Monday, February 10, 2014

All that Enslaves Us

Yesterday I saw Twelve Years a Slave.  Wow.  It is easily one of the best movies I have seen in a long time, quite possibly one of the best movies I have ever seen.

I had heard so much about the movie's brutality, about how it was a hard movie to watch, that I almost didn't go.  But I asked an African-American friend if I really needed to see it, and she said, "You need to see this movie."  I asked if I needed to see it on the big screen, and she said yes.

And so, I went.  And honestly, after hearing so much about the brutality, I was prepared for something much, much worse.

I'm not disputing the brutality of the movie.  But it's no slasher film, not one of those films that eroticizes the violence.  I thought the moviemakers struck just the right balance of showing us the brutality of plantation life without showing it so often that we became immune to its horror.

One of the things that struck me was how hard it was to carve a life out of that land.  The film shows the process of converting trees into boards.  Even with slaves, it would have taken a LONG time to build those gorgeous houses.

I already knew how hard it was to pick cotton.  I spent my elementary school years in Montgomery, Alabama.  I remember a field trip to a cotton field where we picked cotton and separated it from the seeds.  I remember a teacher stressing that this kind of cotton production was so inefficient that it would have ceased, had not Eli Whitney's cotton gin come along to mechanize it all.

When the movie came out, I was stuck in my home office because my online classes had started, and they were on an accelerated schedule.  As I worked on grading first assignments, I listened to several NPR shows that discussed the movie.  I remember people talking about how they never really thought about how much brute force it would have taken to enslave people.

My friend and I had a similar conversation, where we both expressed our surprise at various people's surprise at the dark side of slavery.  We were surprised at how many people we've met who seem to have never thought about the inhumane conditions.   And these aren't people only a high school education.  No, I've been hearing highly educated people who somehow missed this chapter.

Maybe it's because it's U.S. history where we haven't wanted to hear about the dark stuff that made us a nation. Or maybe it's human nature to want to believe the triumphal side of history, not the bleak side.

I was also impressed with the movie as a piece of art.  All of the elements worked so well together, and I don't often find that.  Usually, there's something jarring that's not working, or several elements out of whack.  Not in this film.

If you want to find out more about the music in the movie, I highly recommend this article

I keep coming back to how fully the actors inhabited their roles.  The actors who played the slaves seemed genuinely terrified, not just people pretending to be terrified.  The first slaveholder seemed to be torn in realistic ways about what he needed--slaves--in terms to meet his bills.  The second slave-holder seemed genuinely psychotic.  And the scene of the slave market seemed much more realistic than similar scenes in other movies.

The movie did a great job in showing how everyone was caught in this economic machinery.  It made me think about how we all want to believe that we have power and agency, but we really don't.  And those of us who have more power and agency go through a lot of mental gymnastics to convince ourselves that we have no choice, that we're being as humane as possible.

When I heard the first slaveholder talk about the debts he had to pay, I heard my own voice talking about my mortgage as a reason for why I shop at cheaper places, why I make certain financial decisions.  My spouse pointed out that from our earliest days as human societies, the economic structure has been set up to help those who are most powerful, and it's a very tiny proportion of the population.

As I said when the movie first came out, I'm also surprised by how many people are in denial about how much slavery is happening right now.  In many ways, it's never been easier to own a slave.  In many ways, in first world countries, it's also easier to help a slave than it once was.  Several months ago, I wrote more about captivity narratives in this post.

My African-American friend said I wouldn't want to see this movie again, but I would.  It's a movie that bears watching and rewatching.  I'm hoping that it will do for current and future generations what Roots did for my generation:  to help us talk about slavery and to help us realize what slavery was really like and to help instill gratitude for all the ways our current lives are easy.

Don't be deterred by all the talk about the difficulties of this movie.  Go see it.  My friend was right.  We all really need to see this movie.

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