"The fact that we can think with certain films, and not simply about them, is the irrefutable sign of their value" - Nicole Brenez

Friday, 4 April 2014

"ARE WE REALLY FREE?" by Gerald Langiri

A Weak Character?

I was not born or remotely near conception when slavery and the slave trade took place so I will not try to act like a specialist in the subject. The much I discern about slavery was taught in school or have read books. However, the story and pictures highlighted did not seem as callous as they are now after watching Solomon Northup’s 1853 bestseller, translated into the movie 12 years a slave. Recipient of 215 prizes awarded including Best Picture at the 2014 Academy Awards and Best Motion Picture at the Golden Globes, 12 Years a Slave tells the story of Solomon Northup (marvellously played by Chiewetel Ejiofor), a free black man who was sold into slavery. 

Directed by Steve Mcqueen, the motion picture is set in the year 1841 and from the first scene, we are rapidly taken into a plantation where a bunch of “negros” are being given directives on how to harvest cane. We later get to find out that the opening scene is a fast forward scene to what happens when Solomon has been enslaved for a couple of years making the opening scene somewhat  extraneous to the story.Notwithstanding, the movie opens us to the world of Solomon, an educated black man who could read, write and play the violin. Something very uncommon to a Negro in those days consequently earning him the rights and privileges not many black people could afford, as for instance the “master” title before his name. His violin playing skills attracts the interest of two businessmen who would like to profit from his talent and ask him to join them in Washington where he is wined and dined. Too much wine or perhaps a drug slipped into his drink and Solomon wakes up and finds himself chained in a prison.

The movie fails to explain some essential aspects in the story and leaves the audience to speculate about them. The passage of time in the 12 years Solomon was enslaved and also his early life is not rendered in cinematic terms. Questions such as: was he born a freeman or not? How did he get to the point of being free while other black people were still slaves? Are elements of the story that go unanswered.The movie’s befitting title however finds an explanation when Solomon is forsaken by his business partners and his efforts to explain that he is a freeman are ignored. He is put in a prison cell and savagely beaten by his captors. Every scene that follows conveys emotions, thoughts and disbeliefs that the cruelty of slavery had to offer.12 Years a Slave is the kind of movie that echoes the saying “a picture can speak 1000 words”.  The story was so well-told that you could easily watch it without sound and still get the gist of what is going on. The cinematography was well done taking us along the ride and painful experience of Solomons’ enslavement, and it brought the characters’ emotions out convincingly. You literally want to empathize if not cry with the characters.On the flip side, while many will see Solomon as a pillar of hope for many slaves, maybe Solomon’s story is that of bad fortunes and he probably is not the best character to have a movie made about the plight of slavery. Eliza’s character (played by Adepero Oduye) makes us look at Solomon as a collaborator more than anything else. His survival as a slave is solely dependent on pleasing his masters and kissing butts so to speak and not actually fighting for his freedom like any slave should.

In the scene between Eliza and Solomon where she confronts him and ask “Do you care less about my loss than my well being?” Solomon replies “Master Ford is a decent man.” “He is a slaver. You seek his favor. You are no better than priced livestock” replies Eliza. “I survive. I will not fall into despair. I will offer my talents to master Ford till freedom is opportune” responds Solomon.We however see a contrasting aspect of Solomon’s character in the scene where he is building a house as part of his slave duties and is attacked by Tibeats (played by Paul Dano) for not fulfilling his task as told. He is ordered to remove his clothes and instead turns on Tibeats and gives him a dose of his own medicine by whooping him, something that would, in any other circumstance, have him killed. The overseer (played by Dickie Gravois) of the plantation however shows clemency to him albeit leaving him to wrestle for his life while tied by the neck to a tree with his toes standing between his life and death. The depth of character portrayed by Chiewetel fully explains why the best actor trophy at the Oscars 2014 was awarded to him.In a bid to escape and save his life, he finds himself at the hands of another Slaver Edwin Epps (played by Michael Fassbender). Epps can only be described as THE RACIST who saw negros as commodities, objects of labor as well as physical and sexual abuse as we see when he repeatedly rapes Patsey (played by Lupita Nyongo) to the precipice of her suicide. Patsey proved a critical character in the relationship between Epps and his wife. Perhaps the most memorable scene took place at the plantation when Solomon is forced to whip Patsey for “escaping” the plantation and we see the wife pushing Epps to do the whipping alone to perhaps make it clear that there is nothing brewing between him and Patsey.

So much suffering and pain is portrayed and even though this was the 1st movie I have watched directed by Steve Mcqueen, I’m inclined to agree with some critics who have described the director as a sadist who likes to aestheticize suffering and wallowing in the extremes of human anguish as also portrayed in his two previous features Hunger and Shame.

Whether it is the best slavery movie ever made I cannot say as I haven’t watched many, but it surely can be described as one of those movies that once you’ve watched them makes you reflect on its subject matter and wonder if slavery really has been eradicated in the modern day. Great movies make you think and reflect and this is one of those. After 12 years in captivity, the final scenes where Solomon finally gets Bass (played by Bratt Pitt) the only good white man in the story to hear his tale and manage to send his letter to his master to come reclaim him, offers the audience a sigh of relief. With Solomon finally re-united with his family, one can ponder on whether the movie provides a happy ending or a sad one especially when thinking of all the other slaves left behind as well as those suffering today a new from of slavery. While I have had a glimpse into the world of slavery through this film, I can’t help but wonder, ” Are we really free?”

Movie Rating: 8/10

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