Monday, January 20, 2014

Why 12 Years a Slave Should Win Best Picture

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

My dad loves movies. He would prefer not to go alone, but he will. But he loves it when I can join him. He loves to see every recommended flick out there. As a result, I have had this wonderful opportunity to enjoy more movies this year.

Last night, he invited me to come and see 12 Years A Slave at the Broadway Theatre downtown.

For those of you keeping up with the Oscar nominated movies, this is the favorite to win.

12 Years a Slave is not one of those movies that you WANT to see. I wasn't excited to see it. But it is something you NEED to see.

Lest the title is confusing--it is a movie about a man who is a slave for 12 years.

Why is this important?

Because he is NOT a slave at any other time.

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northrup, a free black man who has a thriving career as a musician. He lives in a beautiful home with his wife and two children. He is educated and respected among his friends and neighbors in upstate New York.

And then he is kidnapped and made a slave for 12 years.

Michael Fassbender plays Epps, the man who purchases Solomon Northrup.

He lives in a world where he sees slaves as property.

They are things. They are animals.

To imagine a world where a black man might be free and educated is beyond his capacity. Is he wicked if he is unable to imagine what he has taken from the man? If he is unable to imagine his slaves in freedom, then is he guilty?

In every moment where a slave exhibits human ingenuity, a human need, or frailty, he returns them to their state of pathetic apathy through torture.

Lupita N'yongo plays Patsy. She is a slave who has never known anything else. She grew up picking cotton, and while the men are expected to pick 200 pounds a day, she picks at least 500 pounds a day.

One day, Patsy disappears and returns with a bar of soap. While Epps yells at her for being gone for an hour, she tries to explain her need to clean her awful stink from the work that she does day in and out. She simply wants to be clean. It's a simple human desire. Rather than recognizing and understanding it, Epps squashes her need with a brutal whipping.

Each of these people have a different frame of reference by which they see the world and by which they see themselves in the world. Through their contact with one another, each person's worldview is enlarged to provide opportunity for evolution. Patsy sees the educated Solomon and she discovers that she is not prized cattle, but an abused woman. Epps fights his evolution as he spouts scriptures that support his worldview.

My favorite moment in the film is a long shot of Solomon towards the end of the movie.

It is subtle, brilliant, and it tells the whole story in one achingly long shot of Solomon's face.

You see his face on the left side of the screen. The whole right side is open.

At first his face is turned toward the left--the beginning. The light shines on his face, and because we read from left to right, there is a subconscious understanding that the light represents the joy of his beginnings. After looking with longing to his left at the light, his face slowly turns forward as he acknowledges his present. Immediately his face darkens and his eyes grow hard and wet. You expect him to turn toward the right, but he never does. He can't. The right indicates the future. And the future is either filled with horror, or the possibility of hope. Hope is not allowed. Hope will break you. And so he simply stares forward, facing only the present.

It is perfect.

Our world is filled with people who live in their own world. We each see ourselves differently. And we find ourselves with opportunities to evolve and expand these views as we come in contact with different people. We can fight against it and reduce ourselves and others, or we can allow ourselves to learn, and to see through different eyes. Allowing for growth does not make us wishy washy. It does not make God changing. We learn line upon line. As we learn one another's stories, our intelligence expands, our capacity for love expands.

This movie is not comfortable. It is not entertaining. It is necessary.

And it should win best picture.

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