Written by Shanita Ealey
12 YEARS A SLAVE: A REMINDER OF OUR PRESENT DAY CONDITIONS
A dramatic shift from Quentin Tarantino’s over embellished depiction of the antebellum south, Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” has received mass praise for its star studded cast but more importantly for its brutal authenticity. Not only is it a visual retelling of the real life circumstances of Solomon Northup’s journey in and out of forced captivity but it is told through the lens of British-Grenadian director Steve McQueen which adds to its credibility. In a time where appropriation of Black culture has become a sickening norm and Black cultural production/reproduction is somehow in the hands of those who are not Black, the fact that McQueen is a Black man is significant and may be a reason why the film resonated with many.
Needless to say, it was (by all accounts) a real film. Perhaps a little too real. For some.
For those who are made uncomfortable by seeing films that document the atrocities committed against Black persons, I wonder what exactly were their expectations prior to buying the tickets? A friend of mine overheard an exchange between two white women that go as follows:
Woman A: “I’m really sorry for bringing you to this depressing movie. Let’s go back to the bar. I owe you a drink”
Woman B: “Make it a bourbon”
This is slightly confusing. Did they not know what movie they were walking into? Perhaps they were given the wrong tickets and thought they were going to see Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2. Or are they just completely ignorant of the atrocities committed against Black bodies in the antebellum south? The answers to these questions may never come to light but what is interesting is the way in which they are able to utilize that ever so handy off switch. They were able to sit in the movie (with the hopes of being entertained) and then when it was over proceed with their daily routine. This apathetic disconnect between Whites and the Black experience is a phenomenon that has been normalized over centuries by mass propaganda that justifies the ill treatment of Black persons. It is interesting because the interaction between the two women to the film and its “depressing” nature is the contemporary parallel to Master Ford’s wife disdain/intolerance for Eliza’s vocal suffering. Unfortunately, for Black people living in the American context, the figurative off switch is simply never an option.
McQueen’s poignant retelling of Soloman’s story is even more powerful when compared with contemporary systems and actions of oppression. Have the laws and ways of thinking really changed that much if “stand your ground” laws exist, enabling men like Zimmerman to get away with the execution of Trayvon Martin or Renisha McBride. Police executions that happen daily with seemingly no rightful are nothing more than modern day lynchings exchanging nooses for guns. Post racialist and those who like to live in perpetual states of oblivion have a tendency to view these kind of films with an unwarranted satisfaction. And use it as a way to argue “how far we have come.” You know, the idea of progress. This is a delusional and misguided perception of the way in which the the American society functions. Thus, McQueen’s film becomes just another reminder of our present day condition and just how much progress was actually made.
On another note, as I watched Soloman’s freedom stolen from him, Eliza’s children ripped from her arms, the raping/beating/whipping of Patsy, and the absence of a father for 12 years, it made me think of resilience and how it is used when talking about persons and the Black experience, and how this word by focusing on the people fails to truly illuminate the severity of the conditions imposed on Black persons.
Eliza’s reaction to Soloman when he told her to “stop your wailing’ is a perfect example for deconstructing the polemic around resilience and Black persons. Why is it that we are told to bottle up are responses to pretty horrific situations? Do you tell a child who falls off a tree and breaks their leg to stop crying? Probably not. We as a collective are completely within our right to be angry, sad, or infuriated. The resilience is partially appropriate but it does not completely capture the severity of the Black experience in the antebellum south and the resulting systems, actions, and attitudes of oppression that have stepped in to fill the shoes of legalized enslavement.
Yes, we as a community and people are strong and have endured. We are still standing in spite of centuries of debilitating institutionalized oppression that is always at work. At work stripping us of our culture, sense of self, and identity. At work committing daily executions and acts of violence against Black men and women without bringing justice to the perpetrators.
Resilience may be word used to describe our strength but it may also be a term that takes away from the severity of the conditions our ancestors experienced and we are still currently experiencing. A more fitting term to describe the Black experience is that we continuing to live with an unaddressed trauma.
We are living with centuries of trauma that continue to manifest/proliferate in this new millennium. Being strong or having to play the game in order to survive another day doesn't change how fundamentally messed up the American society is. It doesn't change that we are still dealing with psychological, institutional, and physical acts of racism and oppression. Just as Eliza told Solomon just because Ford trusted your carpentry advice and "rewarded" him with a violin (not freedom) does not change his current condition or his role. Ford is still a slaveholder and Solomon is his captive. And whether we are strong enough to endure maltreatment is besides the point.
As our rights continue to be stripped away and bodies stripped of life, 12 Years A Slave serves as crystal clear mirror reflecting back at us, Black persons living in America, the nature of our current conditions which hardly resembles progress let alone freedom.