In Preparation For The Movie Adaptation Of "Twelve Years A Slave", Read The Autobiography of Solomon Northup

I am recommending everyone go see the film Twelve Years A Slave, particularly those who so casually went to see a film released last year that used Ni**er 150 times for entertainment and turned the horrors of chattel slavery of Africans into a Looney Tunes-style caper. I am recommending everyone go see the film who wants a thoughtful, yet unabashed story of triumph that doesn’t dumb the story down for an audience. All in all it was a bargain to complete at $21M. I am recommending everyone go see the film to get a taste of what it was like for people to survive the Black Holocaust. If we don’t correctly remember what our ancestors overcame, how can we maximize the opportunities that came from their sacrifice?

In the hands of another director, I’d be extremely wary of any nuance or respect for the ways people lived and died centuries ago. It could have easily been too heavy-handed revisionist or too heavy-handed in reinforcing hopelessness. As a fan of Steve McQueen‘s previous films, Hunger and Shame as well as his mixed media art, I believe he put his best foot forward with this project. It’s unfortunate this film is on the tail end of so much drivel from coonfests with much bigger budgets like The Butler or Mammy Revisited with the likes of The Help, but it is what it is.

We can deconstruct and critique the finished product for what it is after the fact. We can of course question why this film got funded and promoted and whether there are any negative messages disseminated. And yes, I’m aware it is very much a male story, but there were key portions of the book described in detail that were included in the film that impact the women in the story. I am also aware the co-screenwriter also had a hand at co-writing Red Tails, but the problem with that film didn’t end with the script but the director’s choice in erasing African American women from history by cutting them out of the movie.

Since someone asked me about this separately I also want to mention that my support of this film is strictly based on the overall portrayal of blacks and the overall uplift of black women. Solomon Northup had a black wife and children he wanted to return to. He was fighting to save them as much as himself. And since I’ve previously written about how Steve McQueen’s support of black women actresses (who look black) in non-denigrating roles benefits us, I don’t consider his marriage to a white woman a deficit. The problem lies with the black males who do NOT protect and provide for the “black community” as a whole and who don’t give anything back, who are focused on escaping their blackness AND who trash black women on top of all of this. McQueen does not publicly complain about racism, talk about how Hollywood won’t give him a break and he doesn’t say negative things about black women.  He doesn’t say he’s powerless to cast (or get cast) black women as leads or love interests.

The days when you had an actor like Eric LaSalle specifically asking to have a black actress love interest when his character Dr. Peter Benton was paired with a white actress during his tenure on ER is rare. He cared about the message it was sending, wanting the show to portray a healthy relationship between a black man and black woman and showed respect to his black women fanbase enough to do so (even though Benton was a jerk). I can think of a new NBC show with a black male lead who is not paired with a black woman love interest has previously claimed he had no control over such matters during his tenure on a previous failed series where his love interest was also not black. People do what they want.

McQueen’s hiring Nicole Beharie in Shame as Marianne, the one woman Brandon connected with emotionally is a good example of someone using his clout to help others. Behind the scenes he and Michael Fassbender have a relationship with Fox film division. Now Nicole is starring on a hit Fox tv network show. Hollywood is all about connections. She’s a great actress who got a deserved break. Score one (out of hundreds who get help) for the team!

Hopefully, this will lead to more opportunities for actresses Lupita Nyong’oAdepero Oduye, Kelsey Scott as well as Ruth Negga (who just landed a recurring role on Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.). Our little princess Quvenzhané Wallis is already working on the Annie reboot.

Not every black male is a black woman hating gendered racist. Though it certainly feels like we’ve spotting a purple unicorn here, we’ll see.  So far he’s passed vetting and I’m not here to dictate anyone’s personal life. I do however control whom and what I support. I can’t speak on anyone else in front of or behind the cameras (except perhaps Brad Pitt, whose company produced the film perhaps having a stake in this because he adopted an Ethiopian girl) as doing anything specifically that would benefit black women. As you know if we want a different outcome (more opportunities with better quality projects) we have to do it ourselves and stop randomly supporting anything and everything. This could have easily been another Red Tails, where they decided to cut out the black women entirely.

The book was published in 1853 and is available in the public domain. Here’s a synopsis:  In the pre-Civil War United States, Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery. Facing cruelty at the hands of a malevolent slave owner, as well as unexpected kindnesses, Solomon struggles not only to stay alive, but to retain his dignity. In the twelfth year of his unforgettable odyssey, Solomon’s chance meeting with a Canadian abolitionist will forever alter his life.

This film is miles apart in scope, scale, tone and intent from those other movies. Everyone who paid money and praised Django Unchained, Red Tails, Baggage Claim, Fruitvale, Think Like A Man, Tyler Perry, etc. needs to go park their butts in the movie theater and watch this. Or at the very least BUY A TICKET. If you can support the idiots, the history erasure and the denigrators then you can go support this.  It’s not an easy or comfortable film, but I don’t think it’s gratuitous. I have a lot of thoughts about how this film is being made by a British director with actors from around the world. When asked about what he learned about the slave experience and how it affects our world today, McQueen replied:

“Survival. I think that’s the biggest thing you learn. What would you do to survive? What do you block out to survive? I’m here because certain members of my ancestors survived slavery in whatever way they could. They weren’t handed an AK-45 and a grenade, they had to deal with how they had to deal with it, which was survive. It wasn’t pretty. Could you imagine being born a slave? I think that’s the worst thing that could happen to a human being. Someone who’s born a slave, someone who doesn’t think of themselves as anything other than what their master thinks, which is nothing. The psychological damage of that, of being born into an environment where you are nothing. I think that when you fast forward slavery to today, walking down the streets, you see the evidence of slavery everywhere, in America, in the West Indies, in London, Europe, you see the evidence of it. This stuff hasn’t been dealt with. When you look at the Holocaust, and Germany, and how many people have actually studied that, dealt with that and continue to deal with that. Slavery, it hasn’t even started. It’s a deep psychological wound.”

Twelve Years A Slave opens Friday, October 18th. While I don’t want to see revisionist, inaccurate, paternalistic trope about the millions of people who died and survived chattel slavery, I would like more people to take the initiative to create projects that speaks to those who resisted and escaped. There’s no shame in surviving and sixty-five (65) autobiographical “slave narratives” were published between the late 1740’s through 1865. We have more stories to tell, from Harriet Tubman to Sojourner Truth to Harriet Ann Jacobs.

Let’s start shifting our focus in a direction that will yield the best results and stop waiting for other people to do something, hoping for a respectful portrayal when we don’t control the project.  Obviously we want to see more stories beyond certain time periods as well. There’s a British costume drama being released next year about Dido Elizabeth Bell – and it’s even directed by a black British woman, Amma Asante. More on that as the release date gets closer. Our Rhineland tells the story of how two sisters cope with the Third Reich’s intimidation of biracial Germans who were forcibly sterilized. Share your thoughts on the book, the movies featured and/or ways of making more of a concerted effort at telling our tales of triumph over adversity in the comment section.

 

Read More:

http://actsoffaithblog.com/follow-the-career-of-british-director-steve-mcqueen-making-non-stereotypical-choices

Another interview on PBS with McQueen solo http://video.pbs.org/video/2365101601/ .

More research on Solomon Northup

Cultural Relevance Of 12 Years A Slave

Enhanced edition of 12 Years A Slave with narration by Louis Gossett Jr.

*****

Update Oct 21st

It seems there’s quite a debate going on where a) some feel that the violence against Patsey reinforces pain porn and non-sympathy for black women  i.e. read the post at http://www.whataboutourdaughters.com/waod/2013/10/18/12-years-a-slave-opens-today-i-aint-going-to-see-it-helpless.html OR b) African American women are not benefiting because the movie is helmed by and starring Brits and Africans i.e. read the post at http://muslimbushido.blogspot.com/2013/10/follow-money-resources-trail-part-3-12.html

I have an overarching response to both perspectives that I was going to cover in subsequent posts, but I’ll tack it all on here:

All good points, some of which I did cover in my original post. I was initially disappointed that McQueen chose a Brit male lead and not an AA, but it’s his film, so he gets license to choose his cast. Also, it was going to a black male regardless and I wasn’t invested in enthusiastically supporting whomever he cast as I never assumed that it would benefit me based on the gendered racist behavior of your typical black male in not uplifting black women. I was keenly interested in the parts of the women — and in fact I wish he had chosen an entirely different slave narrative to begin with that featured a woman. But…..it probably would’ve starred a Brit actress anyway! As a informed consumer if that was a deal-breaker I wouldn’t support the project.

I was familiar with the source material and the history of the director long before the movie was released, so this wasn’t a random selection on my part to see this film. If you follow this blog then I’ve discussed McQueen for nearly two years and I was eagerly awaiting the release of this project.

I’m aware that Brits and Africans got to benefit – but is there ANYTHING stopping African Americans from doing a project of this scope? Also, since I featured this on my blog, I hope people actually listened to the interviews. Those questions about non-AA blacks being so heavily involved were asked and I thought Steve did a nice deflection (lol). It shouldn’t necessarily come down to a sole focus on someone not AA doing this movie over content, but I certainly get it if that’s the ONE thing you’re interested in as a determination whether to see the film or not. Or if you think the abuse was gratuitous. **This is a debate going on with Season 4 of Downton Abbey as well.

As I’ve stated, I looked at McQueen’s total history where he has uplifted AA women in public and in film for previous projects – and the bottom line is he’s just doing what AAs should do: creating opportunities and looking out for self. I think there’s an assumption that a black director of a different ethnicity may have made different choices, but we don’t know what the finished project of another director would have resulted in a film worth seeing. Certainly the earlier tv movie version by Gordon Parks (an AA) has a completely different scope and focus and didn’t feature the women in the autobiography so prominently.

Are we now at the point where we’re going to start talking about not supporting projects with blacks (if it’s not derogatory) who aren’t AA because you are an AA woman? 

It would be great to get rid of all the reality show and (c)rapper ratchetness, but who’s going to step in and create something amazing? If they did would AAs support it???? If it not AAs creating something of even an incremental benefit then should we who are AA go into a hovel and withdraw all support? A complete media blackout is never going to realistically occur. We need representation and how are critical thinkers going to cut their teeth on evaluation and decision-making by abdicating any decisions except full-on retreat?

This starts to border on the extreme with no solution to INCREASE OPPORTUNITIES. If more consciously evolved people are not filling a void with quality projects then where does any increase in awareness go? Where’s the follow-through step?

Is it that other black people are hustling MORE EFFECTIVELY who aren’t AAs overall because they can come here to the US where all the money is? Is it that too many AAs feel defeatist in their HOME country and are too insular to create opportunities and/or are focused on shorter-term goals for self rather than the group as AA males tend to cannibalize everything? These are NOT answers to an ongoing-problem. This becomes throwing the baby out with the bath-water.

Do we NOW not support a film like “Belle” because it’s about a black British woman and directed by black British woman? Should the reverse have been true if it had been an AA-helmed and acted project about non-AAs? Or is there some benefit to the image of all black women that a project like this gets made – assuming it IS actually a non-denigrating project?  Which technically we don’t know because we haven’t seen a shooting script.

If all of the “better” projects come from non-AA sources then do we reject them just because? Do we investigate why we’re not doing for self?

This is a bigger conversation post-BWE success that goes far beyond a movie. Bear in mind, I am a trained performer who’s studied mass media and film studies. My dissemination of media images began long before I ever became a blogger.  A creative calling is a noble one considering the odds of sustaining a career are few and far between. I believe we are given divine inspiration and those who spend years honing their craft in obscurity deserve a little respect.  I’m beginning to feel as if there’s no room for any caveats (grey areas as matter of opinion??) — and perhaps there shouldn’t be — but I see a majority operating in murky waters of overall non-BWE activity all the time so perhaps I am just TIRED of forever vigilance for an invisible thread of “purity” as qualified by certain perspectives when the overall efforts are unappreciated and watching a few people get successful circling around BWE who used and ignored much of what was meant to benefit many.

Haven’t we already discussed all the reasons why AAs are at the bottom of social progress for all the various reasons? And how it can change? Is there only ONE WAY? ONE THOUGHT PROCESS? ONE STRATEGY? And ultimately haven’t a majority who witnessed this rejected BWE even while benefiting from the efforts of  others thereby torching the earth for a larger mini-infrastructure? Free agency means we sometimes have to make decisions that we can live with even if they go against the grain of the perspectives of other black women advocates.

Now if any individual AA woman (in particular) thinks the details regarding Twelve Years as outlined in the two posts from WOAD or Muslim Bushido is a deal breaker and if the depiction of Patsey and/or casting her with a non-AA black actress is non-beneficial then they should NOT support the movie. 

Does anyone actually think AA’s would uplift a woman who looks like Lupita Nyong’o regardless of ethnicity? When Halle Berry (half-white) and Beyonce (claims to be Creole, rumored to lighten her skin) are supposed to be the sole legit representation of black beauty? Does the failure at dismantling that in-house racism get a pass? Or is this argument another example of being distracted by what “non-AA outsiders” are or aren’t doing “right”?

What’s the bigger(est) picture here?

But since the majority will go see any drivel with no thought, at least this movie DOES offers some benefit. Despite any underlying situation that may help others on the back end, if you are not already versed in BWE and not a conscientious  media consumer and never heard of the book or read it, might seeing such a film HELP? If you are further along the path or at a different juncture then this may NOT be the step for you, but everyone is NOT THE SAME!

It really starts to become a point of belaboring every detail with MINIMAL progress to circle the same issues. If nobody is else has positioned themselves successfully in such a manner and others don’t care anything about their representation, where does that leave those of us who want some type of progress even if it’s not going to be the “perfect” blend of everything? You don’t always get the ideal climate or a level playing field. Sometimes you have to work with what you have and HACK to get to the next level. I can’t control what other people do. I can only be true to myself.

And who’s going to be satisfied with everything that someone else does anyway? People are going to do whatever they want regardless. As always the conversation is a worthy one, but choices and actions will follow and sometimes those will not match! Despite any objection to the contrary, I still believe reading the book and yes – seeing this movie – can offer benefit to AA women. That doesn’t mean you need to or that the concerns raised can’t also be addressed. People are a still a little too eager to be told what to do, instead of doing the thinking for themselves.

Everyone has an opinion. You have to decide for yourself ultimately what going to work for you.

14 comments to In Preparation For The Movie Adaptation Of “Twelve Years A Slave”, Read The Autobiography of Solomon Northup

  • Jay Miller

    The writer of the film is also married to an Asian woman and is a known sellout and uncle Tom who only acts black when he needs a job. This film's black male pedigree is pathetic

  • SayWhat

    I finally saw the movie and I have to say that it exceeded my expectations, for once black women were not an afterthought.

  • SatWhat

    I am new to the BWE movement, and am glad that I found you pioneers.
    That said, when someone ask you to write a review, it in their mind they see it as a compliment. I am on the fence with this movie because as a black woman, I have been disappointed by Hollywood too many times to a) trust that the suffering of black women will not be an after thought or b)that the white women characters won't be let off the hook. My fear is that once again black men and white women will walk away from this movie feeling like they were the only victims in this because their suffering was the only thing discussed.

    So yes, some of us are curious to see if your high hopes for someone who you obviously respect has been dashed. We would like to know if he pulled out the rug from his fans with this movie. Obviously we can't force you to write a review, but I am on the fence and will continue to read the different opinions of BWEs.

  • Anon

    And you're too focused on believing that a Hollywood movie will miraculously change the mindsets and outcomes of Black people, no matter how many times that's proven untrue. Sorry for you. Thanks for your response.

  • Anon

    I hear you, i'm just wary. Yes, I have done my best to work on projects that focus on helping Black girls change their outcomes to the positive. But no, I have not yet seen the movie. I don't see how seeing a movie will affect that change in any way. I would like to wait and read a review of the movie from a trusted source before I give my money to it, or most any other movie out of a Hollywood that is known to be extremely biased and prejudicial against Black women -- no matter that a Director may be Black.

    So my question is -- Faith, would you be willing to write a review (or maybe just a followup to this post) after you see the movie? Sorry if I missed something in your post and you have already seen the movie -- I go the impression that you are recommending based on the book. I admit that I never expect a movie to be like the book -- directors are known for taking creative license and straying away from the facts.

    Also, this movie is a remake -- Gordon Parks made a milder, made-for-TV version of this movies back in the day telling Mr. Northrup's story, so Mcqueen's release is not all that groundbreaking.

  • Anon

    I don't really trust Black men married to white women to truly tell "our story". They always somehow, someway let white women off the hook for their role and actions during slavery/racism/Jim Crow/segregation, etc. Somehow, they always manage to make them "more sympathetic" or "not as bad" as the white man in the story. In this movie "12 Years A Slave", I hear the excuse given to the white woman (as implied through her portrayal) is that her evil is simply because she's hurt and angry at her philandering husband, who regularly slips into the slave quarters and takes advantage of Patsey. For these reasons alone, I will not be seeing the movie.

    My opinion has nothing to do with being against IR -- people can marry who they want -- but I just notice that Black men are quick to point out the evils of white men's historic past, but give a pass to white women. I heard alot of hate and belly-aching over Rachel Jeantea for being an "embarrassing" witness during the Trayvon Martin trial, but crickets towards the majority white female jury who let a cold-blooded killer off.

  • Faith

    Thanks for dropping by! Lupita portrays Patsey and I know it's going to be heart-wrenching seeing it in film, because reading it in the book was a visceral experience. As far as I've heard McQueen does Patsey a great justice in bringing her story to life but obviously it's not going to "fun" to watch. The women who endured this type of treatment and worse deserve to have their stories portrayed accurately and I'm glad he took on this project.

  • phadils

    I've read the book -- it's powerful in its simplicity on the power of hope and determination. I plan to see it as I am specifically curious to see how Eliza and Patsey are portrayed. I always wondered what became of them. I know it's Solomon's story, and respect that. But my heart broke for Patsey in particular. You're right in that there is no shame in survival. I also agree with McQueen on the psychological fallout from slavery.