Sunday, November 17, 2013

twelve years a slave

12 Years a Slave is a long movie, and hard to watch. You begin to wish it would end, likely a device in the hands of the filmmakers to accomplish what film cannot do, for a movie can only transport to that place that seems as real as its subject matter, and then you go home...

Carrying with you some new place, yes, that you have not been. But a place that functions within a freedom to move, a freedom to choose, a freedom to think further about that place the movie created, or forget about it completely and decide what to have for dinner, or where to go for your next delightful hour, as the movie ends...

And yes, even a freedom to determine whether to remain in the theatre, or walk out into the sun that surely must be shining, somewhere.

And it is the loss of freedom, against a graver question, that is what this movie demands so exquisitely that you reckon, as you burn through the two plus hours that can only suggest the twelve years Platt, Negro slave, endured.

The movie is based on the life of Solomon Northup, a freeman from Sarasota, NY, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. It is taken from, and fairly consistently patterned on, his autobiography. Platt, as Sol was known during his years in slavery, suffered through twelve years at the hands of several slaveowners, before he was able to be liberated into his own again. It is a brutal movie, but transcends the story of white man against black man to, without question, make the movie a tale of larger dimension.

That larger story encompasses the culpability of each of us in that question of how far we might go in order to save ourselves from apocalyptical destructions. Many who view it might wish to limit the movie to the smaller dimension of white against black, but it is only possible to do so if you daydream through what is clearly set out in its two plus hours.

I could not help, however, but observe the two moments in the film where a coming retribution is warned. Yes, in the life of Solomon Northup, that could only refer (if indeed those moments came from Northup, and not the Hollywood version of his life) to the coming Civil War.

In the hands of its makers, however, those two moments seethed with a more edged possibility of a future event for its present viewers. I shivered, almost as though a narrator somewhere off the screen muttered through clenched teeth, You have been warned.

I skimmed the autobiographical narrative (1853) from which the movie is taken (which narrative was dictated by Northup to its editor, David Wilson), shortly after returning home, the afternoon I saw the movie. I had left the theatre to a darkening sky that, as I scurried up the hills to my apartment, wishing I had dressed more warmly against the chill, became black night.

The "Marse'" of the Negro dialect of that era is completely removed both from the movie and the narrative. Some semblance of that dialect might be preserved in the Negro slave song that appears in the appendices of the autobiography—too, that the Northup family is not the wealthy, cultured family that the movie pretends is set out clearly in the book version, both in Northup's own words, and in Anne Northup's "memorial" (I suspect this is what we would regard an affidavit now), which is also addended in the original and states that the family does not have the money to affect the righting of this legal wrong against Sol.

Yet the concessions the movie made regarding that hour's crippled vision remove little from the story, and whether the Northup family was truly what Hollywood envisioned is of no consequence: Hollywood is, after all, what it is, and it merely panders to what it knows is valued by the society at large.

It is, then, a small matter that our time lauds a certain envisioning of what is 'noble,' and reduces it to wealth and culture and breeding in a way that is facile, and luxurious to the touch. The story is not damaged by it (although a viewer might well be).

What effect the tweaking might have on the movie's overall assessment as a potential masterpiece, however, is a different matter. When a movie panders to elements that romanticize its tale, it loses. In this case, certainly, the impact of the movie is not lessened by Hollywood's error. It may well be that impact trumps all. This movie is one from which a viewer will take away much that is subjective, and framed entirely by what a viewer brings to the screen.

Sol himself, in the autobiography dictated to its editor in 1853, speaks to the brute and deadened intellect—like that of beasts—of many of the slaves he came to know during these years after he was kidnapped and sold into slavery. That he knew slaves from the safety of his life as a freeman is a matter over which he muses in the early pages of the book, where the necessary liberty of all created individuals is likewise mused as the eternal question that it becomes, this side of Heaven.

These philosophical matters tell much of the intellect of Solomon Northup. Whether he spoke in the cultured tones of the autobiography that bears his name is not known: again, the book is dictated.

Yet movies translate such musings with perhaps more difficulty. You end up with a moment that, in vignette, can only suggest. The movie has that moment, but without having read the book at that point, I missed its impact.

Yet that deadening—that inhumanity of man to man (again, the broader stroke of that inhumanity: not the smaller one of white against black)—is the larger question of the movie's broad frame. Whether because the intellect was never awakened or trained, or because it was beaten from those who could never know it is of less consequence in the fact of that existence wherein the intellect could not flourish. I don't know that the more philosophical musings in which Sol himself is revealed in the book quite make it to the screen, but I do recognize that the brutality of the world into which he cast them is difficult to render on-screen.

The movie does not go so cleanly into those musings, however: again, it can only suggest. Perhaps, because the autobiography does, the movie might have been richer an offering then it was. However, it remains a movie of much richness that at least attempts to portray what Northup himself questioned, setting it, this late in the human story, long after both the Civil War and Nazi Germany, into that question of individual culpability in all the horrors that our shared humanity has now known.

But I would highly recommend reading the original autobiography, after or before watching the movie that Hollywood made of Solomon Northup's story.

Solomon's own culpability in beating Patsy, a slave whom the book brings to a more coherent and necessary life and vitality than the movie managed—and that is not so much a fault of the movie as it is, again, just the way things are—is also better explained in the book than in the movie. However, the tenderness with which the movie portrays that earlier moment, when Patsy begs Solomon to hold her beneath the waters of the plantation's bayou until she is dead, as she does not have the strength to do herself—then moves to the episode after Patsy has been beaten by both Platt, the slave, and the master, who is crazed by his own lust for Patsy as much as the guilt exacerbated by his wife's seething knowledge of and continued haranguing against the relationship between Patsy and her husband...

The master snatches the whip from Platt to attack Patsy with what 'crazed violence' can scarcely portray...

The lashes that lacerate and flay her back visibly into raw strips, in the next scene, tended by women who are aware of the excruciating sting of the medicine they must so cautiously apply, are rendered in extreme detail.

And the poignancy it gains when Patsy lifts her head, weeping, to look at Solomon…

That earlier moment bleeding out from her eyes, why did you not kill me when I begged that your strength could do what my weakness could never.

It is a betrayal powerfully wrought.

Yet Patsy's eventual breakdown, where the entire humanity so vibrantly set into that woman is beaten to below that of even a broken animal, does not make it to the screen. Nor does Eliza's—a slave woman allowed that life of dream—the cultured, well bred, exalted and sheltered from all possibility of harm existence as the beloved of the master (whether, again, rendered into a dream that the modern viewer might appreciate, more so than fact, is not my knowing), whose sweet and delicate and lovely child she had birthed—both her children will be taken from her and she will not survive the taking…

The book vividly portrays the atrocities in the lives of these two women, where the movie cannot. (As a footnote, the degree with which the movie encapsulates the sweet innocence of that child, into whose world has not crept that monster which cometh—whose very innocence could not even dream that what is coming might have existence—is most ably accomplished.)

However, the movie had a different purpose. Again, a larger one. It did not diminish the horrors of that hour's degradation and loss or the intrinsic loss of humanity that resulted (and which defines that awful hour).

But it does not linger there. It has a different teaching. Yes, the movie could have accomplished more, perhaps, in portraying the horror's of—not man's inhumanity to man, which was the book's intent—but that sliver of history that is defined as the white man against the African that has been held, nurtured, and handed down, tended and kept raw as if a portion of that chant crooned by the oppressed—the song crooned as lullaby and a day's endurance…

But that was not the movie's intent, and had it been so, the movie would be far less than what it potentially might become.

For the movie indeed wanted the story of humanity, and borrowed that sliver of human history in which to set that story out (as Solomon Northup's original did): a story of man's inhumanity to his brothers and sisters—while Saul himself went on to become an abolitionist, neither his book nor the movie created from it should be limited by, if I may, that smaller vision of black versus white.

Yes, the movie warns, twice, of that coming conflagration—to its historical setting, certainly, a foreshadowing of the coming civil war. Yet, set down on that larger screen, into today's receiving, the warnings reverberated with the more sinister application, and not for a moment do I doubt all heard as I heard…

12 Years a Slave manages to question the broader strokes of that inhumanity, however—the question of each individual's culpability within that inhumanity, and it is in broadening its story that the movie edges toward what greatness it can.

Not a race against a race. It is the question posed from the first, when the survival of the individual is set out as the choice that must be made, and the actions chosen at each turn of the camera's eye become the answer, choice by choice by choice.

From the choice to trust the white man who had once been an overseer but had been brought low by drink and now lived and worked and slept with slaves—to the necessary betrayal of that same man, once he had betrayed Saul…

To the clear choice to obey that final slaveowner, a man crazed by lust and position and drink and power, when Platt is ordered to whip Patsy…

As the movie had carefully revealed, Platt is a man who had turned on and fought an overseer who came at him—.

An offense punishable by death by a vigilante squad, if not punishable by an unforgiving law.

Yet Platt had been saved from that inexorable sentence (and by a white man). To obey, then, the demand that he take up that whip and turn it on Patsy, against the plain fact that he was a man who was capable of turning that whip, once grasped, on the master who demands...

Yet Platt chose to beat Patsy.

One must believe a higher knowledge is resident in man: that fact is certainly woven through the movie as a motif and theme; how could these things rage in a world that allows the existence of God.

To suggest that the question of obedience at that moment was not a choice set upon Platt, who made the more awful choosing, misses both the intent and the clear evidence of the movie at large, which likewise attempts the larger story of slavery, brought to life by the slave who, stolen by slave traders then found by his master, runs faster than a greased lightening to his master, and, leaping up into his very arms, clings to that master with all the love and devotion of a child's fervour.

That is as much the story of slavery as its more awful and degraded tales.

The weight of the awful, however, yes, indisputably twists the less destructive elements of the whole into the story now told and crooned. But the movie does not rest there.

Apocalyptical elements seethe out from the movie's minutes—even Nazi Germany seeds into the consciousness of the wise audience that watches—that great question of how far does each individual go, in cooperating with the evils of each society that erupts out onto the stage to dance about the fire as savages, as in the drum beat and rhythm of moccasined boot in that strangely-set in vignette about the fire, where the Indians roasted deer and the slaves, invited, stopped to sup with them—a vignette incomprehensible save in that understanding of the savagery which shadows all—its comprehension only visible to the one who dances…

That question is asked again and again in this film and it is in that asking that 12 Years a Slave is made almost a work of art that may well endure, even as it transcends the "mereness" of both that hour it borrows to tell its humanity in its last hour tale…

And the lesser understanding of the many who, like Oprah Winfrey, will borrow what the movie attempts to portray for their own ends.