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Friday, December 20, 2013

December 20, 2013: Representing Slavery: 12 Years a Slave

[A couple weeks ago I finally had the chance to see the amazing film 12 Years a Slave, one of the greatest American cultural representations of slavery. In this week’s series I’ll AmericanStudy some other cultural representations, leading up to two posts on 12 Years—one from me, one a special guest post! SLIGHT SPOILERS for the opening of the film in this post.]

On two distinct and equally powerful ways to read one of the film’s first images of slavery.
12 Years a Slave opens (before the title card comes on screen) with a striking short prelude, a series of moments/vignettes set during (what we will later realize is) a random period of Solomon Northrup’s time in slavery. The accumulated moments highlight many sides to the daily realities and details (as well as brutalities and oppressions) of slavery, but culminate in a particularly surprising one: the female slave sleeping next to Solomon on a crowded floor wordlessly implores him to touch her and give her pleasure, and he does so, after which they silently roll apart and turn away from each other. And this moment is immediately juxtaposed with an even more striking shift, to a wordless scene of a younger Solomon and his wife lying in bed together, holding and looking at each other with tenderness and love; after this idyllic image is held for a few seconds the title card comes up and the film’s more chronological narrative begins.
The most overt, and certainly an accurate and salient, way to read these juxtaposed images is through their stunning contrasts, not only in tone and theme, but in every sensory detail: Solomon and his wife are dressed in fine, comfortable clothes, lying on a large and pillowy mattress, bathed in light, silent because no words need be spoken in a moment like this; Solomon and the slave woman are dressed in rags, lying on a dirty floor in the darkness, trying to stay silent for safety and survival. The fact that it is Solomon in both moments and images only heightens the sense of contrast, and foreshadows very succinctly and perfectly the thorough and horrific shift that he will undergo when he is kidnapped from his comfortable and happy free life into the depths of the slave South. What makes Solomon’s unique narrative and story so potent is precisely these contrasts, the way in which his prior life and identity could so full reveal the absolute horrors and inhumanities of the slave system. And as with so many choices in McQueen’s economical film, these two juxtaposed images present those contrasts more evocatively than any extended exposition ever could.
But on the other hand, if we see Solomon as somehow more human or more tragic than any and every other slave, we miss another crucial theme of the film, one likewise introduced through this opening image: that every slave was a human being, with all the complex needs and desires and emotions and thoughts and soul that all humans possess. It’s easy to say that, but (I would argue) very hard to really wrap our heads around it, around the recognition that all the millions and millions of American slaves were complex individuals (so were the slaveowners, of course, but that’s a topic for another day).  By introducing, as the first individual fellow slave of Solomon’s, this woman desperate for any kind of human contact, as well as for a moment of selfish (in an entirely understandable sense) pleasure, McQueen immediately and irrevocably establishes this shared humanity. Which is to say, this unnamed fellow slave is not all contrasted to Solomon and his wife in that other image—her situation may be the exact opposite of theirs, but she is far more similar to than different from them (and me, and you). Another vital theme of Solomon’s story and McQueen’s film, and one likewise highlighted from these opening moments on.
Guest post on the film and its director this weekend,
Ben
PS. What do you think?

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