12 Years a Slave (2013): Persistently avoiding cleansing

Going into a film like this you somewhat know what to expect. You ready yourself for callous suffering without end for no other reason than a system was just set up that way, hope snuffed by despair. You know the injustice and stupidity will revolt, because it is just so blatantly wrong it baffles that it would be allowed to go on for even a day in plain sight.

We can’t avoid the bluntness if we are to confront that world. Slaves are casually stabbed and thrown overboard on the journey south, a mother is separated from her kids in a slave sale, down at the bayous they are beaten, a girl is flogged for wanting a piece of soap — black people treated at best as mischievous kids, at worst as animals. We see how our protagonist is over the years beaten, or numbly retreats to protect himself, into a hollow shell. Some version of the brutality and injustice we would expect from any film on slavery.

But what good does it do if it merely blunts you to cleanse?

Serious question here. Most films work in this way, from the Greek model demanding catharsis, a cleansing from evil so that we can go on about our lives. But if we just go on about our lives merely relieved of a burden, has any actual change taken place? If I shed a few tears at a film like this and the next day take out my work stress on my kids, am I really cleansed of the same root ignorance that at one time supported slavery? Southerners were not in support of an apparent evil after all from their point of view, but of what they saw as a right or a tradition or a natural necessity.

So I’m glad the film does these two things right, it’s the only way it can truly be an eye-opener on the subject.

It runs the gamut of people who exist today with the same ignorance: among them the young overseer scorned because he was outsmarted, the neglected wife who jealous of an another woman lashes out on the wrong person, the white worker who betrays the letter to jump ahead in his career, the plantation owner who seems thoughtful yet won’t buy the kid with his mother because of the cost.

And offers no catharsis. The exasperation is sweated out with a stoic capacity for having to be in the world; sentimental music doesn’t try to waste all the pent-up energy of seeing people suffer unjustly into simple spine-tingling, the world itself is full of texture and sound because past the imposed confines there was still a world that extended in the distance and went on.

I would only have the first segment of normal life much longer so that we’d be more deeply torn as viewers from our own safety. All that staring into a clump of sunset trees in the distance much more intense because somewhere beyond that is still home and a wife, and this is the greatest visual education I could wish for anyone: not giving up into suffering as not losing sight of the horizon where loved ones are. And only a whole separate film could do justice to the richness of slave songs, their call and response, their hidden narrative and spontaneous order.

But a film that already calls up these intuitions has worked more than most, and any future film on the subject will have to build on this.

No cleansing because there’s nothing to so easily pretend like we can cleanse ourselves of and leave behind in the theater, all the injustice in the film does not arise from intrinsic evil itself after all (otherwise we’d never be able to become better persons) but conditional ego and ignorance and we live every day with these things. If you relieve us with catharsis all that energy goes away. If you don’t, it becomes a ball of lead that we have swallowed and have to carry with us back home to our kids, so that maybe it can work its own answer in this life.



writer on structured narrative and the changing world

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