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The 'Lonely Slave' Narrative Continues To Thrive In Hollywood

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by Tanya Steele
October 21, 2013 2:27 PM
62 Comments
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Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in Steve McQueen's 12 YEARS A SLAVE

Will we ever see, on the big screen, a film about slavery that shows the community, the survival bonds, the working together of Slaves in the interest of their freedom or survival? I don't know about you but, the 'self-centered' Slave who defies all other Slaves to serve his own interests has been done. We get it. We don't need to see that, anymore.

Also, the idea that Slavery was 'escapable'. Looking at Slavery as a temporary experience that was 'escapable'- we've been there, done that. Don't need to see it, anymore.

While watching '12 Years A Slave', it occurred to me that most Americans probably get their understanding of Slavery from the big screen. If that's the case, we've got some work to do. If we are to look at, what I now refer to as, the 'Hollywood Slave Canon', one is left with the impression that Slaves could free themselves, if they simply put their minds and a little blackberry juice to it.

Most Americans, who want to deny the horrors of Slavery, want to believe that Slavery wasn't all that bad, that Slavery was something "that happened", "that it is over" and "we need to stop complaining"- are supported by these mythologies. Although a true story, when there are so few voices in this arena, the dominant mythology being delivered, in this film and 'Django Unchained', supports these uninformed beliefs. I suppose one could think, why didn't all Slaves just "write to someone" or "pick up a gun" and get the hell out of it.

Slavery was a vile institution. Its purpose, its reason for being, was to keep people enslaved. The 'runaway' or the 'rebels' were met with a mighty and inhumane force to stop them in their tracks. And, serve as an example to the other Slaves that 'escape' was not an option.

So, why are we receiving the mythology that it was 'escapable'? It is perfect for these times when we have a Black president. We have heard the refrain, "We have a Black president. We are post-racial". It is a tricky thing, this America. We want to step over the dead Black bodies and the blood in the soil. We want to believe that we are all good people who never have to be accountable to the experience of Black Americans on these shores.

Steve McQueen is genius at breaking down an experience, to it's emotional core and creating cinema out of that core. In 'Hunger', the experience was so distilled and unrelenting that, as a viewer, I felt like I couldn't breathe. I was hopeful that he would bring the same level of intensity to '12 Years A Slave'. He did and he didn't.

There were moments in '12 Years A Slave' that were arresting. Thought provoking, disturbing. And, I could understand McQueen's attraction to the story. As a brilliant friend stated, "Perhaps McQueen used a free man, who was taken into slavery, so that White people could feel empathy toward him, they could relate more." Clearly, as we saw with the Trayvon Martin trial, there are a good number of White folks in this country who do not have the ability to empathize with the Black experience. So, I do believe my friend has a solid point. Do I think McQueen considered that when choosing the story? I don't know.

McQueen's journey from the UK, with a brief stint in the U.S., mirrors Solomon's journey. And, although I jokingly feel this film was about his time in NYU's Graduate Film Department, I do feel he could relate to Solomon's journey more, than say, a more grounded Slave experience. A Slave, born into slavery, awakening to the horrors of it and developing a desire to liberate herself/himself and others from it. In choosing a narrative, filmmakers have to look at the arc, the scope of a life and an experience. We choose what speaks to us. Solomon Northup's story spoke to McQueen. 

As I listen to my Black American friends express their disappointment with the film, I try to imagine what Slave narrative would satisfy us. I suppose, someone born into Slavery and connecting with the other Slaves. We need to see that. We want an acknowledgment of the relentless brutality and inescapability of Slavery. We also want to hear the voice of the Slave. Because, I believe, as they speak their horror, their struggles, there will be a mirroring, an ability to relate, even to our current circumstances. To sing the injustices of the Black American experience, to wrestle with the desire to leave the institution, to wrestle with the fact that our families are here, for some, our children are here, our lovers are here. To mirror how the injustices hurled upon Black bodies invade the most intimate areas of our lives. That experience has not unfolded before us, yet. We hunger for it. We need to hear the voice of the Slave.

I would love to see a Steve McQueen 'Director's Cut' -a silent version. Well, with sounds but, without words. Steve McQueen's signature was delivered in the sounds and the visuals of the Slave experience: the churning of the boat slicing up the waters, the solitary bell ringing, the sound of the whip, Patsey's cries, Mistress Shaw's glare (okay, we could allow Mistress Shaw's/Ms. Alfre Woodard's dialogue, sh** was chilling), Solomon dangling in a quiet horror. This is Steve McQueen at his best, at his most artistic. When his radical imagination distills horror into breath stealing imagery, it changes us. The screenwriter John Ridley and the consultant Henry Louis Gates have not evidenced the same level of rebelliousness and fire that McQueen has in his belly. Those men feel conciliatory. McQueen is anything but. If only John Blassingame (read 'The Slave Community') was the consultant for the film. He would have given McQueen more information to feed and nurture his desire to find the minutiae of Slave life and deliver it from the sharpened end of the blade, not the handle.

Another thing that the 'Hollywood Slave Canon' is delivering with panache is 'White pathology'. McQueen delivers. The performances by Fassbender and Paulson are subtle and bathed in a sickness and a crippling pathology. Watching Solomon negotiate their cruelty was illuminating. Yes, there is a sickness that Black America is up against. It oozes out of the pores of hate-filled Whiteness and we are constantly negotiating it. It was wonderful to behold. I am grateful to these films for delivering the epic and Shakespearean White pathological demon that haunts this country, even now.

Although I felt it a bit much that all of the major enslaved female characters were soiled by their masters, I did appreciate that McQueen wrote a clear narrative for the enslaved Black woman. He made it, perfectly clear that the sexual encounters and relationships formed between Slave master and the female Black slaves was rape. It was bondage. It was horrifying and ripped at the fibers of their being. Patsey's cries for soap, Eliza's defiant stance against the institution and Alfre Woodard's haunting, veiled compromise-scorched the screen. McQueen made it clear that these Black women were suffering, in pain and not in step with their Master. They experienced an intimate suffering. The sensitive portrayal of the women characters, in this film, should bring a compassionate understanding and sensitivity to the plight of Black women in America. Film speaks to our subconscious. And, I believe, this was a game changer.

This film is a step. A great step. There will be more Slave narratives told. For one, I would like to see a love story. I would like to see how enslaved Black people loved one another, in spite of and because of, a holding on through the brutality of the institution. I would like to see a Slave rebel who wanted to free herself/himself, his family, other Slaves. I believe it will happen. We have to embrace it when it does.

Slavery is tough to deal with- for all of us. At points, I wanted to leave the theater because I felt that Slavery could not be fully rendered in a medium meant to entertain. But, that's okay. It doesn't have to be fully rendered. I am grateful that we are getting pieces of the puzzle. Black folks want to believe that we would have been a runaway or a rebel. White folks want to believe that they would have been an Abolitionist. We want to deny our relationship to the horror. We want to believe that we are not affected by it. We have learned to be ashamed of our ancestors who were Slaves. Perhaps, the Slave who 'escapes' makes some Black folks more comfortable with the story. Somehow, we need to find pride in this experience that we survived.

Although I don't think anyone will capture the level of humanity and grace LeVar Burton brought to his role as an enslaved man, I do believe we have a lot more to see. I would love to see a Black American Director deliver a story about Slavery. Why hasn't that happened? It will. McQueen has prepared us for it!


Follow Tanya Steele on Twitter at @digtanya. Or on facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SteeleInk. Or visit digtanya.com.

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62 Comments

  • Mmm | December 22, 2013 3:46 AMReply

    I am sick of all this white guilt...they never mention how there own people had slaves and sold slaves too..it's history that never gets mentioned...

  • Alias | November 13, 2013 7:36 PMReply

    @Charles Judson ... your comments are brilliant, on point, well researched and insightful. Thank you, you summed up where our focus and understanding of this topic should be.

  • kA' | October 28, 2013 5:22 PMReply

    ashe, tanya. a very respectable critical analysis.

  • herbbie | October 28, 2013 8:05 AMReply

    No more slave movies, please.

  • anon | October 25, 2013 6:58 AMReply

    Hi CC,
    "Oh my, what did I just read? I mean, was Tanya and her "et al" complaining? I don't think so

    Bless you! Of COURSE Tanya was complaining that's the reason for the article is is not that Mr Mcqueen didnt make a movie that catered to HER sensibilties?
    And btw sorry to disapoint but i am in fact MISS Anon! I know it may be difficult for you to muster as yes a woman CAN have an articulate viewpoint! I am not white either.

  • CC | October 25, 2013 9:33 AM

    *LOL*...OPPS... sorry Miss Anon, excuse me for talking all nasty, I didn't now you pee-ed sitting down.

    But tell me, I am still trying to figure out your exact position? Did you are did you not chide those blacks who believed McQueen made this movie with them in mind? You know, going back to my analogy of the pulpit pimp, didn't you imply that he (Steve) could care less about them but will gladly accept their money?

    Don't get me wrong, I am not saying your "wrong". Heck, if one paid attention to Tambay's interview with McQueen, it's apparent that he didn't want anything to do with (he ran from) racial issues and his blackness.

    Soooooo..... again, what side of this debate are you on.... or are you, as I inferred, fence straddling?

  • anon | October 24, 2013 12:24 PMReply

    wow im really surprised that people on this forum think its a "revelation" that he made the character a free man first so that white people could relate- i actually wrote that in a post on indiewire a few months ago as to why this movie would be sucessful. I mean this is quite obvious and frankly common sense that hes catering to his white base and so? Why wouldn't he? considering they are the ones FINANCING his career! It stands to reason that he would do so. Blk people did not make him and they certainly WONT break him they did not offer him a place in art school they did not pay for his tuition at NYU nor is NYU a HBCU to my knowldege, they did not finance his first film "hunger" in england (that was the national lottery fund and channel 4 -both white institutuons) so why is this such a novel concept that his movie is not "african american" enough? News flash: he aint african american! and therefore has no obligations to that community and considering they make up a tiny minority of his audience AND as i said before are not financing his movies he owns them NOTHING!
    its laughable that people would think this movie is FOR aa's when its financed by fox you know MURDOCH FOX! of course there will be white heroes why would they ( a major studio) support a film that makes them look bad all the way round that doesnt even make any sense noone white would watch it!

    Tanya et al who are complaining that this movie does not cater to your sensibilties please put some money together get an agent a producer and a director and make these slaves films you desperately want to from YOUR perspective because noone is going to do it for you and of course people will say, "its not possible becuase there is no infrastructure!" well there is NONE in u.s but in africa i.e nollywood, gollywood etc.. the money is there and the infracstruture is there steve branched out of england which a tiny country why cant you guys can do the same?

  • Charles Judson | October 25, 2013 10:30 AM

    Indiewire's comment system is frustrating. That should have only posted once.

  • Charles Judson | October 25, 2013 10:29 AM

    Holy crap, it depresses me how little research folks do. This oversimplification of the film business isn't helping us at all.

    20th Century Fox didn't finance 12 Years a Slave. New Regency and River Road provided the financing, with Summit coming in to sell the international territories. New Regency has a distribution deal, through 2022, with 20th Century Fox. It was CAA that helped piece together the financing puzzle for Plan B. It's Fox Searchlight and Summit that are the distributors, with Searchlight handling domestic and Summit handling international.

    It would be awesome if Nollywood had this level of infrastructure, but they don't. If you can name me one company in Nollywood that's raised $200 million to $500 million in private equity funding, and has strong relationships with international distributors, I'll eat crow.

    That doesn't mean Nollywood isn't working on getting there. The N300 million capacity-building fund announced this summer is a promising step.

    They have infrastructure. Is it comparable to the U.S., U.K. or France? Not even close. Will it be built? How big can Nollywood get? It will take another few decades before we'll ever know the answer to those questions. Let's not oversell Nollywood's financial power or cultural reach. There's more to the global film business than the ability to make lots of movies every year.

  • CareyCarey | October 24, 2013 2:18 PM

    Mr. Anon, Tanya asked that we keep our comments on a classy scale, however, I will have to consider that request at a later time. I mean, you've committed the grievous error of believing you could pimp slap everyone in this forum... and believe no one would notice your dastardly deed. Come on now, you used your double-dong to stick it those blacks who are supporting this film and those who understood and/or supported Tanya's opinion.

    Listen, I know you know this but for those who didn't catch it, when listed all the reasons why McQueen has been and is catering to white folks (in essence not paying black folks no attention) you put black folks behind the eight ball. They were stuck in the unenviable positions of blind lemming, pawns and gullible fools.

    Think about that. If McQueen did not have them (blacks) in mind when he made the film, yet many are praising him and thanking him as if he's the new Messiah, haven't you created the scenario of a pulpit pimp (who cares nothing about his flock) and the masses of his blind followers and happy groupies? Sure you did and you knew it. But, I couldn't let you slide by without telling you every silent pen and closed eye are not asleep.

    But you were fooling yourself (some might call it masterbating) when you thought you could fk both sides of this debate. However, the stroke must have got good to you, leading you (in your moment of orgasm) to say "Tanya et al who are complaining that this movie does not cater to your sensibilties please put some money together get an agent a producer and a director and make these slaves films you desperately want to from YOUR perspective because noone is going to do it for you"...

    Oh my, what did I just read? I mean, was Tanya and her "et al" complaining? I don't think so but I know Mr. Anon's mission, that is, the position of a white guy who's trying to stick it to both sides of this debate.

  • Jack | October 22, 2013 11:32 PMReply

    Has anyone seen Nightjohn? It is directed by the masterful Black American filmmaker Charles Burnett and it's a great movie that explores literacy and its relation to slavery and liberation. It is a family film but Burnett does not gloss over the horrors of slavery. I think it includes some of the ideas and emotions that the author believes is lacking in modern films about slavery.

  • jh | October 22, 2013 5:40 PMReply

    Check out Daughters of the Dust

  • Jay | October 22, 2013 3:31 PMReply

    The reason that the stories that gt told are those of the "exceptional" enslaved individuals is partly due to the fact that it was exceptional in the years immediately following the civil war and into the early 20th century, only the most exceptional former slaves were literate. It was these exceptional former slaves who wrote the slave narratives that transmitted the stories of plantation life, hardship, ruinous wickedness and abject evil. And, in the case of this film, when those narratives are filmed, they are necessarily filmed from the perspective of the exceptional former slave who composed the original narrative. I agree with you that the general American public's knowledge of slavery-times (hey, I'm southern and that's the way my elder black folks from my area referred to the far to precious-sounding Antebellum Period. And yes, I do call the music group Lady Antebellum, "Lady Slavery-times") is appallingly limited; but that is a mater for our educational system to correct (although it probably never will, as the realities of plantation life, the Tran-Atlantic slave-trade and the fact that the the entire American economy was created on the whip-scarred backs of our ancestors combined with the genocide committed against the native Americans are far too damaging to the inchoate concept of American Exceptionalism that our educational system seems determine to inculcate in our young), not filmmakers. As for your difficulty with slavery being seen an escapeable situation, I have four words to say to you: Harriett, Tubman, Underground & Railroad.

  • Bforreal | October 22, 2013 10:36 PM

    Yes. Well said! Especially your last sentence.

  • sab | October 22, 2013 2:06 AMReply

    This is probably why even after all of the discussions about 12 Years a Slave, there aren't going to be a rush of people trying to develope more movies on the topic of slavery. Folks get just too wound up and critical. We should constructively critique and not tear these films down but use them as lessons for what could be more narratives and/or documentaries that could come from the era; not only from American history but from the whole African diaspora, which folks are so quick to forget. We should all know that there are tons of stories out there begging to be told but all this petty bullshit about "well they should've done this" and " they should've told it like that"...frakkin' just be supportive for the next group of filmmakers coming up who could be inspired by what's happening now. Don't shoot them down before they can even learn the craft and blossom. Making mistakes and providing a platform to build for the next crop of filmmakers should be kept in mind when we do critiques on such films.

  • ajw | October 23, 2013 4:38 PM

    Had to smile when reading your comment. Been working on a slavery themed piece for almost two decades now but keep revising it, especially after new waves of discussions like this. I find myself checking the piece for 'points of possible criticism'. What started out as a labor of love, has gradually become an agonizing task. I'm beginning to feel like I'm writing the piece more for others than for myself. Bad thing, I know. So thanks for highlighting this, SAB. I'm going to stop following these discussions on 'the perfect slave'-story and let my own vision speak.

  • Bforreal | October 22, 2013 10:35 PM

    I agree.

  • ag | October 22, 2013 12:37 AMReply

    when django freed solomon: https://vimeo.com/77468232

  • Nadia | October 22, 2013 12:05 AMReply

    SMH. Reading a lot of these comments, you'd think Tanya shot and killed everybody's dog. I read the same piece that everybody else read, and my reaction to it is nowhere as negative. I mean, she praises some of McQueen's choices, even calling him a genius at one point, and she criticizes others that she didn't care for. And then she shares her ideas on the kinds of slave movies she would like to see. It's a fairly balanced review of the film to me. The venom being thrown back at her and the piece is unwarranted. Or is it that some of y'all just love to hate whatever Tanya writes.

  • CareyCarey | October 22, 2013 12:16 PM

    Okay Nikki, if the shoe does not fit, walk on by... my rants were not directed at you. In fact, your comment was on point and very respectful. However, those who have shown a propensity to try-on Cinderella's glass slipper, knows exactly who they are.

    @ Tanya, we should be thanking you because you have written many articles that has kept the conversations flowing in the most spirited and vigorous fashions than any other writer on this site. Personally, I believe that is the nature and purpose of this forum. Black folks coming together to talk about, discuss, debate issues in/of cinema (agreeing and disagreeing), in an environment were one does not have to "explain" their vernacular/word usage to those who do not look like them nor share their history.

    Now, I don't know if "I" can keep it classy (that has not been my history), but I'll try... :-)... and I hope it (my antagonistic ways) doesn't keep others from commenting.

  • Nikki | October 22, 2013 11:19 AM

    @Carey

    I dont watch Scandal and I rarely comment. Ive never shown venemous hate to anyone on this site.

  • tanya steele | October 22, 2013 10:47 AM

    Thank you CareyCarey and Nadia. Now, I am aware, when I write something for 'S &A' WHO will be railing against it. It's a constant. Never surprised. I will only address it if it speaks, directly, to what I wrote. People need to vent. So, I let them. I love 'S & A' and will continue to write for it. The positive feedback and conversation that alights because of 'S &A' are a tremendous joy. The positivity far outweighs the negativity. I get notes asking me if I'm okay, after people read the comment section. I am unphased. I just hope it doesn't discourage others from sharing a comment. First and foremost, I love generating conversation. Hopefully, people will keep it classy. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts and showing support. I truly appreciate your words!

  • CareyCarey | October 22, 2013 10:16 AM

    Charles, I am sorry. I should have attached a disclaimer of sorts, removing you from those I am accusing of vengeful garden variety hating. You have been consistent in your objections to Tanya's articles. This is not the first time you've accused Tanya of being awfully presumptuous, taking a few liberties with her facts and using a "review"/article as a vehicle to voice a personal agenda.

    Did I and do I agree with some of your objections? Yes. But in Tanya's defense, I love her courage to take a stand that may not be the most popular opinion. And, to Tanya's credit, she knows her crowd, which I should add, is not necessarily "this" audience. Consequently, she knows the emotions, likes and dislikes of her primary audience, and thus, feeds their needs.

    Added to this slippery slope, we all know S&A harbors a mighty tough crowd who's frequently never pleased. It's a fact that a writer, filmmaker and even this blog's editor is damned if they do and fu*ked if they don't. I just had a problem with those who agreed with your comment, only to use said comment as a spring board to vent unwarranted, venomous hate toward a writer who has brought great wealth and insight to this community.

  • Charles Judson | October 22, 2013 8:58 AM

    I don't hate what Tanya writes. I just believe that her writing is facile, one sided, and less a honest examination of the work in question, than another opportunity to get on her soap box.

    There is nothing wrong with accusing McQueen of creating a film calculated to appeal to white audiences. There is nothing wrong with questioning the authenticity of the world he created. BUT, if you are going to do that, get specific and do your homework. The man has been doing press for months. The script is floating out there to read. Ridley and Gates have writing and produced works easily accessible. Northup's book is available. There are other sources, books on slavery, books on black folk in film, that can be referenced (By the by, who in the hell is this brilliant friend? Why do they not have a name? Why bring them up? I'm supposed to take it on faith they are credible?) Build your critique from those sources.

    Speculation about what was in someone's head is NOT a review. Accusing someone of something without building a cogent argument based on evidence and examples is dangerous and undermines the deeper conversations we could having. As often as Tanya asserts in her pieces that black folk as a whole are lacking a sufficient amount of self respect and pride, I could jump to the conclusion that she really hates herself. Her writing is just projection. I have no real basis for that, other than her writing, but I could say it. But, I don't have any grounding to. I would need to see her scripts, see her films, see more of her work elsewhere, listen to her speak. So I don't say that.

    I don't hate Tanya's writing. I'm just disappointed and angry that it never amounts to more than a dumping on artists and black folks for not living up to her standards.

  • CC | October 22, 2013 1:46 AM

    " It's a fairly balanced review of the film to me. The venom being thrown back at her and the piece is unwarranted. Or is it that some of y'all just love to hate whatever Tanya writes."

    Bingo baby... I believe you've found the fly in this ointment. Every since Tanya disagreed with the scandal crowd, she's been subjected to unwarranted criticism.

    Hell, if one was looking for a "review" written in film critic's speech, the title alone should have told them they may have been looking in the wrong place. But nooooooooo, just as I predicted, those who had, or have, a predisposition to champion "12 years" will do so with the zeal of one protecting their mother's honor... "you betta not say nothin' bad 'bout my momma".

    However, as you pointed out Nadia, this was a balanced opinion on the state of... as she defined it,.. The Hollywood Slave Cannon. But nooooooo, the "don't talk bad about my slave movie" crowd, couldn't resist dog piling on the rabbit.

    Seriously, think about this... the hater juice was stirred to a fever pitch when Tanya made the crucial mistake of splashing a little mud on the new crowned king of black cinema when she said the following: "Perhaps McQueen used a free man, who was taken into slavery, so that White people could feel empathy toward him, they could relate more. Clearly, as we saw with the Trayvon Martin trial, there are a good number of White folks in this country who do not have the ability to empathize with the Black experience. So, I do believe my friend has a solid point. Do I think McQueen considered that when choosing the story?"

    Ut OH! Some black folks do nott appreciate being told they've been sweep-up in the fish net. I mean, although it has been said that McQueen's wife "suggested" this story, if one does not believe he contemplated how THIS story would be received by white dollars, they're a bigger fool than Chicken Little. Listen, it goes without question that Steve is a thinking man, so I am more than sure he knows exactly what white folks love and need in their film watching experience. Hell, a white man was the most powerful character in this version of Solomon's odyssey and two white men (white saviors) came to the rescue of the poor black slave, so what does that tell the "Steve can't do no wrong" crowd?

    Yes sir, this brouhaha is not about the fine details of this article per se, it's about Tanya stepping on toes and forcing some black folks to look in the mirror to see where they've been mislead, duped and willingly lead astray.

  • Bforreal | October 21, 2013 10:49 PMReply

    I usually don't say this, but black folks always have something to complain about regarding black films, don't we. You lost me at the first line, yet I kept reading. Sure, that sense of community existed among slaves, and we saw some of that in 12 Years a Slave but not to mention in Roots. Roots. Hello! It was all about the community developed among slaves. Sankofa, as well, display the community and sense of communal living developed among slaves. Okay, I'm done now.

  • Justin | October 22, 2013 12:24 PM

    I totally agree with you. Maybe the reason there aren't more slave narratives from a slave's perspective is because that the majority of slaves were unfortunately, illiterate, as an affect of the social/economic structure of that time. Something I thought about after seeing the film and I felt was interesting is how a lot of hate and racism in this country stemmed from an economic structure and now that this structure is gone, racism prevails.

  • Walter Harris Gavin | October 21, 2013 9:35 PMReply

    "Black folks want to believe that we would have been a runaway or a rebel. White folks want to believe that they would have been an Abolitionist. We want to deny our relationship to the horror. We want to believe that we are not affected by it. We have learned to be ashamed of our ancestors who were Slaves. Perhaps, the Slave who 'escapes' makes some Black folks more comfortable with the story. Somehow, we need to find pride in this experience that we survived."
    How many "rebels" do we have today. Sure most of us would like to believe in our own heroic nature, but where do we find that heroic nature today? How many of us in our own lives are just trying to get by? What a film like 12 Years A Slave reminds us is that freedom is tenuous and vigilance must be maintained to continue along freedom's path. White supremacy is the enemy. That enemy is still alive 'n well.
    Note: Can't yet comment directly on the film as it hasn't yet opened in my area.

  • Forposts963 | October 21, 2013 9:22 PMReply

    Thank you, Charles Judson. You're spot on. Tambay's embarrassing interview with Steve McQueen and now this article...I'm thinking Shadow and Act may not be what I initially thought it was. I hope I'm wrong. I was excited to find this site a few months ago...

  • CareyCarey | October 21, 2013 11:33 PM

    Comments like yours, FORPOSTS963, have me hollowing " LORD HAVE MERCY... who let the dogs out".

    But lets see how this works for you. An alleged embarrassing interview by the editor of this site (who just happens to post 10 times more articles than any other contributor in the IndieWire network) and this post (by the author whose previous article has received the most comments in the history of IndieWire) has you scratching your head and wondering whether or not you've made the right decision to stop by? Listen, as a long time visitor to this unique community that thousands use as their primary source of what's happening in the world of black cinema, I have to tell you that's the dumbest sh*t I've ever heard in this forum -- and don't let the door hit you in your ass as you leave to find a better place that fits your needs.

  • Tahir | October 21, 2013 8:55 PMReply

    boooooooooooooooooooooooooooo

  • Charles Judson | October 21, 2013 8:26 PMReply

    1. Hard to take this seriously if Tanya isn't even going to take the time to compare the film to the book.

    2. If you're going to take a pseudo-auteur approach to analyzing the film and McQueen's intentions, it would help to read up on the articles and interviews in which McQueen articulated why he used this book as the basis of the film. You don't have to guess. He answered that question weeks ago. Leaving out that he was struggling to develop what became 12 Years, until his wife introduced him to the story, only stunts this discussion.

    3. The repeated critique that a film or any story in general failed to articulate the entire scope of any historical event or institution is more often a disingenuous approach to dissecting a film, than a legitimate critique. All art requires the removal of something, an absence. An absence of text, space or color is inherent in creating anything. So how does one know what piece of a sculpture was removed and which was not, and where those pieces should have gone? One would have to be in the mind of the artist to fully know that.

    In this case, how you do cover the myriad of psychological, legal, social and institutional differences in slavery across North America and the Caribbean? The histories of one family will be radically different than the journey of another. No one film, or series of films will ever be enough.

    What's important is did McQueen authentically tell Northup's story? Of all the complaints between posters and readers on S&A, when it comes to Jimi Hendrix or Nina Simone's stories, hasn't that been the flashpoint for debate? Why the macro approach here? That would seem to be one of the more more logical ways to dive into this film, a continuation of the discussions already started and continuing here? (And you can't knock a film down for not achieving enough and then say call it "A great step." That just reinforces a personal disconnect with the film and not an honest exploration of it as a piece of art on its own.)

    4. I can only read the hyperfocus on the suffering of black women so many times before it begins bordering on the ludicrous. Is it the "plight of Black women in America" that's most important, or that we gain insight into the psyche and emotional journey of black women on screen? At this point, the singular thematic thread connecting much of these posts is how long suffering us "Po Black Folks" have been through American history and still are.

    Lastly, I don't know about this "we need to find pride in this experience that we survived" mantra. Many of us do. We embrace all of it. The good, the bad, and the nasty fugly bullsh*t. You may feel ashamed, or not. However you feel, stop presuming that black folks are uniformly damaged. The problems in our community are much more complex than that, and the legacy of slavery isn't felt in only a handful of ways. Reductive examination leads to reductive solutions which lead to reductive outcomes.

  • Micah | October 22, 2013 10:57 PM

    Charles you have eloquently stated many reasons a lot of us find fault with this review.

  • Bforreal | October 21, 2013 10:51 PM

    Preach! You hit the nail on the head.

  • Nikki | October 21, 2013 8:55 PM

    @Charles I Completely agree with your post. I think people forget that this is one man's story...Solomon Northup. No it's not the ultimate film on Slavery, but it doesn't have to be. Did McQueen tell Solomon's Story? It is pretty faithful to the book, no not every single detail is there, but I think he did Solomon proud.

  • Donella | October 21, 2013 8:04 PMReply

    "Most Americans, who want to deny the horrors of Slavery, want to believe that Slavery wasn't all that bad, that Slavery was something "that happened", "that it is over" and "we need to stop complaining"- are supported by these mythologies. Although a true story, when there are so few voices in this arena, the dominant mythology being delivered, in this film and 'Django Unchained', supports these uninformed beliefs. I suppose one could think, why didn't all Slaves just "write to someone" or "pick up a gun" and get the hell out of it."

    Disagree with you, Tanya.

    12 Years a Slave effectively showed how INESCAPABLE slavery was.

  • SK Abaka | October 21, 2013 7:09 PMReply

    Looking forward to seeing the movie; if it comes even close to Solomin Northup's narrative
    It should be Oscar worthy. The buzz is good.

  • befree | October 21, 2013 6:50 PMReply

    I nominate William and Eliza Parker of the Resistance at Christiana, September 11, 1851. This is the movie I want too see.

    William Parker and the Resistance at Christiana, September 11, 1851
    On this day we remember the Christiana Resistance, the first slave revolt against the Fugitive Slave Laws.

    William Parker, an escaped former slave from Roedown Plantation in Maryland, was an anti-slavery activist and a principal character in the events of September 11, 1851 in Christiana, Pennsylvania The Christiana “Incident” resulted in the death of a Maryland slaveowner. It brought the attention of the country to the perils and challenges of attempting to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.

    Parker had escaped to Christiana, Pennsylvania, near the Maryland border, where he married and settled. Inspired by the speeches of William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, Parker encouraged members from the community to form a mutual protection society. Slave catchers would often come into the area seeking escaped slaves to return to their slaveholders. They were paid handsomely for their services and in many cases would capture freed blacks as well.

    Parker and other members of the mutual protection society were well known for using whatever force necessary to prevent the recapture of blacks in the area. They had a great intelligence network to know when slave catchers were about and would readily spring into action to retrieve any captives before they could be taken back across state lines. If the laws of the country would not protect them, their family, friends and neighbors, then they would protect themselves. :locknload:


    Resisting slavery

    One such incident of resistance occurred on September 11, 1851 when a slaveholder from Maryland, Edward Gorsuch, came bearing a warrant to recover his slaves. Gorsuch had information that his slaves were at Parker’s farmhouse. Parker had received intelligence that Gorsuch, a federal marshal and others were on their way to his farmhouse. So when Gorsuch arrived, Parker and his cohorts were prepared. Eliza, Parker’s wife, sounded a horn alerting neighbors that slave catchers were out and that help was needed. :locknload: Both sides were resolute in their determination to prevail – Parker convinced of the immorality of slavery – Gorsuch confident in the law and his right to own slaves. There are conflicting stories of why and how the shooting started but in the end Gorsuch was dead and his son severely wounded.

    U.S. Marines were brought in to stabilize the situation. There was significant pressure from the South to obtain justice for Gorsuch, the slain white slaveowner. Following an extensive search, a group of 38 men (including four white Quakers) were accused of treason for their defiance of the federal order. All the accused were eventually released, signalling a major win in the fight against slavery and strengthening the resolve of anti-slavery forces across the country.

    Parker went into hiding that fateful evening. Using the underground railroad he later made his way to Rochester, New York where Frederick Douglass assisted him into Canada. He, his wife, and their three children eventually found their way to a black settlement in Buxton, Ontario where they purchased a 50-acre lot of land and had more children.

  • Portia | October 21, 2013 6:28 PMReply

    Tanya, you are such an elegant and lyrical writer. I was immersed in your words, and respect greatly your perspective. I just don't share it.

    I haven't seen the film yet - but I intend to do so this week - so I know that any critique of your piece is not rooted in a true assessment of the film itself - but rather more on everything I've *read* about the film, and the book on which it was based. So I offer that disclaimer.

    I do understand your point about how important it would be to create a film about the slave experience that highlighte the sense of community. However, my understanding is that "community" was not the focal point of Mr. Northrup's own memoir, and to that extent, I've read that the movie is quite faithful to his narrative.

    I will come back and read your piece again when I've seen the film. In the meantime, thank you for a thoughtful and challenging essay.

  • Hov | October 21, 2013 4:55 PMReply

    also which black director alive would have given this film the justice you think it would have benefitted form. It does not matter if its a black Britt or european Britt etc. Slavery was felt all over the place. To suggest that SQ has no frame of reference for understanding black american suffering on the account that he is british is asinine. Is to assume that he never experienced racism
    The black american experience is by far less oppressive than those in Europe. Why do you think they all want to come here and make it. It ain't happening for them out there at the level it is happening. Shit the british were the architects of slavery and to suggest that because he is british black man and not american only screams ethnocentricity on the part of national heritage. But we all come from the same continent. I am glad a white person did do the same exact film and get props for it like the Color Purple, Ray etc. The bottle line is that we as blacks need to step our film game up just like Steve Mc Queen did and do quality work. The work will speak for itself...no more red tails or whatever but good quality work like when spike did Malcom X. Thats what we should be doing.

  • Dede | October 21, 2013 6:42 PM

    Thank you for all of your comments Hov

  • JTC | October 21, 2013 6:41 PM

    "Slavery was felt all over the place."

    Please research chattel slavery in the United States because slavery isn't nearly the same all over the place and the differences in this regard matter.

    "The black american experience is by far less oppressive than those in Europe."

    Please elaborate on this point because I spent several years studying the experiences of blacks in the diaspora and the continent and have never come across anything to suggest anything you are writing is based in fact.

    However, I am in complete agreement that the film game needs to stepped up.

  • Hov | October 21, 2013 4:39 PMReply

    I think your attempt at an academic approach to writing an informed film review missed the mark drastically. Perhaps you were tired but I doubt that since you wrote a lot on a subject that was too much for you to handle. This is the first time we were able to watch a film about a black slave that blacks could actually be appreciative of.. This was not an ordinary slave..he could read write and understood racial politics enough to keep his black ass alive(sounds familiar "Barack Obama. perhaps"). Anyway you went from praising the film to not liking it then back to saying it was ok by your standards and you will accept it even though it did not offer enough suffering..whatever ... I am glad you did not have the honors of interviewing the man himself because you could have suffered a greater "L" than Mr. Tambay. Please no more amateur night with the reviews and interviews S&A. I would not care if you did not like the film however you have to pose a better compelling argument when doing so. Did you read the book at least.

  • Shanae | October 21, 2013 3:57 PMReply

    Wow. So, Tanya Steele is really going to take a beating for this post.

    I understand the point of the article. The focus on enslavement as an escapable reality for African Americans is very, very dangerous. It diminishes the vileness of the institution and dismisses the horrors African Americans endure today as a result of the institution of slavery.

    McQueen's depiction of "12 Years a Slave" is raw and honest. Mr. Solomon Northrup survived because of his hope for a better tomorrow, because he saw his position as an enslaved individual as escapable, because he knew freedom. Others born into enslavement knew of freedom but had not experienced it. Therefore, Northrup's truth and reality, cannot be compared to "Django," which is fictitious. But, even as characters, or caricatures of Black men enslaved, one cannot compare Django to Solomon Northrup because Django's essence is in direct opposition to that of Northrup.

    Moreover, I'd argue that the Solomon Northrup's story would evoke more emotion from white viewers than the story of any other enslaved person who wrote his/her way into freedom and history is secondary. That argument has been made for all "slave narratives," and it is fruitless because of course that was the point! Everything we read has a motive.

    Great article, however. It is always good to see the opinions of those who disagree with the "wave." It offers a great perspective. However, I would think that you would compare apples to apples.

  • Erik W. | October 21, 2013 3:51 PMReply

    I agree there is a "Hollywood Slave Canon". That doesn't anger me actually.

    What does piss me off is that they can have a "Hollywood Slave Canon" but not a "Hollywood Black Hero Canon" or a "Hollywood Black Couple Canon." Add blacks in a "Hollywood Sci-Fi Black Lead Canon."

    The one with slavery is the one that is allowed and that is what pisses me off. Why are the others out the question? Why are they put down as the ones "no one will see" at the pre-production stage. Yet, slavery films we just MUST support and they get the OK for distribution. Stories of us being servants fall into this as well.

    They want to see us in the context that makes them comfortable and that is bullshit. THAT is why many say they are SICK of slave films.

  • Dean Treadway | October 24, 2013 7:21 PM

    Here's a list of great, often black-directed films about the African-American experience that DO have black couples, and black heroes, in case you're interested:

    Killer of Sheep, Eve’s Bayou, Nothing But A Man, Shadows, Do The Right Thing, Cotton Comes to Harlem, Cooley High, Menace II Society, Sidewalk Stories, Hoop Dreams, Bird, Round Midnight, She's Gotta Have It, A Soldier's Story, The Watermelon Man, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Pinky, Imitation of Life, One False Move, Green Pastures, The Jackie Robinson Story, To Sleep With Anger, Daughters of the Dust, Coffy, Richard Pryor Live in Concert, Sankofa, City of God, Car Wash, A Raisin in the Sun, Lady Sings The Blues, Dead Presidents, The Learning Tree, Roots, Greased Lightning, Carmen Jones, Blue Collar, Shaft, Hustle and Flow, Barber Shop, Foxy Brown, The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings, Waiting to Exhale, Far from Heaven, Deep Cover, Devil in a Blue Dress, Glory, Sounder, How High, Malcolm X (the documentary), King: From Memphis to Montgomery, Fresh, Wattstax, and Boyz N The Hood...just for starters...

  • scripttease | October 22, 2013 12:06 AM

    .... and Dancing.

  • Agreed | October 21, 2013 8:58 PM

    The best statement on this post. Add comedies to the mix as well. Black lead characters seem to only be allowed to exist unless they are suffering or laughing. Sad.

  • scripttease | October 21, 2013 8:30 PM

    Two thumbs up!!!!

  • dancelover51 | October 21, 2013 3:27 PMReply

    This is about the dumbest most ill informed reviews I have ever read. I am wondering if "Tanya Steele" even read the book. This film is one of the best book to screen adaptations I have ever seen. Solomon Northrup, the man not an imaginary character, was different and a lone slave because he had experienced freedom. His mindset was not that of a slave who had known no other life.

    I knew there would be some Black person complaining as usual. We finally get a great movie from the POV of the victim with an unflinching eye at the brutality of an institution. I am disgusted that you even mention Django and 12YAS in the same sentence when these are two completely unrelated stories. That is something those of simple thought would do.

  • Bforreal | October 21, 2013 11:01 PM

    100% truth. Thank you!

  • Dede | October 21, 2013 6:44 PM

    So true Dancelover51, so TRUE!! SMDH!!! This was a simple a-- review!

  • mj | October 21, 2013 3:26 PMReply

    i think it is also ridiculous that you request the need for a black american director, the most important thing is a good quality product

  • JTC | October 21, 2013 4:57 PM

    I remember living the Bay Area. I had a group of Lakota friends who told me of a tragedy that happened within their community and I decided that I wanted to make a documentary about it. When I presented my idea about this documentary, I had a number of individuals who looked at me funny. I was told that the natives could handle such a documentary themselves. Of course, none of them made any issues about documentaries made about the African American community made by whites. And of course, they struggled to see the hypocrisy in their judgmental perspective towards me.

    It is a question I have struggled with over the years.

    However, even the best artists have limitations and blind spots. At issue is the depth of this perspective, it is crucial to consider how seemingly innocuous factors, such as camera height, subjective camera, lens choice, framing, visual symbolism/metaphor even color correction can reflect those blind spots. Some filmmakers may want to prove that they are not afraid of showing the abhorrent violence of slavery and thus violence becomes featured beyond its true importance. Some filmmakers may feel shame about the institution of slavery such that they try to shy away from the violence.

    The hope, I think, is that a Black American director can hopefully bring a connection of the material that will allow for the possibility of balance. However, this director would not only require a mastery of technical film craft. They would need to have a love and respect for their slave ancestor. For example, the individuals who were in captivity in such films would be intelligent but such a film shouldn't be concern about proving our intelligence (a common concern for many of our people).

    Ultimately, there is still a considerable amount of self hate within our community and thus the films said individuals would make would reflect that self hate. But an individual with knowledge of history, self awareness and mastery of craft would make for a very different film.

  • James | October 21, 2013 3:21 PMReply

    I think it's time for All Gods Children to get up on the big screen. If the director used Godfather 2 story structure it can work. If you aren't familiar with the book it traces Willie Boskets family roots back to slavery while also showing how today's American violent nature comes out of the institution of slavery. It's a terrific read. It shows how despite the atrocious reality of slavery there was love. Obviously the film would have to show Willie Boskets ancestors meeting and falling in love. The director would have to have scenes like Godfather 2 where it's Boskets great grandparents and his grandmother as a child doing what young parents do. (those scenes humanized a mobster, they would worked wonders in this context).

    Also the connection of honor/respect and how it leaped from master to slave was brilliant. That's the story America needs to see. No "exceptional" Negros just the raw story of everyday slaves whose perseverance is why I'm here today.

  • THE TRUTH | October 21, 2013 3:14 PMReply

    "Will we ever see, on the big screen, a film about slavery that shows the community, the survival bonds, the working together of Slaves in the interest of their freedom or survival?"

    How about not seeing ANY more slavery films? Works for me...

  • Dean Treadway | October 24, 2013 7:14 PM

    Well, in the history of movies, I can only think of a few films that deal in any way with the slave experience in the US. Barring films like GONE WITH THE WIND or JEZABEL (in which the slaves are adjuncts to the white characters' stories), I can think of DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST, AMISTAD, SANKOFA, BELOVED, the silent version of UNCLE TOM'S CABIN, THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MISS JANE PITTMAN, THE BIRTH OF A NATION, ROOTS (TV, yes, but I think it counts), MANDINGO, DJANGO UNCHAINED and, if you wanna stretch it, GLORY and THE COLOR PURPLE. So arguably 12 movies--and now, with McQueen's, 13...not really a lot to choose from there, so I definitely think there's room for more stories to be told. Unless you really don't CARE about the slave experience and would rather it never be mentioned again...in which case...well, man, I totally dunno what to say to that that won't cause any arguments...

  • CareyCarey | October 21, 2013 8:04 PM

    @ The Truth, although I don't share your opinion on the stoppage of slavery films, I am feeling your disdain for the "woe is we" crowd. That's right, I have no idea what Dancelover51 is referring to when she said "White people across this country are re-writing text books trying to erase the horror they inflicted on human beings for hundreds of years". REALLY!? Are we then to believe movies such as "12 years" is the antidote? If so, that's going to be a mighty big campfire. You know, as all them white folks re-write all the text books, we'll surely be required to turn in the thousands of text book (on slavery) that's already in print. You know, something on the order of 1773 Boston Tea Party, but instead of destroying imported tea, we'll destroy every book that speaks of the horrors of slavery (in a big bonfire) replacing them with GOOD slave movies and those new re-writes Dancelover's referring to.

    Yep, silly isn't it, case closed, white folks win. That reminds me, what with this goofy insistence that WE need to show slavery in all it's violence. Please, as I've said before, "If you don't know me (slavery) by now, you will never ever know me". So I just don't get it. What's to be gained by watching MORE slave films with MORE graphic scenes of violence, torture, rape and degradation? Damn, I thought movies were an entertainment tool, not a 5th grade history 101 class.

  • THE TRUTH | October 21, 2013 3:39 PM

    @dancelover51

    Hey Genius, you missed my point. Most hollywood slave narratives are written and directed by white folks anyway. The narrative is tired because there are a disproportionate number of slave movies (and comedies) out relative to other types of black films. So yeah, feel free to wallow in your victim mentality. I'd like to see black sci-fi & suspense thrillers myself...

  • dancelover51 | October 21, 2013 3:32 PM

    This is about the dumbest comment I have read on this site. While you are a hopin' and a prayin' that no more "slave" films get made(meanwhile there have been very few), White people across this country are re-writing text books trying to erase the horror they inflicted on human beings for hundreds of years. Letting human traffickers have the last say is not something we can afford to do. If they made a movie about every slave who was the victim of the longest holocaust in history, it will be too few movies for me!

  • Mtume Gant | October 21, 2013 2:56 PMReply

    I really don't understand how the idea of Slavery being escapable the author came up with from seeing 12 Years, if anything the film is an example of Slavery couldn't be escaped with Solomon being captured and made into one for one and then when he is finally able to legally get away every other Slave has to stay. McQueen I thought made that amazingly clear in that scene where Soloman had to leave Patsy, sadly behind because she and her lot could not be let go.

    Also I find it dangerous the amount of nationality suggestions the author is making here, like McQueen says Slavery was a world institution, I think most modern black audiences would relate more to Soloman because none of us have known Slavery, it was the perfect non contrived in. This need for a black "American" director to do one now is kinda hogwash, all tha matters is if they are Black, the nationalism stuff is ridiculous

  • Bforreal | October 21, 2013 11:04 PM

    "if anything the film is an example of Slavery couldn't be escaped with Solomon being captured and made into one for one and then when he is finally able to legally get away every other Slave has to stay." Exactly! My god, it looked like a completely inescapable system and that Solomon only managed to get very very lucky when he met the Canadian. This reviewer, Tanya, seemed to miss the entire point of the film. A less inescapable hell I've rarely seen depicted in a film.

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