Now I remember why I rarely read gossip-disguised-as-news, as people come up with all kinds of dumb shit to say about “12 Years a Slave.” It’s a good film. It’s a good film about one man’s experience of slavery. The stillness in between scenes focusing on the poetic landscape or the averted eyes of a man having to leave his dignity at the bottom of his coat pocket in order to survive is fascinating and complicated.
The complicated life of a slave woman being punished for being beautiful and good at her job while being raped and tortured by the same people she creates wealth for is the most complicated, master/slave/servant relationship I’ve ever seen on film. And it is glorious and hurtful and human. We love watching Hannibal Lecter eat people through 2 or 3 films and servants loving the upper class in Merchant Ivory films and Masterpeice Theatre, where we don’t see those complicated power/dominance things played out so viscerally. So why can’t we watch Patsey in “12 Years a Slave” played by the luminous Lupita Nyong’o? Why can’t we marvel at the bravery of both the character who represents millions of enslaved women of all colors, but also, the ferocious amount of courage required of this artist to play this role with a depth of truth rarely see on screen?
I could not get up out of my seat when the film was over. I cried until the my rib cage ached and still couldn’t stop. When she was stripped and whipped (by the white man who supposedly loved her), all I could think of are the countless magazine covers, movies and videos in which women choose to casually strip off their clothes and humiliate themselves for a job. In comparison, this actress allowed herself to be stripped of her clothing and beaten within an inch of her life for a very important reason: to indict us all in the humiliation of slavery. How dare we not discuss it? How dare we complain about how the story is told. We need to hollering about it and actively outraged enough to constantly tell stories from different points of view so that no one ever forgets it or repeats it.I was horrified, ashamed and humiliated by the scenes of her life. She was Every
Woman. And I finally understood why it is so very difficult for us, as Black people to look each other in the eye. Why as women, we often feel such contempt for ourselves and each other. Why we apologize when we are ravaged by our blackness as if the violence perpetrated upon us is somehow our fault. It’s human to feel that way, but it is no where near the truth. I finally understood the origins of those dark feelings. I screamed in terror watching her life being ripped, scratched, tortured and torn asunder while she was helpless to do anything, but endure. Just endure another day for a piece of soap, just to wash the stink of her life’s condition away for a moment. I was so humiliated by the film and felt such sorrow that words are inadequate to express.
I’ve read all these articles about American’s obsession with the hero being better than his predicament as a useless way to tackle slavery or the holocaust or genocide. Well, the love of the hero and attaching to his journey is the basis of all human storytelling. Joseph Campbell spent a lifetime writing about it. We don’t know about the Civil Rights movement because of all the children attacked and killed by dogs. We know about it because we’ve attached a hero to it: MLK. We don’t know about all the masses of Christians who died for their faith, we know about the apostles and Jesus Christ. Human beings can follow the journey of one man or woman’s suffering and watch them climb out of it or fail. But, when faced with millions, the human heart shuts down because it can’t negotiate all that pain. Following the hero or heroine is the very nature of all storytelling. From Islam to the Greeks to King Arthur to great African Kings/Queens like Menelik or Nzinga, we follow heroes. It’s how we hold on to the best of mankind; it’s how we tell story.
So the argument that the problem of the movie is that it’s just one man who was free and doesn’t take into account all the millions that weren’t is dumb. So we shouldn’t praise his surviving slavery because others suffered, too. Say that out loud…that’s some dumb reasoning. Because every single story, song, book, play is based on one or two peoples journey. That is the very nature of storytelling. And every good film has to have a hook that pulls people in: why this story, why right now. The problem is not that the film focused on a freeman, Solomon Northrup, but that filmmakers have not made good stories about slavery because they haven’t figured out a good hook. The last good hook was Roots and baby, it was brillant. Even Amistad did poorly because focusing on the white guy instead of the black enslaved hero, Joseph Cinque, was a weak hook, structurally. Steve McQueen found a story that he could simplify for the screen that had high stakes to engage an audience because the condition of slavery is a fucking, out-the-box, life or death world in which the people enforcing slavery are so twisted and the people experiencing it so crushed, that the stakes are always high which is what good storytelling is about. Deep, specific, complicated relationships with life or death stakes.
The power of personal storytelling is what got Obama elected. It’s community organizing 101 (Read Saul Alinsky, Bayard Rustin, Augusto Boal, Gandhi). Get a man to tell his story and find ways to identify with it and you have won that man’s heart which is exactly how every movement of the oppressed has begun and succeeded. As a writer, actor, producer, I have always been fascinated by slavery. Instead of reading Mother Goose to me, my father would play Olatunji and then read descriptions of Joseph Cinque or Sojourner Truth from the Encyclopedia Britannica. Then he’d spin a story in his own words that made me see those heroes as regular people like me. He said, “Joseph Cinque was the motherfucker that told them you can’t enslave a prisoner of war. Joseph read their shit, schooled them, so the court had to let him go.” In that moment, Joseph Cinque wasn’t some strange African Prince or slave, he was a regular person like me or my mom or my dad who could figure a way out of a predicament.
From that moment on, (I was 6 at the time), I was obsessed with slaves. I wanted to know how they kept their heads up, how they survived and got out. I identified so much with them as a kid living in the projects in segregated Miami on a street with no public services or underground plumbing; I grew up in 3rd world country, feeling trapped with no way out. Those stories helped me put my own predicament in perspective and set me to thinking of ways to get out and not be defined by my circumstances. Jesus, every slave shackle I encountered from age 6 on, I was trying to touch and try on thinking it had magic powers like Wonder Woman’s bracelets. The stories of slaves were magic to me as a kid, they were living, breathing super-heroes who could watch their children sold in front of them and still get up and walk around the next day. I would have given up, crawled in a hole and died. They were super heroes who could survive anything and still live to tell the tale to me.That is the power of the story. So the problem is not with “12 Years a Slave”, the film. The problem is that we need to find more stories that focus on the profound humanity of a person and watching them soar. Creating stories that touch us in the deepest, darkest, most fragile places, that make us vulnerable, broken, so that when we survive or at least struggle with new ways of surviving, we get a chance to boo and hiss at the crappy shit we do to each other, but we also get to revel in our hero making a way out of no way. We get to sit and think: Shit, only 150 years ago, we were on our knees in our own excrement, with zero dignity, tortured, snatched and crushed, but in spite of it all: we, Black people, taught America how to create a movement for human rights. 150 years out of absolute destitution, we have a Black president. All of us get to applaud that we are no longer where we were when “12 Years a Slave” was our daily reality. Black people and white people in this country get to take a breath and say, hey, we were fucked right up, and we still have some crazies running around teabagging and racial profiling. However, even if all of that is true, we still, a mere 150 years later, got enough of our shit together to agree on letting a black man fix some problems we have not been able to fix.We’re always concentrating on what is not, that we miss what is…so yes, go see “12 Years a Slave” and go see my films, “Blue Caprice” and “Mother of George” made by Black artists who are leading a new independent film movement that is about exploring human rights and social ills with compassion and a thoughtful meditation the human condition. In spite of racism, no money, naysayers, we’re still here and doing it and doing it, oh so very fucking well. Take a breath, get some perspective and let’s give stories about our fragile humanity a break, a moment to pause, to reflect on how far we’ve come. Only when we see the light, can we fix the dark.