A Message of Hope – Response to Oscar Watch:”12 Years a Slave”

When I first saw “12 Years A Slave” I expected visual brutality. I expected a great amount of blood, guts, rape and more. Instead, I left the theatre with a deep guttural sense of the terrible nature of that time period but also a deep sense of hope, that in the midst of adversity we can overcome. Perhaps it was this surprise that led Arthur Shingler to make what I consider some problematic statements in his review of the “12 Years Slave” in Point Weekly’s Arts and Entertainment “Oscar Watch” series. Shingler’s review of “12 Years A Slave” acknowledges that the film was deep and emotional but his statements that the film needed more brutality and that it’s ending was a “disservice” to the audience and to the slaves who died is, I argue, born out of deep misunderstanding of the film’s content and context.

Before I begin, I would like to make two disclaimers. First, I realize that many in this community are perhaps tired of hearing about race and ethnicity. Although as a minority community we have attempted to begin honest conversations, we may have done so with a spirit of anger rather than a spirit of humility and compassion. I hope this response is influenced by the latter. Second, I realize I am not an African-American and may not have the authority to discuss issues in this film. However, I appeal to the ancestral similarities that amy people (the people of Angola) have shared with my African American brothers and sisters.

We too were enslaved, in our case by the Portuguese. We too have suffered the horrors of racism. This part of American history has touched many lives around the world. The story of slavery isn’t simply an American story, it is a human story. For these reasons, I felt compelled to write this response.

In his review, Shingler states that the film did not have enough brutality. He wrote that if the “protagonist [had] died at the whipping post” the movie would have been “more permanently moving.” I believe sentiments such as this one are a reflection of a “Django Unchained” (2012) enamored society that would much rather be entertained by violence then consider black suffering and America’s dark past. If a viewer watches a film featuring slavery and comes out wishing there should have been more brutality rather than thinking about and beginning conversations about the horrors of slavery and how to best continue this awareness then I believe the problem rests with the viewer, not the film.

The second problematic conclusion that Shingler reached as a result of watching the film was that its ending – Solomon Northup is freed after 12 years as a slave – is a disservice to those that died and its audience “is now deprived of thought” and “not forced to think further about the horrors of the Antebellum south.” What Shingler failed to mention is that the film is based on an 1853 memoir of the same name. There actually was a free-born African American man named Solomon Northup who was forced into slavery for 12 years and regained his freedom in the end. If Shingler’s argument that the film’s accurate depiction of historical fact was a disservice to slaves of that time, does it follow that Northup’s life and story was disservice too? “12 Years a Slave” is not a story about slavery, it is the story of one man who never gave up hope. True to the memoir’s depiction of the hope present in the slave community, there is a beautiful scene in the film in which the slaves sing the famous spiritual “Roll Jordan Roll” during a funeral. Despite the many not having achieved a happy ending, the message of hope in the midst of adversity was never waste and certainly not a disservice

On to the point Shingler made of the audience “not forced to think further about the horrors of the Antebellum South.” In my opinion, and many critics would agree, “12 Years A Slave” dealt responsibly with the issue of slavery, capturing the complexities of that time period through its amazing character development. It may not have had blood, guts, and brutal rape scenes but it did depict the psychological damage inflicted to slaves by their masters. Is it not enough brutality that a mother was separated from her own children, that a slave master wakes his slaves up in the middle of the night to dance to violin music as entertainment after they had worked all day, that the slave master’s wife throws a glass decanter at slave’s face causing her to cry and weep in agony?

Shingler’s review was fair overall, however, his last statements perhaps made with good intentions were I believe not reflective of a good understanding of what the film was about. Despite my disagreement with those statements, I am pleased that “12 Years A Slave” has begun some very important conversations such as this one.