…so herein I try to articulate my speechlessness.
A few days ago, I went to the cinema to see a 2hr15 film, and was quite unsure about whether my attention-span (severely diminished by depression) would be able to deal with the whole of it, but I really wanted to see the film, so I took the risk. That film was 12 Years a Slave, and I didn’t notice the hours pass.
It’s taken me quite a while to get to the point at which I have collected my thoughts enough to be able to pull together anything coherent. My initial reaction when the credits rolled was to sit there immobile, just blinking rapidly, and it took a while for my sentence construction to improve beyond ‘that was… I just… I mean… Wow.’ Even attempting to write this blog post is taking all the concentration I can muster, because I’m just lost for words to express what the film made me feel.
I’m just lost for words to express what the film made me feel.
My starting point, I guess, is the initial reaction of the person I went to see the film with. To paraphrase, it was something along the following lines: ‘The film told me that black people were enslaved by white people, and white people treated them horrifically. But I thought I already knew that, so if that’s it, what’s new?’ To be sure, that does seem to be the basic gist of the film, and several more public reactions and reviews have this idea at their outset. Take Orville Lloyd Douglas’ opinion piece in The Guardian, for example. In his eyes, whatever your race, the film is ‘unlikely to teach you anything you don’t already know’; instead, it seems to be intended to ‘engender white guilt’ (which it certainly did with me!) with no other further purpose.
What Douglas would prefer to see is a film which examines conflict experienced by people of colour without putting the spotlight on their race – which recognises that a black person has the same struggles as a white person, be it with sexuality, bereavement or anything else, and which looks at those candidly without the fact that they are black even entering the narrative’s consciousness. There is much to be said for this attitude, and I’ve heard something very similar said about LGBT+ films like Blue is the Warmest Colour (also an amazing film, but too long); sometimes, in a director’s effort to represent a liberation issue to a general release audience, they seem to feel the need to fixate on the differences between that group and wider society, rather than portraying them as just the same as anyone else, and that unwittingly reinforces the ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality. When was the last time you saw a ‘Happily Ever After’ film in which the protagonists were two men or two women?
Until the world at large comes to recognise that life has been pretty sucky for minorities, we will need more and more films which shock the privileged public out of its comfortable bubble.
On the flip side – and perhaps I’m playing devil’s advocate here – life in general has been pretty sucky for black people, and for the LGBT+ community, and for any number of other minorities you can name, and perhaps until the world at large comes to recognise that, we will need more and more films which shock the privileged public out of its comfortable bubble, even at the cost of playing to these stereotyping tendencies. I strongly applaud the move by the National School Boards Association in America to include this story in their curricula, using both the film and the memoirs upon which it was based as pedagogical tools to approach black history and institutional discrimination. This utility is certainly no reason not to have the other types of film as well, the ones which deal with black people struggling with their sexuality or which have a gay couple as the main characters, romcom-style, but I would never dismiss the power and importance of a film like 12 Years as Douglas seems to.
I do wonder, though, whether all of what I’ve said thus far is simply me speaking from a position of white privilege. Other than a small amount of racial prejudice I’ve been on the receiving end of as a Jew – never more than name-calling or misguided jibes – I have no lived experience of being a person of colour in a majority white society, and so the emotions evoked by a film like 12 Years are naturally going to be a mixture of shock, pity, revulsion and guilt. Empathy comes much less naturally, and it is difficult to generate it inorganically, whereas if I were myself black, I might have more of an inherent understanding. Frankly, though, even the majority of people of colour watching the film today (thankfully) have no personal experience of that level of cruelty. How, then, can we watch such a film and get anything more than shock, pity, revulsion and guilt without an easy frame of reference?
How can we watch such a film and get anything more than shock, pity, revulsion and guilt without an easy frame of reference?
Well, I’ll tell you what was running through my head for much of the film. Before I do so, though, I’ll preface it with the acknowledgement that, however much I ponder the idea, I still can’t work out whether my thoughts are entirey justifiable, or whether they are offensive and/or repulsive to the people involved. I’d be interested to hear what t’Interwebs thinks about it.
Basically, the only film I’ve ever seen before which can give me a frame of reference to compare 12 Years with is Schindler’s List, and I’m far from the only person to draw similar comparisons. The graphic depiction of violence and cruelty, the blasé dehumanisation of one group by another, the moral dilemmas thrown up by members of the persecuted group taking positions of power over their peers, the primacy of survival being put over all other ethical concerns, the occasional ‘more merciful’ member of the persecuting group – I found the parallels to be enormous and incredibly striking, and they gave me as a Jew a way to connect more closely with what the director was attempting to portray. That said, though, I’ve always found it very difficult to connect with Schindler’s List and with anything connected to the Shoah in general; just under a year ago, I was standing inside an intact gas chamber in Auschwitz-Birkenau, looking at the claw marks covering the walls, and I still couldn’t process it. I am one of a privileged group of Jews who can say that they have no direct family connection to the mass extermination of 1939-1945 Europe, and I think that makes it much more difficult for me personally to comprehend the enormity of it all. Nonetheless, having seen Schindler’s List allowed me to be able to look at the slaves in this film and think ‘we were treated like that too, and I know a bit more of what that could be like’. In that sense, a comparison can only be positive.
I think. Or maybe not. Superficially, the representation is in many ways similar, but how much of that is down to film directors knowing what sells? It can’t be ignored that Schindler’s List is about a form of persecution which was an attempt at mass extermination; Hilter’s ideal world was one in which ‘the Jewish problem’ no longer existed, and all forms of cruelty and exploitation had as their ultimate end vision the deaths of their victims. 12 Years, however, presents persecution wherein the persecuted become commodities to be bought, sold, beaten, manipulated, played with, and used in whatever manner the owner wishes; black slaves might die as a result, but that generally speaking wouldn’t be the explicit aim – after all, a slave is a valuable piece of property, and who beyond the most extreme sadist purchases something just to get the pleasure of destroying it? I make no presumption here to cast any opinion on whether one form of persecution is more terrible than the other, because that would be like having an opinion one whether it’s preferable to be mauled by a lion or a tiger. Both sound pretty horrible. All I seek to do is highlight a difference between the nature of persecution in black and Jewish history, and having done so, to demonstrate why I feel a little uncomfortable with my mind drawing parallels between the two while I watched 12 Years the other night.
Its core message is the visual representation of the way in which the dehumanisation of any group of people leads to unspeakable acts of persecution and violence.
All that said, though, I think on balance I would be happy to accept the comparison as valid. Ultimately, I think there is more to this film than ‘blacks treated badly by whites’; the way I see it is that its core message is the visual representation of the way in which the dehumanisation of any group of people leads to unspeakable acts of persecution and violence. Whenever a slave owner speaks in any way of the justification of the social order, it is in terms of the slaves being their ‘property’ rather than being human beings in their own right. When an abolitionist throws that worldview into question, the veiled threat he receives in return comes from a position of absolute certainty that the slaves could not possibly be equally human. This is where there is an indisputable parallel with Schindler’s List: every Nazi character speaks of Jews in precisely the same way, particularly in the unforgettable scene in which Amon Goeth beats his maid Helen Hirsch because he believes she is to blame when he realises that he is giving serious thought to the possibility of being attracted to her, a ‘sub-human’.
If, then, as I’ve come to believe, the point of 12 Years a Slave is to highlight the terrible consequences of dehumanisation, I don’t see too much issue with comparing it to Schindler’s List on the condition that the comparison is to be recognised as limited. But in saying that, I bear in mind also that I am neither a person of colour nor a direct relation of anyone murdered by Hitler, so I don’t know how valid my opinion can really be. Which is why I’d like to hear yours too, whether you are either of those things or neither.