12 Years a Slave

Around 3am this morning I woke up slightly, a sliver of a crack of consciousness cleft my sleep. Into that sliver the thin end of thinking slipped, and the image that came to mind was the scene of 12 Years a Slave where a mother and her children are separated in a slave market. And the hint of that image forced its way deeper and deeper into my mind, widening the crack in my sleep and now I am awake, and suffering. 

At the moment that I watched the scene itself, I remember clearly thinking that I should feel more sadness, more outrage than what I was feeling. Something about the way the scene was filmed or its context left me unmoved. In fact something about the whole film seemed to operate more on my intellect than on my emotion. But, I am realizing now, the whole film was simply secreting itself into some part of my mind from where it could launch a surprise attack.

The film in an unrelenting grind of evil, leavened only by the dubious decency of one slave owner, Ford, who sees and treats the individual slaves as humans but somehow does not or will not see the system as detestable. There are no heroes, no respite from the misery, no hope for redemption. I know the Civil War came and ended slavery, but in this film, hope as I did for that to be the ending, hope as I did to see the plantation owners and their rotten wives killed, maimed and worse, we are awarded no gratification.

So Solomon Northup, from beyond the grave, woke me up at 3am this morning and forced me to think about the poor woman who is separated from her children, themselves separated from each other, each to live unspeakable things at the hands of these filthy southerners. And her end, as far as the film is concerned is to be forcibly removed from the plantation of the “good” slave owner Ford because she cries to much, and to be cast out into some kind of oblivion.

But the person who really encapsulates the oppression, the real meaning of what it is to be property and at the same time human, is Patsy, owned by Fassbender’s character Epps. She is raped on a regular basis, raped and subject to his weird sexual appetites and, at the same time, worked, worked hard. And beaten, beaten and savaged by the jealous wife of Epps, beaten by Epps too when he is cornered, although at first he can’t do it and has Solomon do it. She says to Solomon “I have no comfort in this world” as she begs him to end her life, to drown her. But he doesn’t, it would have been too easy. Too easy on us, the people forced to think about the never ending suffering, suffering undiluted by even a crumb of joy, suffering that makes death look not appealing but like paradise.

How can someone make a film with no heroes, with no climactic scene of rescue, where the sword of righteousness smites the bad guys? I had the strongest urge to watch Django Unchained and savor the revenge, the hand of justice making things right, to enjoy in a deeper way the line where Django tells Schultz in answer to his question about whether he’d like to be a bounty hunter: “Killwhite people and get paid for it? What’s not to like?”

Surprisingly, those two films have a slightly surreal point of contact in their dialogue and one which links them together in the way I wish they were linked, the way I wish one could flow into the other so that I could sleep at night. When Solomon is lying in the hall of Ford’s house after having been hanging in a noose on the verge of strangulation all day and pleas for Ford to help him gain his freedom, Ford says to him ““You are an exceptional nigger, Platt, But I fear no good can come of it.” In Django, Calvin Candie, the fictional mandingo fighting aficionado gives a lecture about phrenology in which he uses the phrase “Say, one nigger that just pops up in ten thousand, the exceptional nigger.” Later on, when Django is laying waste to Candie Land and all its inhabitants, he tells Stephen, the black ‘Capo’ that “Every single word that came outta Calvin Candie’s mouth was nothin’ but horseshit but he was right about one thing. I am that one nigger in ten thousand.” So the exceptional, truly exceptional, from one film, who can do nothing, in the end, but save himself after 12 years in captivity with the help of a Canadian, is avenged by Tarantino’s 1 in 10,000.

But let me leave my little justice fantasy, and go back to the matter of 12 Years a Slave. The problem, for me, with the movie is that it resembles real life too much. A few days ago, I was driving in a slightly unfamiliar part of Beirut and I saw a family-a man, his wife and at least 4 or 5 children, crouching under a highway overpass. They were not doing anything, not begging, not selling Chiclets, not really engaging with the traffic or passersby in any way. It was as if I had stumbled across them in their domestic life, and I had. I was and still am shaken. It’s rare to come across the clearly needy who are not asking for something or hawking something. It is rare to come across such deep and authentic misery in full face, at least it is for me. By the time I had absorbed the scene, I was probably already a couple of kilometers away. I thought I should go back and look for them and try to help them. But I did not. Partly, I was not sure how to get back there, but that was a minor hurdle, and partly its because the immensity of what was needed was somehow be overwhelming to me. Not only could I not materially help these people, this single family, but they were the tip of a million person iceberg: A million destitute people.

A million people who were poor before the war in Syria drove them out of their homes and forced them to leave behind the little they had. The war that sent them to Lebanon, which, to its credit has been as generous as a country like this can, beautiful country to offer some kind of shelter to over a million people when we can barely house and water our own. They came to Lebanon and here they are doubly poor because not only have they lost the little status and little wealth they had at home, but they have come to a place where even that little is would be completely worthless if they had it, and of course they do not.

And in slaves, I see that family. They are people who have no control over their destiny, people who do not choose where to eat, what to eat, when to eat. They do not have a bed that is dirty only with their own dirt. And beyond that, they are people for whom there is no end in sight. How will they educate their children? What is their route to a decent life? They may be free, but what freedom is theirs when their only remaining choice is to huddle under a highway bridge? Tell me!

Now it is after 5 am. That movie has carried me from deepest night to dawn. Soon I’ll have some coffee and start another day in my world, so disconnected from their world.


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