14 November 2013

Spoiler? The Film or the Society?

It's been a week...

Sunday morning I overslept and drove 100 mph to Oxford to present on "Playtime in the Real World" at the Unitarian Universalist church.  The presentation went well. Two of the women from the writer's group were in attendance, including the one I discussed a few posts ago in The Lonely Writer. (More later, perhaps, on that encounter...)

Sunday night I met C_________'s flight in Memphis and, with only minutes to spare, we drove over to catch the 7:00 p.m. showing of "12 Years a Slave" at the Malco theater. As we approached the ticket booth, his brother was exiting the theater in the company of his date. A sweet little coincidence. Hugs and 'hellos' all around. "Did you see...," I began. "Yes!" they responded in chorus, the brother with a smile and the date with a stricken expression. "Just 'over the top'!" she gasped.

Chuckling, brother tried to shush her. "Don't ruin it for them.  Enough said..." She was beside herself and repeated, "Just...over...the...top!"

Her reaction confused me:  I'd seen one or two promo trailers for the film, many months ago, and anticipated a restrained, PBS-style docudrama based on a true story. How does a docudrama go "over the top"?

Brother added something like "It's good but it's heavy."


Four days after seeing the film, I am still struggling to find words to describe the film and my reactions to it. There is an undeniable heaviness but there's nothing "good" about this film. All I could say on Facebook the next morning was
Just saw the film 12 Years A Slave. No no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no no.....

My reaction was deeply visceral. My stomach churned. My mouth was dry. Anger. Sadness. Mortification. Disgust. I felt duped by the promos. A Google search -- surveying the culture...am I the only one who thinks the film is perverse, dangerous, and artless? --  led me first to the Rotten Tomatoes site. The use of the word "brilliant" in their review triggered a strong fear reaction and the realization that fear had been gurgling beneath all the other reactions since a few minutes into the film.

I don't mean that any of the images on the screen frightened me; I mean that the idea of living among people who could watch the same film and come away saying "brilliant" and "good" frightened me.

I found some relief from my emotional pain and cognitive confusion on Monday -- not my own writing but a superb review of the film by Armond White writing for the New York Film Critics Circle.

Among the passages that say "it" better than I could:
Brutality, violence and misery get confused with history...

For [director] McQueen, cruelty is the juicy-arty part; it continues the filmmaker’s interest in sado-masochistic display, highlighted in his previous features...

...showcasing various injustices...

...torture porn...

...a repugnant experience...

 ...Steve McQueen’s post-racial art games and taste for cruelty play into cultural chaos. The story in 12 Years a Slave didn’t need to be filmed this way and I wish I never saw it.
 My "share" of the review on FaceBook spurred lively discussion -- some of it off-thread in private messages. My initial fear was  aggravated to learn of Rev. Otis Moss III who rented three Chicago theaters and transported 700 of "the faithful" to see the film. This African American minister of the United Church of Christ's "study guide" to assist post-film discussion is published on the Huffington Post site. It includes questions like:
The film shows great brutality and beauty. What, in the film, showed you the power and genius of black people?
The painful scene of Patsy being whipped by Solomon puts the audience in the scene with Patsy and Solomon. Why was it important for the filmmaker to show this scene in this manner?
The film shows Northup as a caring husband and father. It is rare to witness Hollywood films portray the image of a Black man as compassionate, sensitive and strong. How does the director show Solomon as a multi-dimensional man who is loving, caring, and committed?

It is profoundly unsettling that people who wouldn't drop a dollar into the hands of a homeless person they passed on the street (for fear they might use it to 'get high') are self-righteous and eager to put 10 times that amount (or more) in the pocket of a filmmaker and industry that regularly get high from the willful manipulation of public sentiment and revision of history for financial gain and celebrity.


Yesterday I talked to a woman who saw the film with her husband and daughter last weekend. She found it disturbing but believes it is an important film that people should see because "unlike Roots, it doesn't sugar-coat the history of slavery in the U.S. It gives us the real story. People need to know the truth."

This is a woman I like. A member of the sizable community of Ph.D.'s living here in Holly Springs. I didn't know where to begin to respond to her. What can I say to a scholar who needs only a "based on a true story" caption at the start to accept a movie as "truth people need to know"?

People Are Strange by Kurmis Meditouja

I'm going back to my cave now.