Monday, November 04, 2013

Black Man Talk: 12 Years a Slave

by Steven Boone and Odie "Odienator" Henderson

(The following is a Google Chat conversation between Big Media Vandalism founder Steven Boone and Big Media Vandalism's proprietor Odie Henderson. It is the latest in the Black Man Talk series. Other installments include American Gangsters, Tyler Perry, Django Unchained, 42.and Lee Daniels' The Butler.)


Another Black movie, another Black Man Talk. I say our next chat should be on the Whitest movie we can find, like David O. Russell's American Hustle or something by Sofia Coppola. For now, it's 12 Years A Slave, based on the 1851 narrative by its main character, Solomon Northup. Adapting it is John Ridley, former writer for Martin Lawrence's old sitcom, Martin. Directing it is a Black man whose first two films were about White men in anguish--and therefore more palatable to general audiences--British artist/moviemaker Steve McQueen.

Let's start with a juicy question: Where does this rank/fit in the admittedly small subgenre of movies about "Black History" aka "American History that Texas Textbooks keep whitewashing."


I'm not sure yet. Let's say it ranks highly by default. McQueen is a meticulous researcher, so the film is teeming with brute facts. It would be interesting to see this film played as a Scared Straight for racist high school kids--particularly a certain slave-on-overseer Lookeehere Moment(TM)* that stirred the audience I was in at each of two screenings.

* LookeeHere Moment, trademark Odienator, is that moment when a Black person cannot take the aggravation any more and loses control. Generally includes an NC-17 rated cursing out and/or an ass whipping.


With the film so fresh in our minds, that was probably an unfair question. But I'll step out on a limb to state that this film has a You are There quality I've not seen before in this type of narrative. There's a transformative power to McQueen's matter-of-fact way of shooting, a trait that burned him severely in Shame but worked well in Hunger. Watching this, there were times when I felt as powerless as the slaves roaming by as Solomon hanged from that tree.


It does give us that sense of powerlessness, and of the lingering shock of being abducted and enslaved. Solomon spends the entire movie in shock--which is to say, the entire 12 years. Still, I think Hunger is the more confident, inspired film. There is no Hans Zimmer soundtrack to commiserate with the Irish prisoners in Hunger, and it makes their situation that much more palpable. McQueen shoots this film in that you-are-there fashion, but some of the window dressing (the score, the ungainly attempt at period dialogue) softens the blow. Even so, I have never seen an American or European film on the subject of slavery that was this immersive and this concerned with the visceral moment-to-moment experience of the slave.


Hunger is the more confident film, because it's not an American film. Europeans are used to that kind of starkness; McQueen had to calibrate this one differently. Like Lee Daniels did in The Butler, he had to sprinkle a little mainstream-movie seasoning to make sure his message stuck with American audiences. We're brainwashed to expect certain things. In both Daniels' and McQueen's cases, neither were harmed by softening their blows a bit.

As for that florid dialogue, which I admit is a tad off-putting, that's how folks talked back then! What  are you  gonna do? It's a lot more preferable than that ignorant patois White writers put in the mouths of Movie Negroes back in the studio system days.

Plus, Ridley gets great usage out of it in two scenes:

1. The Alfre Woodard scene, which we must come back to

2. The scene where the weeping slave, Eliza, lashes out of Solomon. She's wailing far longer than a regular director would have had her wail (it made me think of the coach tormenting Jackie Robinson with epithets in 42), and when Solomon tells her to shut up, she hits him with both barrels. I loved her speech, superbly delivered by Adepero Oduye from Pariah.

"Let me weep for my children!" she tells him.

It's like a message to Black America. Weep for your children.


Well, the dialogue was an impediment to my engagement with the film. It made me sometimes see excellent actors wrestling with the language like entry-level Shakespearean actors. I get it, but if we want to talk about "mainstream movie" necessities, I think a language that was simple and functional for the actors and the audience (with maybe a little historical flavoring a la Westerns) would have done the trick.

And, yes, I can sense McQueen, as a Black British director, addressing African-Americans in a kind of triangular conversation (similar to Tarantino on Django) involving the contemporary black underclass/wage slaves/middle class and our historical counterparts. Solomon hanging from a rope while his black neighbors go on about their business says a great deal about our history of being terrorized into complacency. Was it Stokely Carmichael who said, "All the scared niggers are dead"? [Ed: Yup. The exact quote is: "You tell them white folk in Mississippi that all the scared niggers are dead!"] Well, that's a flattering half-truth. Some of the scared niggers are dead but most of the dead niggers fought their fear and struck back. How many Solomons didn't survive to write a book because they'd rather have died than bargain with an evil system?


Plenty, I am sure. Look at Patsey, the film's horribly put upon object of Massa Fassbender's affections. She begs Solomon to kill her, to save her from the horrors that visit her every day. Had Solomon done so, he would have lost the American audience for sure, but he would have also struck an unrecoverable blow to Massa.

In Beloved, Sethe kills her daughter to spare her an enslaved nightmare. When I read Beloved, I was stunned by this, but as time passed, I realized just how powerful a statement Toni Morrison was making. Patsey is far less a caricature than I’d read in some reviews; she's very real, but very much a symbol of both Blackness and womanhood. She picks more cotton than the men, even the White guy who's forced to pick alongside her ("Treat him like Jerry," as Don Johnson says in Django Unchained), yet this goes unrewarded. She also has to deal with Sarah Paulson's angry (and deservingly so, I suppose) wife. McQueen draws a sharp, straight line between Patsey and today's sista: "You may be free, but your problems ain't over."


"Black women are the mules of this world," my sister said to me recently, doing John Lennon one better. Patsey is the jewel in this movie's crown. She's played by a breathtakingly beautiful actress with short, natural black hair.  When she first appeared in the movie, I was fine with anything she might do or say from that point on, because this kind of beauty, which we see every day, almost never makes it to the screen. A black Audrey Hepburn who looks nothing like Audrey Hepburn. Patsey's predicament is only a horror show extreme of actress Lupita Nyong’o's possible predicament in Ho'wood: What kind of mule/victim/maid/ho roles will be thrown at her in the coming years? She is clearly meant to carry any film that would go to Angelina Jolie or Kate Winslet.

What will be her compensation for being brutally stripped and whipped in lingering long take? It was effective as horror, but seeing black women physically tortured is no great shock at this point. The real shock would have been imagining a moment of tenderness and beauty that momentarily stole Massa's sadistic heart. What's eating at Massa Fassbender is that Patsey is the most alluring woman he has ever laid eyes on. That truth is something he must kill before it kills him.


Nyong’o is STUNNING. She’s of Kenyan and Mexican descent. Her looks are completely foreign to Hollywood, and if the pundits are right, the Oscar is hers to lose (Sorry, Miss Sofia!). Her fate in getting future movie roles is probably too terrifying to consider, but this is a star-making turn. Solomon is the audience's state of shock; Patsey is our emotional core.

McQueen is on record stating that he felt some compassion for Epps, and you can see it bubbling beneath the surface. Fassbender's portrayal is a cog in a much bigger machine. Like Ford, Solomon's benevolent (by comparison) first Massa, Epps is part of a societal institution, one that Whites, even the ones who acknowledge injustice, would rather allow it to remain status quo to their emotional detriment.

It's a lot harder to fight the system when the system is giving you perks.

You do bring up a valid point about Epps, however. If he had been given some of the characteristics of Perry King's slaver in the exploitation trash classic, Mandingo, the Patsey whipping scene would have emotionally short circuited the audience. King's affection for some of his slaves (like Agamemnon, his “right hand man”), such as it were, afforded him a human quality that McQueen and Fassbender either withhold or play way too closely to the vest. A truly tender moment between Epps and Patsey would have forced audiences to feel conflicted, maybe even have the amount of pity for Epps that McQueen hints at. Imagine how explosive that would have been.

Of course, King eventually murders Mandingo when Mrs. King gets too friendly with him.


Exactly. Epps just being rotten is too easy, and there is some complexity there, like when Epps' wife breaks up the almost-fight between him and Solomon over Patsey. Epps is stone drunk at that point, so he momentarily forgets that Solomon is his property and that his wife is not his mother or teacher or school principal. She stands between them as if they were two boys on the schoolyard. I imagined what aw shucks comedy a Golden Era Ho'wood director would have made of this moment.


That's a Skin Game moment right there...


But to your point about the system: That's what gives this movie its electricity, McQueen's and Ridley's fascination with everybody's moral cowardice in the face of a faceless system--an economy, really, that determines fates as unpredictably as a roadside bomb. Shame could be an alternate title for this movie. So could Husbands and Wives: the film starts by showing us domestic bliss between a free black man and wife and also that same black man later, a slave, helping a female slave steal a moment of intimacy that she might have had with her husband, who we presume is sold off somewhere, dead, escaped or never existed because she never had a chance at a proper life.

The Northups in happier times.

This film is secretly about what we are willing to do to preserve a man-woman union and a family in a time of constant terror and oppression. Which is why you were so right to single out the wailing slave woman, whose cries McQueen seamlessly extends across two scenes.


Did you notice that McQueen has her wail under Benedict Cumberbatch's reading of Scripture? It's not the first time he juxtaposes Scripture with injustice: Epps later uses it to justify whipping his slaves as mercilessly as he does. This is some subversive shit, and another of the many straight lines 12 Years a Slave draws between its timeframe and ours. The Daily Word is used by Republicans and churches to justify treating people like second class citizens. If I didn't know any better, I'd expect Jesus' second coming to be Him showing up wearing a wifebeater and holding a Pabst Blue Ribbon, yelling about how much He hates all that isn’t straight, White and male.

"Odie, you're goin' ta Hell for that last sentence."


Ha ha!


12 Years' points about the system are its greatest assets. That scene of Solomon hanging has been described as a directorial setpiece that's more about McQueen than Solomon. I vehemently disagree. That scene is society in microcosm, not just the slave society, but ours as well. When that female slave suddenly comes into frame and offers Solomon water at her own risk, it's a marvelous "fuck the system" shout-out. She's like an Ebony Florence Nightingale, a ghost who's gone as quickly as she came.

And McQueen isn't done. When Epps hands Solomon that whip, the power of that transaction indicts today's society more than it indicts Solomon. I had hoped Solomon would use that whip in a repeat of the earlier scene with Paul Dano, but instead he whips Patsey. She lets him off the hook a bit (I wish Ridley had left her line out of the screenplay), but 12 Years a Slave codes this moment as a direct parallel to what I see happening every day. At times, Solomon is, dare I say, a representation of the bougie Negro looking down at the 'hood denizen. His enslavement is a brutal reminder that, to society's eyes, he's just another nigger like the rest of them.


A piece by Rebecca Theodore Vachon at called Acting Right Around White Folks: On 12 Years a Slave and Respectability Politics (and a blog post by Maurice Dolberry that it references, called "I Hate Myself!”: What are Respectability Politics, and Why do Black People Subscribe to Them?) really get into this problem. What 12 Years could have done better is dramatize Solomon's awakening, and to do that, we could have spent much more time spent with him and his family before his abduction. This would have served two purposes: we could have gotten to know his wife and children as something more than the perfect and loving clan, making the eventual terrorism sting that much worse. It's as if the "acting right around white folks" syndrome affected McQueen's and Ridley's choices in the first act.

On the plantations, we don't get much sense of tension or alienation between Solomon and his fellow slaves (who are mostly faceless bystanders). There's that lovely bit where they all pat him on the back after he's navigated down the swamp in his handmade raft, but the filmmakers' concentration was mostly fixed on Solomon vs. Slavery.


I loved that moment, because it made me think of both my own experiences in corporate America and Sorrell Booke's Cap'n Cochipee in Purlie Victorious. In those cases, a Black idea that works is completely beyond the scope of White thinking. Those slaves were patting Solomon on the back because he made the far more intelligent overseer look stoopid. I can't begin to tell you the horrors of my early career, where I wasn't sent to customers because it was believed that a Black programmer would be rejected by the consumers of the software he wrote.




As for more of a depiction of Solomon's early life: I'm glad you brought that up because I'm very conflicted about whether the film needed that.

I liked how McQueen doles those scenes out as flashbacks, but I saw the lack of them later in the film as a sign of Solomon losing his hope and humanity. I think your criticism is valid, but I brought to the movie my own shorthand. It didn't take much for me to connect the dots between his past and present. The ending, where he reconnects, held more power for me because it forced my focus on the amount of time lost, of kids growing up without their father and of a father missing out on his children's life events. The way Ejiofor says "I apologize" just hit me so hard.

Still, I need to consider the possibility that you, and others who have noted how distant McQueen keeps the material at times, are correct.


Yeah, it's partly my failing that I wanted more of Solomon's family up front, and then nothing of them until that tremendous ending. It's a backhanded compliment, I guess, and I wanted a lot more of this movie. Give me an hour with Solomon's family, then two, three hours of the horror (it's called 12 YEARS a Slave). Let me see the shadow. Let me feel the lack. (Sorry, James Jones.) Some films grow on you.

Our friend Keith Uhlich wrote some thoughts on the film for Letterboxd that scratched at why this film grew OFF me somewhat on second viewing. It's still quite powerful and McQueen's inventiveness never rests, but in the end, this film, like Django Unchained, is merely a gate opener. As Keith put it, "The subject is not closed because someone addresses it—to your mind—as well as you've ever seen. There is always more to see." And what I'm interested in seeing next is more of what happened in the bedrooms, bathrooms and back rooms besides cruelty and exploitation--not to cast a sanitizing light on an evil institution, but to draw darker, deeper lines between then and now.


Speaking of Keith's great review, an example of a negative take that lacks the snarkiness of other negative reviews of this film, he also draws attention to Alfre Woodard's character. He writes: "The Alfre Woodard scene is spectacular, in part because it seems that McQueen briefly handed the reins—Sin City guest-director style—to Lee Daniels."

It's spectacular for another reason too: It shows us exactly what you just stated: "more of what happened in the bedrooms, boardrooms and back rooms." Woodard is married to her Massa (the thought of her and this White man literally jumping the broom filled me with such amusement and joy) and she tries to impart to Patsey the benefits of this arrangement. They're sitting there drinking tea and shit! Woodard refers to Solomon as "Nigger Solomon," and he to her as "Mistress Shaw," which also shows some fascinating form of power structure.

Woodard's dialogue with Patsey reminded me of that similar conversation between Shug and Celie in The Color Purple. "You make it sound as if Mr is going to the bathroom on you, Miss Celie!"

12 Years a Slave is peppered with these moments of Black folks doing what they needed to do, for better and for worse, to survive. Again, yet another set of straight lines drawn between now and then.


My favorite of these was when McQueen seized the opportunity to use the slave ship (in this case a riverboat) as metaphor for The Struggle. That amazing three shot of Solomon and two captives plotting their next move. Michael K. Williams' chiseled black face is slashed by sunlight as he makes it clear he's ready to go down fighting.

And he does. This scene has the bit of Hans Zimmer music I have no problem with: the relentless percussion based on the flap-flap of the boat's water wheel. And that swift cut to Williams' body floating away in the vessel's wake. This sequence almost belongs in the first act of a slave rebellion action-adventure movie, except that it’s not meant to set up audience expectation of revenge but to dramatize a relentless machine.


It's the dramatic version of that Eddie Murphy moment in Delirious when he talks about slavery. “Brothers act like they couldn’t have been slaves 200 years ago…”


"Bale that cotton! I ain't balin’ a MUFFUCKIN THING"


“The first dude off the boat tried that shit! I ain’t pickin’ nothin’! WHAP!!”


“The other muffuckas said I’ll bale the shit!”

[Ed: These guys can't do it the justice Eddie does it here]


When 12 Years a Slave won the Toronto Film Festival Audience Award, the Oscar buzz was louder than a swarm of bees broadcasting through trunk speakers in the 'hood. Of course, that led to some backlash. The criticism I want to focus on is "the film is too brutal for audiences and Academy members." Hello! It’s fucking slavery, not an episode of Mary Poppins. Of course it’s going to be brutal.

Did you ever notice that, whenever a minority group tells its own story, the majority immediately complains that it's "too much?" Whether it's women, gays, or brown people, there's always chatter about brutality or feminist touches or reverse racism.

Could this notion of something being "too Black" or "too incendiary" be a contributing factor in Black directors not being able to finance or make more stories like this? I don't know about you, but I would kill to see Kasi Lemmons do a Reconstruction picture or Sojourner Truth's story, for example.


It's a complicated tangle of discomforts. And African American filmmakers are nervous of this burden, to make something that tries to "fix" us in some way, but everybody gets around to trying it.

I think the "incendiary" part is less an issue in generally liberal Ho'wood (and its various corporate doppelgangers worldwide) than the "too black" and "too depressing" issue. The 15 year dramatic television renaissance set off by HBO has made "dark, complex" characterization and plotting a new national pastime. But when that darkness and complexity goes beyond the bounds of entertainment to become more of a practical tool or weapon rather than a gruesome plaything, there's trouble. The prelude to The Wire was The Corner, a mini-series of Baltimore drug game scenarios that director Charles S. Dutton, a seasoned black actor from the August Wilson camp, hijacked to insert earnest testimonials and interviews from the cast, speaking directly to the audience--presumably to some of the very at-risk or almost-gone ghetto-dwellers dramatized in the mini-series. Generally, when mainstream critics and audiences ooh and ahh over the "darkness" of something, they mean sexy Tony Soprano or The Dark Knight. The Wire was said to explode all those boundaries, but I still have my doubts.


The Corner was more harrowing than The Wire, though you know I love The Wire intensely.


In this society, when you add "black" to just about any formula, commercial or non-commercial, you increase the complexity exponentially. I always wanted to write The Last Hood Movie, the one film that shocks the ghetto into mental un-slavery. But one can go mad in the attempt.

Some Hood Movies drive the audience mad too. Works both ways, Boone.

Plus it starts to make trouble not just for white folks but for unsuspecting, culturally underfed or miseducated black audiences, too. Just ask Kanye "Yeezus" West.


Kanye is a whole 'nother Black Man Talk altogether! But since you brought up rappers and music, we have to talk about Paul Dano. Dano, the unlucky recipient of Daniel Day-Lewis' milkshake theft in There Will Be Blood, plays Solomon's second overseer. A lot of time is devoted to the rending of Black flesh by vicious White men (Solomon's first brush with slavery entails having a paddle broken across his back). Dano is the recipient of a taste of his own medicine in the one "stand up and cheer" moment McQueen offers. The viewer pays for it later, of course, but for that moment, the movie goes all Nat Turner on us.

When Dano is introduced to the slaves (and to us), he gets a musical number of sorts. With the slaves as his percussion section, Dano sings a mad cross between country music and Dr. Dre's lyrical output. As disturbing as that song was, I could not get it out of my head. "That's horrible," I thought, "but damn if it ain't catchy." I had to find out more about "Run, Nigger, Run!" The internet led me to this great piece on the Undercover Black Man website. Turns out the song was originally sung by slaves, which changes the entire thrust of the song. Dano, and the numerous folk and country singers who've recorded this song, make the titular command a taunt. It was originally a cheer of sorts, a piece of advice from those who weren't as bold as the runner.

See, they were jacking our beats long before Rock and Roll did it!

[Ed: Listen, at your own risk, to the famous recording by The Skillet Lickers. Dano’s version is better.]


I'm doing the Running Man to that right now, like an EPMD background dancer. That's amazing, and it extends on up to Ghostface Killah's Run!, The Last Poets' Run Nigger!, and Melvin Van Peebles' Come on Feet!

I think a similar slave song was mentioned in the book, Bullwhip Days, a collection of oral history from the slaves collected by, I believe, WPA historians and journalists in the 30's. (I read it during my own fledgling attempt at a Nat Turner screenplay.)

Dano's performance is a little burst of brilliance, and it helps the film rhyme with Django Unchained and its obsession with white male insecurity versus a black man who may or may not be "exceptional." A key phrase from Django is even reversed here. I believe Ford says to Solomon, a free man forced into a slave role, "You are one exceptional nigger!" whereas Calvin Candie in Django labeled a slave posing as a free man an "unexceptional nigger" with great doubt.


That slave song was commandeered, absorbed, and reflected with all its subversive power intact as Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song! Except in that case, the runner vows to return.

McQueen's last shot of Patsey, seen from Solomon's vantage point as he is driven away to reclaim his freedom, left me with more sorrow than joy. I wonder how many slaves secretly hoped that the runaways or the freed would return, Django-style, to free them as well.

Someone in my theater yelled out "Take her with you!" to Solomon.


Yes! My romantic mind leapt and had him hoisting her up into the coach and them hightailing it out of there under gunfire. (Something like a certain famous escape in The Hidden Fortress.) Upon learning that Solomon joined the abolitionists and the Underground Railroad, I imagined that he did so with Patsey and others he left behind in mind. Imagine, imagine, imagine. Imagine the reunion, the rescue. It's a fantasy, but a fantasy that defines me.

Patsey's loveliness and soulfulness and resilience and creative spark (shown in that gorgeous, quiet scene of her making dolls by hand in a grassy field) cries out for a rescuer. What Solomon is forced to do to her (or is too weak to resist) instead, kind of broke me a little. Because in the 21st century, there are still so many desperate black folks who have inherited this kind of desperation.


Exactly. And that is why this film is so powerful for me, and why I rejected the notion that it’s just a cold, directorial art installation. It is not. It is a snapshot of the past that defines the present. This is a film about an institution that brought great prosperity on this country at the expense of the humanity of not only Blacks, but Whites as well. Warts and all, no other film has done this before.

It boldly answers the questions of where current attitudes, beliefs, and thoughts originated. The Confederacy may have officially surrendered in 1865, but Whites like Dano's overseer feared that abused, running nigger they sang about was going to return with a vengeance. So we got 100 years of Jim Crow.

That takes us through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The latter was enacted 5 years before I was born, and is currently being dismantled piece by piece because of Post Racial America™.

When people speak of a "post-racial America," it's a marketing ploy, not truth. Granted, we've come a long way, baby, but 12 Years a Slave reminds us that a lot of its harsh truths are ingrained in both the DNA of the descendents of slaves and this country proper. For that, it deserves to be commended and analyzed further for years to come.


Well, Hunger was also not an "art installation"-- it was just so formally precise, tight like a great concept album where track listings don't matter. One brief shot of a prison guard cowering and crying in his riot gear while his colleagues were busy brutalizing political prisoners gave the entire grisly film its humanist light. I would have welcomed even more such rigor and sparseness in 12 Years a Slave, not less. It's all there in the images: The last flickers of a letter that might have saved Solomon, burning in the dark, matched by the flame light dying on his face. The iconic tiptoe lynching.

McQueen just hedges a bit by giving us music that weeps in a conventional way. It doesn't quite trust the power of the images and sounds McQueen has gathered to be their own music. But all my quibbles don't weigh much against where this film arrives emotionally--and it is through universal emotions (represented by Chiwetel Ejiofor’s  compassionate and despairing eyes) that the dehumanized view of blacks might burn off in the hearts of modern day Eppses.


Hans Zimmer is the poster boy for inappropriately assigned musical cues, though McQueen leans on him far less than other directors. Like I said, McQueen felt the need to lean on familiar American movie tropes on occasion, but he and Ejiofor's eyes execute the film's most visually oriented indictment-slash-identification moment. When the camera lingers on Ejiofor (whose internal acting matches the physical rigors of his biggest Oscar competition, Robert Redford in All Is Lost), and he turns to directly face us, it was so painful I almost looked away. I impressed so many personal things on that moment, and other moments as well.

Final thoughts on 12 Years a Slave?


This film is just one more gate-opener to a subject that I, like. Mr. Uhlich and others, find inexhaustible. It left me worrying about Patsey the way Fellini said he continued to worry about his greatest creation, Cabiria. As for Patsey's creator, Lupita Nyong’o, I'm not as worried as I let on earlier. There are too many inspired and capable filmmakers out there right now to think that she won't get to shine (and thus overturn a whole world of internalized oppression for dark girls everywhere) in films that match her potential. Dee Rees, Ava Duvernay, Andrew Dosunmu (and the visionary cinematographer each has collaborated with, Bradford Young) along with fascinating inside men like Lee Daniels and Charles Stone III are doing the kind of work that matches McQueen's artistry. This is a great jazz age for American cinema.


I got nothing to add to that, outside of my complete agreement. We're done here.

Next time, a certain maligned actor who looks like yours truly gets a Black Man Talk Redemption!

 We're comin' for you, Cuba!


RosieP said...

"I'm not sure yet. Let's say it ranks highly by default. McQueen is a meticulous researcher, so the film is teeming with brute facts."

Is it? I don't recall an integrated hotel in 1841 Washington D.C. Have you?

SD said...

What a fantastic review! I was really happy to get your perspective on this film, which only increases my appreciation of it. Thank you for your insights.