Sunday, February 16, 2014

Thoughts on 12 Years a Slave

Went to see Steve McQueen's 12 Years A Slave the other day.  Before seeing it, I posted this on social media:

About to see 12 years a slave, which is this movie fan's equivalent of "eating your vegetables". It will no doubt be "good for me" and I might even "enjoy" it. But I'm dubious and generally off-put by the need to do it.

There was a decent amount of discussion on the post.  With some folks being of the "nah, I'm not seeing it" opinion and others saying it was a film that needed to be seen.

Here's my executive summary:
  • The movie is excellent, it is a work of art of a very high order.
  • If I had it to do over again, I wouldn't see it.  I'm not of the opinion that anyone needs to see this film specifically.
This is the first film of McQueen's that I've seen.  He is a true auteur… he tells a powerful story.  The performances in the film are top notch.  [film geekery] There are some badass long takes, great sound design and other such stuff going on in the film. [end film geekery]

To talk about why I wouldn't see it again, I must first say that I had no plans to see it at all.  It was nothing specific to 12 Years..., I just don't like paying money to feel sad.  Here is a select list of "important" films I've never seen, and have no particular plans to see:
  • Schindler's List
  • Precious
  • The Act of Killing
  • The Onion Field
  • The Impossible
I'm also not inclined to spend money on any number of Magic and/or Numinous Negro films, such as:
  • Shawshank Redemption
  • The Green Mile
  • The Legend of Bagger Vance
  • The Blind Side
  • etc.
Not criticizing any of those "important" films, they're just not usually my bag.  There is an implicit critique of the Magic Negro stuff… but that is fodder for a different post ;-)

So, why did I need to see 12 Years?  I made a commitment to see it because a respected actor friend of mine said the film had "changed cinema" and implored me to see it so that we could discuss/argue about it at a later date.  I am a man of my word, if nothing else :-)

As I said above, it is an excellent film.  But in my assessment, it hasn't done anything to foster a more meaningful understanding of slavery than did the TV miniseries Roots 30+ years ago.  I want to stress here that to say 12 Years is as good as Roots in that regard is very high praise in my book.

I've been thinking about what's behind the impulse to believe this or that film "needs to be seen".  As it relates to the subject matter covered by 12 Years A Slave, it doesn't take much insight to see that the core sentiment that's really being expressed is that:

  slavery and its impact need to be truly understood by all Americans

And, seeing films such as 12 Years a slave may be useful steps towards that ultimate goal.    

I wholeheartedly agree that slavery and its impact need to be truly understood, but I'd set up a different syllabus for people interested in a journey towards that understanding.

Cliff's "Journey towards understanding" syllabus

I know others might have a different syllabus in mind and I'd welcome those comments.

Dramatizations such as 12 Years, Roots, or what-have-you, while powerful, and possibly useful as a step towards greater understanding, are at their heart entertainments.  As substantive as they might want to be, they are limited by the primary goals of entertaining.

And not to put too fine a point on it, but I'm supremely uninterested in engaging substantively with anyone who hasn't done at least 50% of the homework I enumerate above (or something similar).  In the realm of substance, all seeing 12 Years might do is allow a viewer to say very emphatically and with heartfelt emotion, that slavery sucked.  To which my reply would be: "Why yes.  Yes it did."


Grisel said...

I wholeheartedly agree with you, Cliff. I didn't want to see the movie (but I did through persuasion) because I knew it was going to be another film showing how slavery sucked and I know that already. Yes, it's done well and should win awards but, to me, it's more of the same stuff that we should all already know.

I'm tired of watching people of color suffer on-screen. There are way too many new stories to be told. No, we should never forget that one, but can we at least tell stories that explain how that story continues to affect all of us today? And not just in "Fruitvale Station" ways? I saw that movie,too, and it is excellent, as well, but how about a film showing how WHITE people TODAY suffer because of their role in slavery/racism? Some of them have gone quite mad because of it, you know. How about a film about very successful people of color who are not really suffering in any way shape or form, who interact with other people of color who are still painfully suffering from the after-effects of slavery?

You know I could go on and on - I got a million ideas of how we can evolve into new stories that don't keep giving me more imagery of Black people being beaten by white people. I don't need any more of that imagery, thank you very much. Part of me feels that it is a fetish. Part of me feels that there are people somewhere who are willing to pay millions of dollars to continue to costume happy, free Black people in rags and have booted white people whip them in front of a camera. I don't need to watch someone else's fantasy anymore. That isn't history; that is perversion.

Cliff said...

thanks for the comments, Grisel!