“12 Years a Slave” isn’t ‘Must See’ for me

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup Image credit: metromag.co.nz

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup
Image credit: metromag.co.nz

How does the subject and content of a movie so distress you that you decide that you don’t even want to see it? Even though you know it’s well made. Even though some will probably say it’s just a movie. Even though some may say that you should feel obligated. Even though. But that’s how “12 Years a Slave” is for me.

I’m well aware that it’s based on a true story and that it is one of a few accurate depictions made recently about slavery. I’m aware that it was winning accolades long before it actually won for Best Picture at the Academy Awards and Lupita Nyong’o won the best supporting actress prize.

But to hear some of the people who saw it, I get the distinct impression that it’s something to be endured because of the subject matter. And that after they’ve done so, it’s like an accomplished feat. And they can, as we say locally, “breathe off”.

One person believes that the movie got made because Hollywood could sooner stomach twelve years as opposed to two hundred, but I’m not sure that I can manage two hours myself. I had deliberately avoided asking people who saw the movie about their impressions, so that when I eventually summoned the courage to see it, I would be able to do so without prejudice.

But after my husband went, told me a few highlights and how he felt while viewing it, I’m not even sure whether I’ll manage to see it even when I can cry out loud.

I was reminded of the 2004 Mel Gibson produced movie, “The Passion of the Christ”. Like that movie, which details the arrest, trial, conviction and crucifixion of Christ, the account of slavery is one we’ve heard told a million times before. We know the basic story and we know how it ends. But reading about it is quite different from seeing a realistic depiction of all the particulars.

When I did go to see the above-mentioned movie, it felt like a requirement after years of Sunday school and Easter services. That, and the fact that my mother wanted to see it too. Having previously been told that the whipping scenes were gruesome, I had to gather my courage to go. So I went.

I didn’t bother to purchase any popcorn. Somehow I just knew that munching on the kernels and sipping a soda would seem a bit misplaced given the subject matter. This was borne out by the buckets that were abandoned by the other movie go-ers just minutes into the film.

Similarly, I imagine that a visit to the cinema to see “12 Years a Slave” would mean expecting the worst and actually getting it. It might also mean testing myself to see how many scenes I could actually watch without closing my eyes or having my vision clouded by tears. And wondering, as we say here, how people could treat other people “so…”.

As a black Caribbean person, the story of slavery is the story of my ancestors, and although there may have been some differences in the North American version, (they picked cotton – my ancestors cut cane), the underlying theme of cruelty and dehumanization is the same. And being a member of the visual generation, a movie showing just how the people who came before me “lived” and died, should be “must-see” for me.

But even though I know that children were separated from their mothers in slavery, I don’t want to see the heartache etched on that mother’s face as her children are taken away.

Even though I know that all slaves lived in fear of whippings or death, I don’t want to see how their fate was balanced on the whim of a man who was considered superior simply because of his skin colour.

And even though I know that many women who were slaves were raped repeatedly by those who owned them, I don’t want to see the look of defeat on their faces and imagine what they must have been thinking as they were forced to submit.

If I do see the movie, I won’t consider it an accomplishment on my part. That’s already been done by all the people who brought Solomon Northup’s story to life.


Am I talking to myself here?

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