Friday, December 13, 2013

12 Years a Slave: Monday, December 09 2013

When I first considered seeing 12 Years a Slave, my expectations were not too high. I was not disappointed. The acting by Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup makes this film almost worth seeing. He really created an unforgettable persona for the part. Having said that, I've almost said it all.

Directed by Steve McQueen, screenplay by John Ridley, this is a powerful, anti-slavery propaganda film. It is obvious the writer and director feel deeply about this subject by how they use every dramatic moment to fully play on the emotions of the audience. Slowly! Seen in this light, it is an interesting film. I wish I had known this before I agreed to see  it with my friends. Probable Oscar contender?

The film is based on the 1853 eponymous autobiography by Solomon Northup, of the same name. The book was widely approved by evangelical and anti-slavery groups in the United States. Britain had abolished slavery in 1835, as had many other countries, and was dedicated to abolishing the slave trade. By 1853, there was a strong sentiment in the Northern States against slavery in the Southern States. The Southern States needed the forced labour to pick their crops, and didn't want to give up their slaves. The American Civil War resulted. The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution ended slavery in 1865.

Benedict Cumberbatch is adequate as William Ford, but this won't be remembered as his most memorable performance. Shortly before the end of the film, Brad Pitt, appeared as Samuel Bass. He is almost unrecognizable, and I and my friends all pointed out to each other that this new character was, indeed, Brad Pitt.

The white people are caricatures. The black people are downtrodden victims, exploited, raped, and viciously beaten all the time by their white owners. Every stop is pulled out to portray a one-sided picture of slavery in America. The white owners hated their slaves, and practiced very poor human resources management by exploiting them mercilessly. The slaves couldn't win, no matter how helpful they tried to be. Everything was stacked against them. Exactly the picture the people who were anti-slavery wanted to have painted.

Towards the end of the 2 hours 14 minutes of the film, there is a horrific flogging scene. In the Cineplex, the film image cut out, leaving the sound track continuing. When the problem was rectified, the film went back to the beginning of the scene, so we were experiencing it twice. Suddenly, I noticed my friends were gathering themselves together, and Rosemary leaned over to say she and Carolyn were leaving as they had had enough. I joined them. I had caught myself muttering a few times earlier, and had problems trying to suppress yawns, so wasn't sorry to cut the viewing short. I caught up with the story by reading the ending on Wikipedia.

Rosemary's opinion was that the film was one of the worst she has ever seen, with too much gratuitous violence. Carolyn, who was beyond speech, nodded vigorously in agreement. They didn't appreciate 12 Years a Slave as an anti-slavery tract. Somehow, I don't think word of mouth will increase the revenues of the film makers.

It is good that this subject of slavery in America is being put out there for public discussion. But surely there is another side to this story? Thinking of Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind, wasn't there often a good relationship between families and their slaves? Won't this narrow vision of history only inculcate a dreadful attitude among black people, about themselves, and against white people. It seems almost designed to add to the guilt some white people seem to feel about this whole episode of American history.

What is going on here? Who gains from this extreme version of what happened to the black slaves of America? What can be done to bring closure to the issue of slavery in America? Is it necessary for the American President to give a public apology to the black people who were slaves? 

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