I just came back from one of the more surreal movie-going experiences of my life.
I drove up to my hometown of Brunswick to see 12 Years a Slave — it’s only showing at the Eveningstar Cinema, a little one-screen theatre that not only every small town should have, but if you’re ever visiting in Maine, please take time out from your vacation to see a movie here. There is only one screen, so you’re at the mercy of what they’re showing, but if you get there early enough, you can grab one of the couches (yes, couches) that make up the front two rows — and they’re still far enough away from the screen that you won’t hurt your neck. The popcorn is freshly-popped, and you have to pay three bucks for a soda, but it’s a soda in a bottle and not a piddly-assed small cup that the chains give you. They primarily show limited runs of arty films, but it’s worth it; trust me.
And right now, it’s the only place that’s showing 12 Years a Slave at a reasonable time. I also made the decision, in full disclosure time, that I was not going to break my neck to catch either Her, Nebraska, August: Osage County, or Philomena. I’m sure they’re all fine films, but let’s be real: they’re probably not going to win any awards. All I have left to watch is Dallas Buyer’s Club, and I bought that on DVD so I didn’t have to drive to Massachusetts, and I’ll watch that tomorrow afternoon.
So back to my 12 Years a Slave story. I enter the theater, and aside from three Bowdoin neurology students or whatever, I was the youngest one there. And everyone else in the theatre was easily over fifty. Not that there’s anything wrong with fifty – my parents, my faux parents, and one of my best friends are all over fifty.
Oh, I should mention before I get any farther: here lie spoilers. Spoilers be ahead. If you want to see 12 Years a Slave knowing nothing about it beyond its title, for the love of God, stop reading here.
Also, I’m going to talk a lot about slavery, history, and perception. I am going to give this disclaimer up front: I don’t know what to think. I have a lot of questions going around in my head, and unfortunately, I’m sure that none of them are politically correct. But I’m going to try to … if not answer them, at least come to some sort of .. consensus isn’t the right word. Rationalization isn’t right either. Look, I’m just talking some shit out, and I’ll be honest, I’m most likely talking out of my ass. Please don’t be offended, but also, if my essay-slash-question-slash-whatever inspires you to comment, that’s great; but I don’t respond to anger. I will not be talked down to, and neither will I be yelled at. If you want to be responded to, please just be nice. Because there is a difference between “freedom of speech” and “intent to offend, insult, and/or harm.” And that’s it for my soapbox (for now).
So anyway, here’s what happened: at every instance of violence, someone would gasp. After Solomon was beaten for doing exactly what he was told, he flipped and started beating his overseer. The overseer and two of his friends had Solomon strung up and was almost killed when the foreman saves him. However, Solomon must still be punished (as a slave cannot beat his overseer), so his toes are allowed to touch the ground, but he is not removed from the tree until the end of the day. For the rest of the day, he is just about two inches away from being lynched. We see the other slaves and members of the plantation go about their business: tending to the laundry, picking vegetables for dinner, putting the horses away. And always in frame is the image of Solomon struggling to keep himself from strangling.
The woman sitting behind me chose that moment to say, “This is a bleak movie.”
I am very proud of myself: I greatly resisted the urge to turn around and ask her what she expected. I mean, when you go see a movie titled 12 Years a Slave, did you think it was going to be a happy film? Did you think that the worst was going to be like the first five minutes of Blazing Saddles?
And the film didn’t ease up from there. Solomon attempts to coerce a man who appears sympathetic to his plight (remember: Solomon, a free man from Syracuse, was kidnapped and sold into slavery. He has no way to prove his freedom) into mailing a letter to notify his family and friends. Instead, the man tells Epps, the slave-owner, and pockets Solomon’s money. Luckily, Solomon is able to escape being killed as he insinuates that the other man (who is a white drunkard on hard times) is just trying to stir up trouble to be hired as an overseer. When we learn that the drunkard has ratted Solomon out, I would say half the audience gasped and/or sighed in disgust; how could he do that? How could he take his money and not help Solomon?
And it’s a great thing that we were all cursing the drunkard — I mean, with our twenty-first century eyes, it is very easy to say that that’s not what we would have done; we know better. We know that slavery was wrong, and if we had a slave come to us in the middle of the night, swearing us to secrecy and then paying us money just to deliver a letter, what would we have done? We would take the money, protect his secret, and mail the letter. Hell, we probably wouldn’t even take his money. We would just help him, because we are honest, forthright people.
But back in Louisiana in the 1840s, slaves weren’t people. Slaves were just the equipment needed to get the cotton picked, or the church built, or the railroad tracks laid down. And if a slave came up to you and you saw money in his hand, and you’re a white man with no job and a crippling addiction to whiskey, what would you do? You’d pocket the money and then try and get in good with the slave-owner; maybe he’ll reward your loyalty with an overseer position. And the slave would be dead; it’s no worse than needing to buy a new hammer, after all.
The final breaking point of the film is the brutal whipping scene. Epps is infatuated with Patsey, a slave who can outpick every other slave on Epps’s team of cotton pickers. Epps’s wife knows of his infatuation, and won’t give Patsey any soap in the form of passive-aggressive retaliation. Patsey used her free Sunday to go to a neighboring plantation in order to get soap. There are multitudinous reasons why Epps doesn’t believe Patsey, but the end result is a four-minute-long take wherein Patsey is stripped naked, tied to a post, and whipped – first by Solomon, but when it appears he is not whipping her at his full strength, Epps takes the whip and beats the poor girl.
The audience is subject to one of the most emotionally-violent scenes I can remember: we see Patsey’s tears, Epps’s brutality, and blood spurting off her back from the whip. Finally, the punishment is over, and Solomon unties Patsey; the soap she so brutally won drops from her hands. She never let it go throughout the duration of the beating.
When Patsey is laid on a table and the other slaves take the time to clean her wounds, her back is a maze of welts and sores. At the sight of it, the woman behind me starts sobbing. Outright wailing.
Now, I have been to many movies, and I thought there was nothing more awkward than seeing a movie with friends (or your parents) and finding moments where tears roll down your cheeks. Like seeing Brave, or Up, and just being punched in the gut with ~feels – what do you do? You sniff and pretend you’re having an allergy attack. Or you yawn loudly, struggling against the impulse to sniffle, and pretend you’re wiping your eyes because you’re tired. Everybody, I’m sure — unless you have a heart of stone — has had those moments. How do you keep your friends from seeing you cry in public?
Well, God bless this woman, because she did not have any conscious ability to mask her emotions. She was bawling. She could not control herself. And I felt sorry for her, and I wished I had tissues or something to give her. But all I could do — all I did — was continue to face forward and try to watch the rest of the film.
Please note – I was not angry at her emotional response. I was just … awkward. It’s not like having teenagers sitting behind you talking and texting throughout a movie; this woman was overcome with emotion, and she just couldn’t help it.
But at this moment, I’m not sure why she was crying. I mean, I get that it was a visceral reaction on her part – she was clearly overcome by the imagery of the violence, and she probably couldn’t disconnect that what she was seeing on-screen was a woman acting underneath pounds of putty and dyed corn syrup. I’ve seen a lot of movies, and I’ve worked backstage on a production of Macbeth that had enough fake blood that Buster Bluth would have killed multiple hookers. (That’s an Arrested Development reference.) I’m able to disconnect and see the “movie magic.” It’s possible that she couldn’t, and that’s totally fine.
Because here’s my big question: was she crying at the movie, or at the realization that all this happened to real people? I watched this film, and while I learned about slavery in school, it was all in abstract terms. Slaves were lynched; slaves were raped; slaves were treated worse than property. It doesn’t register as you’re learning about these events what they mean: it means that people were lynched; people were raped; people were treated worse than property. I mean, in this day and age, we were taught that slaves were people and slavery was a disgusting blemish on American history (that isn’t too pristine to begin with, but that’s a whole ‘nother essay for a whole ‘nother time). But depending on where you grew up and when, you may have been taught that the Civil War was actually started over tariffs and taxes and not slavery.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what triggered this woman to start bawling. I just wonder: is it the movie, or the realization of history? Because I have a feeling that there are probably many more people who had almost the same reaction, but they’re going to blame the movie: “Oh, that movie was so violent. I can’t believe they showed that!” “Can you believe that character wouldn’t help Solomon?” “Why wouldn’t anyone cut him down from the tree? That was a horrible scene!”
But what those people forget is this: this was based on a true story. While the events we’re seeing may have some poetic license taken, the likelihood that these scenes actually happened to slaves is very, very high. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that they absolutely did happen. Maybe not to the real Solomon or the real Patsey, but I am sure that there were slaves that were beaten to death for worse infractions than leaving the plantation on their free day to get soap. I know that female slaves were raped by their owners. I know that there were some slave-owners who owned slaves out of necessity; they were equipment, but they were also people. Those owners provided a place of worship and a hammock to sleep in, and protection from the elements. There were also men sympathetic to the plights of slaves living in the South, who would help a free man that had been kidnapped into slavery.
I know that when I watched the movie, I was horrified that these events happened, and we were only seeing the reality of it now. And I think that scared some other people in the theatre with me tonight. The thought that there were human beings not even two hundred years ago that were treating slaves with such violence; it’s disgusting that that’s where parts of this country came from.
And through this film, those once-abstract constructs became real. That man was lynched. That woman was raped. Those people were thought of as property. People owned other people.
So why is she crying: is she crying at the horrible plight of millions of people who populated this country? Or is she crying because one film dared show the reality of that plight?
I don’t know. I’m not a psychiatrist; neither am I a scholar. I’m just a lazy slob who watches entirely too much television. I’m not trying to find the answers of the world; I’m just trying to make sense of a crying woman where sense probably can’t be made.
I hope she finds peace. I hope she goes home and puts in a movie that will comfort her. I hope a lot of things.
Here’s what I know:
12 Years a Slave will win Best Picture*, and Lupita Nyong’o will win Best Supporting Actress.
*unless Dallas Buyers Club blows me away. But I’ll know more about that tomorrow.