I generally wonder two things before sitting down to watch any movie that will cover, or allude to, the Enslavement Process—better known as “Slavery:” 1) How true will the depiction be to what actually occurred, and 2) How many rape scenes will there be? Having extensively studied the Enslavement Process—hence my reference to it most of the time as a “process” and not just an event—I know that it was horrific beyond what anyone who did not experience it first-hand can imagine, and that most depictions of it do not do it any justice. So, when I sat down to watch “12 Years,” in the year 2013 when many Whites—and Blacks—would like to believe that race is no longer an issue in this country, and when these same ostrich-imitators would like to believe that Slavery was not as bad as it really was, I was expecting to see a watered-down version of the Enslavement Process with few allusions to the amount of rape that occurred, and the quintessential White hero characters.
I was expecting to see mildly-mannered White slave-owners teaching slaves to read and write, and the typical depiction of at least one White slave owner who grapples so much with his involvement in Slavery that you end up feeling sorry for him, and consequently—and subliminally—thinking Slavery was not that bad after all.
Surprisingly, and refreshingly, “12 Years” offers a rather balanced view of some of the events surrounding the Enslavement Process. The courage of the director, and anyone else who had anything to do with this story being shared on the mainstream silver screen in such an honest way is to be commended.
Very seldom do depictions of the Enslavement Process show the actual tools that were used to physically subdue slaves, other than chains and shackles. I’ve only seen one other movie that showed the masks slaves were forced to wear during transport. Research reveals that these masks were used to prevent slaves from committing suicide.
Twelve Years is a winner because, despite its rawness, nothing is overdone, and besides telling the story it sets out to tell, it accurately describes what I think are the three R’s that made the Enslavement Process so impactful, and what any epic about Slavery has to address in order to achieve any level of accuracy—rape, religion, and relationships.
The slave masters did a job on Africans where sex was concerned. They raped girls and boys, women and men. In fact, I’m convinced that the prevalence of sexual abuse in Black communities is a direct result of behaviors we learned during Slavery. I hypothesize that we learned to treat each other the way the slave masters treated us. After generations of conditioning, events like rape and other forms of sexual abuse became commonplace—hence the silence when singer R.Kelly interacted inappropriately with an under-aged girl. Not only were Blacks silent as a community, but some adults spoke out against the little girl.
Director McQueen seems to emphasize the role that religion played in subduing the slaves, a lesson to which I hope Black movie-goers were paying particular attention. This is not to suggest that Blacks should forgo their Judeo-Christian practice, but it is to caution that we tend to practice Christianity in a way that hurts us more than it helps. Most Blacks still abide by the superficial, abstract form of Christianity we were introduced to during colonization, without any analysis. The ambiguity with which we were left continues to confound many of us, subsequently making it useless.
I wonder too, if McQueen’s intention was to expose the psychological impact of the Enslavement Process on the enslaved. For instance, there is a scene where the main character is left hanging on a tree for many, many hours. The audience experiences the length of time that passes with what seems to be an extension of the scene. While he is left hanging, slaves are seen walking past going about their business. Slaves were conditioned to believe that assisting each other could result in their own death. Slaves were forbidden from showing affection to one another. For instance, a mother showing affection to her child could result in that child being sold. Why? Because love is powerful. People tend to fight for the people they love. A whole lot of slaves fighting for the people they loved would have resulted in more uprisings than a little bit. How else, other than psychological submission, could a few White slave owners man a whole plantation full of people?
This conditioning occurred over many generations, so that after a while, slave owners could expect that slaves would interact with each other the way they had been taught to, without command. This pattern of relationships was so embedded that it continued after the Enslavement Process, and still continues today. Can you think of some examples?
One of the most powerful scenes occurs when the main character, now named “Platt,” is forced to beat another slave—a commonplace occurrence during the Enslavement Process, and one intended to weaken the slaves’ relationships with one another. I couldn’t help but think about how today, we, Blacks hurt each other. The scene is powerful because it, like many of the other scenes that demand particular attention, seem to be extended, and because the viewer eventually sees blood splashing off of the slave’s back as she is being beaten. I thought about how we hurt each other with gossip and other forms of deceit—and I hoped that Black females in particular will get that image in their head every time they open their lips to gossip about another female.
To appease those that might be embarrassed by the truth, who will counter-argue that Blacks owned slaves too, we do see Alfre Woodard’s character, a Black slave owner, and a couple of Black overseers. But “12 Years” courageously reveals that these circumstances did not come about as the result of desire, as much as it did as the result of survival. Twelve Years brilliantly and concisely interweaves the backstory of pertinent characters. Nothing is overdone, even the hero White character (Brad Pitt)—who was played so well that I even feel guilty calling him that.
The only thing I ended up being able to predict was that the person that helped free the main slave character, Solomon Northup, would be a White person. And it makes sense that the hero would have to be a White person because of the time period and events. But, as is usual with White hero characters, you don’t end up feeling sorry for this person, because he makes it clear that his act is out of “duty,” and he is not shown fawning over Platt, so the movie-goer does not get caught up in a “Kumbaya-Ebony and Ivory” fantasy.
To be sure, Blacks did help create the Enslavement of their own people—and not just as over-seers recruited here in the Americas. I mean, at some point, we HELPED—like showed the colonists where they could find Africans, and helped lead Africans to slave ships. This is probably what keeps me from dodging at White people after I’ve watched a slave epic.
If you’re expecting to see smiling slaves, and slaves dancing the “do-si-do” on their down-time, this is not the slave epic you want to see. But if you’re ready to view a rare, raw depiction of a part of history that most would like to forget, and you feel like critically thinking—go see this movie. You will be sad, but enlightened.