To write of Slavery in America is beyond whatever little capacity i may have for writing. Its hugeness and wrongness, depravity and complexity is also what makes it somewhat impenetrable for me, as i tend to write what i know from experience.
So, without minimizng the discussion of slavery, i would like to write about Steve McQueen's 12 YEARS A SLAVE in relation to the emotional register it operates in.
Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a freed man who is tricked and subsequently captured and sold at an auction block down South.
Noone believes he is not a slave, and he is told that if anyone finds out he can read or write or that he was once free, his life will be in horrible danger.
Moments of his past life flash to us; scenes of proper dress, proper greetings in stores, the freedom to shop*, a human allowed to hold his head high and provide for others.
In his new life he is surrounded by depression. The heightened emotional despair of the people he is enslaved with tempers our experience of Solomon's journey. The tone of the film is established with an intensity of emotion and psychological trauma.
One of the slaves, Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) ,repeatedly tries to bribe Solomon to kill her.
Another woman, separated from her children, wails and sobs incessantly, even when threatened by the slavemasters.
One scene features the slaves and farmhands gathered on some stones in the field, listening to a sermon by the slave master, and she loudly screams her desolate, hopeless cries throughout. Solomon, looks on, and internalizes.
noone can relate to the dehumanization of Slavery, but here we can relate to the brutality of having to show up and please others; paraded around when we are broken. Just as we now see Solomon , bloodied, scarred inconceivably, wearing rags and picking cotton, following orders...
This is the effect of the fear and shame of not being able to show the world that your ability to feel love and comfort has been overcome with fear and shame. Massive, massive psychological damage is throbbing inside every vein and every follicle, yet there is Solomon, committing his strength to menial chores, and holding in emotion we see overcoming him in rather small gestures; even flatly telling the screaming woman to just stop crying.
There is a moment when Solomon is nearly killed by an attempted hanging. The scene is temporally distended. The sound of the rough rope on his skin is measured, constant. Another inch and it would have been over. He is left hanging there near death for this long period of time, as we watch in real time, no edits that i noticed. the shot becomes broader and we see the action continue around him, he is clearly near death but quiet, the voice literally broken from his soul. Other slaves are running around and past him in the shot, it is daytime so we see children frolicking. we see other slaves working. we see white people look at him and pass by as if he is not there. hanging from a tree. Here lies a worthless man; just go about your day and pay him no mind. The sadness and brokenness of this man are on display, yet seen muted. and this is the part of the storytelling that is so effective and so acute. The prison of loneliness and despair, is so much more painful because he can not revel in it. a depressed freed person can isolate, and they can cry, maybe they can stop working and stop seeing their loved ones, alone in their pain or their trauma. here the trauma and damage of slavery kept its victims parading around as hollowed souls, unallowed to feel until what may be the end of the line, whether it be freedom, or more likely death.
McQueen has made a beautiful and rich film about an ugly thing.
*Much is made of the debt of the white men and the pressure of being men; of owning property, of paying debts, of keeping their wives, of keeping appearances. Even the wealthy plantation type homes seem to be in financial turmoil. The economics of slavery are re iterated in the flashbacked scenes of Solomon and his family living an idealised life. we see them in a beautiful shop and they are free because they are not owned but also because they can be free in what they choose to buy, in what they choose to wear, and where they choose to live.
Freedom and slavery both intertwined inexorably through Capitalism.
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