrenching in its simplicity. Injustice doesn’t need trumpets, grand action scenes or a mass choir. The horrors of slavery can, and do, stand on their own.

What I didn’t expect but appreciated from “12 Years A Slave” was how it addressed black woman’s survival during slavery.

Three women in the film- Eliza (Adepero Odunye), Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard) and Patsey (played by stunning newcomer Lupita Nyong’o) showed the potential outcomes of having the sexual interest of their masters. Eliza found that having the master’s favor did little good once he died and she was sold off by his spiteful daughter. She lost her children and in the process, any real reason to survive. Mistress Shaw (Woodard) has the rarest turn of fortune-her master made her his common law wife. Patsey’s fate was more common-favor from her master (Michael Fassbender) meant being raped and humiliated repeatedly by him, and being physically abused by his jealous wife (Sarah Paulson).

With the popularity of Scandal, there has been a vocal minority of black men who have decided that a modern relationship between two free people is similar to that of a white slave master and his female legal property. One of the most troubling things about this parallel is that in its attempt to diminish the validity of modern black woman-white man relationships, it skews the historical nature of the master-slave dynamic. From (ahem) Toure’s “cousin” expressing his opinion that some enslaved black women used their sexuality to gain better treatment from their masters, to the “Harriet Tubman Sex Tape” sketch that media mogul Russell Simmons thought was the “funniest thing” he had every seen, to the so-called “Negro Bed Wench” theory coined by author and entrepreneur Tariq Nasheed, it seems that even in the context of one of the biggest violations of human rights in history, a small and unfortunate minority still feels the need to vilify the black female victims of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

When looking at the plight of Eliza, Mistress Shaw and Patsey, it’s important that the modern viewer not confuse outcomes with options. Outcomes are merely various ways that a situation could turn out. Options, however are afforded to those who have choices. Free will. Who are human, in the eyes of the law. None of these three women meet that criteria. Much like Northup found with his violin skills, being a valuable slave is still slavery. None of the women gained freedom from having the sexual interest of their owners.

The modern viewer should also remember that the nature of sexual assault is more about power than sex and that rape should be treated with the same horror as lashes from a whip.

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Post by Admin on Thu Oct 31, 2013 5:05 am

Historian Says '12 Years' Is A Story The Nation Must Remember
October 24, 2013 1:35 PM

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a free black man in upstate New York who was kidnapped into slavery in 1841 and won his freedom 12 years later. The film 12 Years a Slave is an adaptation of Northup's 1853 memoir.

Jaap Buitendijk/Fox Searchlight

"We love being the country that freed the slaves," says historian David Blight. But "we're not so fond of being the country that had the biggest slave system on the planet." That's why Blight was glad to see the new film 12 Years a Slave, an adaptation of an 1853 memoir by Solomon Northup. Northup was a free black man who was kidnapped into slavery in 1841 and won his freedom 12 years later. "We need to keep telling this story because it, in part, made us who we were," Blight tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.

Blight is the director of the Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale University. His 2007 book, A Slave No More, includes the recently discovered narratives of two former slaves. He's currently writing a biography of Frederick Douglass, who after escaping slavery, wrote perhaps the most famous and important of all slave memoirs and became an influential abolitionist.

Blight joins Gross to explain where this memoir fits into the genre of slave narratives, and to review the accuracy of the film. He says the movie does an excellent job of depicting "just how much slaves were utterly commodities, physical commodities in the slave trade."
Interview Highlights

On why it's important for Americans to remember this history

It's a problem in our culture because, to be quite blunt about it, most Americans want their history to be essentially progressive and triumphal, they want it to be a pleasing story. And if you go back to this story, it's not always going to please you, but it's a story you have to work through to find your way to something more redemptive.

On what makes the memoir 12 Years a Slave unique

Solomon Northup's memoir tells this quite unusual story of the kidnapping of a free Northern African-American and his enslavement in the Deep South in Louisiana — on two, three different kinds of plantations. ... He's not only exhibiting an extraordinary memory of names, details and places, but it's also a narrative that gives us a window into the kinds of labor, the kinds of economies that existed on these huge, brutal cotton and sugar plantations. We don't have that many narratives ... that actually tell the story of what it was actually like on a huge cotton operation or a huge sugar operation in the Deep South.
David Blight is the director of the Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale University. He is the author of American Oracle and A Slave No More.

David Blight is the director of the Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale University. He is the author of American Oracle and A Slave No More.
Yale University

On the domestic slave trade

[Kidnapping was] not terribly common, in terms of numbers, but it did happen. And one of the reasons that happened is the domestic slave trade in the United States — the selling of slaves within the borders of the United States just booms in huge numbers [between 1810 to the 1840s.] So when Solomon Northup is seized and kidnapped in 1841 and sold down through Washington, D.C., to a trader who then sells him again onto a ship, and off they go to New Orleans to the great slave market — it's part of a huge business all over the American South with dozens and dozens and dozens of full-time slave traders making tremendous livings. ...

The domestic slave trade moved approximately 1 million African-Americans from the East Coast, the upper South, into the Deep South from about 1820 to the Civil War in 1860, so what happens to Solomon Northup is unusual in the sense that he was kidnapped the way he was, but being sold into the domestic slave trade was not unusual at all. And part of that reason is ... the great cotton boom of the lower Mississippi Valley.

On whether Northup really could have seen the U.S. Capitol from his slave pen

Washington, D.C., had a slave pen, a slave market about three to four blocks from the U.S. Capitol. In fact, the primary slave market in D.C. at that time is located roughly where Union Station is today.

On papers that were meant to protect free blacks in the North from enslavement

They were ... issued by either a court or a city or a town that declared that you were born free, that your mother was free. And for free blacks in the North, especially in certain regions, these were terribly important documents because [they] could protect them from kidnapping and enslavement. Solomon Northup apparently did have such papers, but of course they were taken or destroyed, so when he was ... sent down to Louisiana and out onto those God-forsaken plantations, he not only has no documentation — but what good it would've done him is another matter. He's in extremely remote areas. ...

He was very, very careful never to say what his real identity was, apparently for fear that if his masters believed him they might sell him away again, sell him farther away, who knows. But then we've also got a tale here, of course, about literacy, because he was literate enough to be able to write these letters and to communicate or attempt to communicate with the outside world, and especially with people in New York who could give him legal assistance.
More On '12 Years A Slave'
In the new film adaptation of Twelve Years A Slave, Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841.
Alfre Woodard as Mistress Harriet Shaw and Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave.
Lupita Nyong'o and Chiwetel Ejiofor play Patsey and Solomon, two slaves on a Louisiana plantation, in 12 Years a Slave.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel Half of a Yellow Sun, one of the films to premiere in Toronto this year, is part of a new wave of films with roots in Britain about the black experience.
Chiwetel Ejiofor (left) plays Solomon Northrup, a New York freeman kidnapped into slavery in 1841 and eventually resold to plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).

On the importance of literacy for slaves

A literate slave was a dangerous slave. A literate slave could read newspapers; a literate slave was always more intelligent or deemed more intelligent by the master class and by overseers. At the heart it's one of the great threads of Frederick Douglass' autobiography as well — the place that literacy plays in the life of a slave as a source of some kind of power, the ability to read about the outside world, the ability to communicate with the outside world is a way to put cracks in the police state of slavery.

On how, as a historian, he feels about the film

I liked the film very much ... slavery is only rarely ever depicted effectively in Hollywood pictures. This film stays quite loyal to the narrative itself. It's accurate in that sense. I also found the acting terrific.

And I guess I just have to say that especially after the recent [Quentin] Tarantino film Django Unchained, this is a very, very good corrective for a major motion picture in trying to depict the character of slavery — as the fear in the human heart when one loses one's sense of humanity and dignity, because that's what's at the heart of this story.

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Post by Admin on Wed Nov 27, 2013 12:19 pm

November 9th, 2013 1:51 AM
A Masterpiece -- "12 Years a Slave" -- Opens Today at the State Theatre in Traverse City, Michigan

By Michael Moore

The day has arrived. For two months I have eagerly awaited the day when we could dim the lights at the State Theatre, flip the switch on the Barco 4K, and project onto our screen the best film I've seen so far this year. It's called "12 Years a Slave," and saying it's the best thing I've seen this year doesn't really do it justice. Because this masterpiece of a movie will, years from now, be on many film lovers' lists of their best films of all time. Yes, it's not only that good, it's that important, that necessary, that brilliant.

This past summer, the theme of the 9th annual Traverse City Film Festival was "One Great Movie Can Change You." My friends, you are about to experience one of those films. You are about to see a movie the likes of which you have never seen before. I know that's a bold statement to make, but I'm confident you will not disagree with me as you exit the State, stunned, after two hours and ten minutes of experiencing a masterwork of cinema.

I don't want to say too much about the plot because it is best that you experience it fresh and first-hand. But I do want to make a few comments about this profound movie and the larger impact I believe it will have beyond its mere exhibition in movie theaters across America.

Stop and think about how few movies have been made about American slavery. Seeing that it is such a huge part of our history, you'd think that there would be many, many stories to tell. Sure, there was the TV show "Roots," but other than "Amistad" and "Django Unchained," there has been an obvious and deafening silence when it comes to this shameful part of our past.

So it fell to a group of foreigners -- a British director and two UK actors, a German actor, an actress from Kenya -- to tell OUR story. You can look at that and say, "Now that's pretty pathetic," or you can see "12 Years a Slave" for what it is -- a gift, a true gift to us, from our friends from afar. Or perhaps it is a searing request of us -- to no longer turn away from who we are and how we got here. To not sugar coat it. To not tsk-tsk it and offer platitudes of "yes, we were wrong, but that wasn't us, that was those people who lived back then. We're different. We elected a black man president!" Never mind that we got here by building the world's greatest economy on the backs of slaves, and maintaining -- to this very day -- privileges that white people still carry. Why do African Americans remain, still, 150 years later, on the absolute bottom rung of the economic ladder? Probably just bad luck, huh?

But I'm not suggesting that you come see "12 Years a Slave" to listen to a sermon or take your medicine. The people who made this movie have no interest in that. They're not interested in teaching you a lesson or having you sit through an after-school special. No, they want to show you that this wonderful art form can still produce, to borrow a phrase, heartbreaking works of staggering genius. Art that can both entertain and leave you so moved, so engaged, that the world cannot help but be a little better place once you have witnessed it.

We are proud to be able to present the premiere of northern Michigan's exclusive run of "12 Years a Slave." Small "markets" such as ours will not be getting this film for weeks to come. But we have it beginning today -- and I look forward to seeing it with you at the State.

P.S. Do not stay away from this movie because you may think it'll be "too hard to take." You will not be paralyzed by this movie; rather, you'll be moved in those ways you wish would happen more often at the movies. And whoever you take to it will never stop thanking you. As for kids, I'd say most tweens and teens not only can handle it, I sorta see it as our civic and cultural duty as adults to bring them to it. Yes, there are intense scenes of man's inhumanity to man. Watching that is a small price to pay if it means that when it's over, you leave knowing that there's a historical reason why your kids in Traverse City can pick up some iced tea and Skittles on the way home, and actually make it home.

Plus, Brad Pitt's in it.

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