(The Root) — On Friday I had what I thought was a brilliant idea. With a busy two days ahead, and a director friend insisting that the first day of a movie's opening weekend counted more than the other days, I would catch a late-night showing of 12 Years a Slave.
I mentioned my plans to a friend, Bravo's Bevy Smith, whom I bumped into at a restaurant before the show. She had already seen 12 Years at a press screening.
"You're going to see that tonight?!" she bellowed. "Tonight?! You might want to wait till morning and have a day to process."
I saw Roots, the (until recently) definitive depiction of enslaved Africans, last year and still managed to feel like carrying on even though everyone told me I wouldn't for a few days. I said as much to Bevy, who retorted, "Roots? Ha! 12 Years makes Roots look like Disneyland."
She was exaggerating, surely. So I ignored her warning, and did what I set out to do. Twenty minutes into 12 Years a Slave, after Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is beaten into submission in a way similar to how Kunta became Toby, I sank lower into my seat and muttered to myself, "Self, you should have listened to Bevy."
12 Years a Slave is more than a film; it's a cinematic experience. As I'm sure you've read by now in the many fawning reviews, it's beautifully shot and brilliantly done. Director Steve McQueen, a black Brit by way of Grenada, was an artist in a past profession, and his high-art stamp is all over the film, especially in his lingering gazes at punishments for the enslaved men and women, punishments that far outweigh their "crimes."
There's also superb acting, notably from Ejiofor as Northup and film newcomer Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey, a young woman with exceptional cotton-picking skills who is caught between her master's lust and her mistress's jealousy. Both actors have been touted as Oscar nominees, with Nyong'o, a recent graduate of Yale University''s School of Drama, expected to challenge Oprah Winfrey for her role in Lee Daniels' The Butler.
As good as 12 Years is, it is also the most awful experience I have ever had in a theater. At that same 20-minute mark where I acknowledged I should have waited to see it, I also wanted to walk out. As an unflinching look at the brutality of slavery, 12 Years is hard to take. Others stories of slavery such as Roots, Django Unchained and Amistad allow for moments of light or catharsis throughout or at their conclusion; 12 Years doesn't. It's unrelenting and harrowing, and it beats up the audience as much as it does the characters, then does it again and again before there's time to heal.
Even when Northup is rescued — no secret, given the film's title — there's little relief. He's free again, but what about all the others, the millions of enslaved black people, including and especially Patsey, who are left behind? Even though the entire audience is rooting for his escape, it's impossible to cheer when he does.
After the film, I sat in my seat and watched the credits roll along with my friend and the rest of the half-full theater. I wasn't so interested in the names on the screen; rather, I was too shell-shocked to move. If there's one criticism I have of the film, it's that it doesn't show what happens next to Northup once he is free. We know that he releases a book. (Those who have read it know that he unsuccessfully sued the men who kidnapped him.)
But I was more curious as to how any person who went through his experience is OK or even functional afterward. How does he reinsert himself into his family or into society? Does he sleep at night? Does he feel survivor's guilt? Does he ever regain the easygoing nature he had before he was captured? There are modern-day convicted felons who do less time with far less struggle and don't adjust. How does Northup?
When I finally left the theater, I walked my friend to her car and promised to hop in a cab to Brooklyn. Instead, I wandered, aimlessly, really, from Lincoln Center to Times Square (20 blocks) trying to (poorly) process what I had just seen. I thought about the remnants of slavery that still exist in our community, the way some black folk can't shake the tendency to consider "but how will white people react?" I thought about whether, though unshackled and legally whole, if black folk are really truly free. And I thought a lot about Patsey and black women's still, um, "special" relationship with white women, sometimes "sisters" in struggles, and other times competitors in work, life and love.
I thought a lot about subjects that I still haven't resolved. But mostly, I just felt empty and exhausted. 12 Years a Slave brought up a lot questions and a lot of anger, but offered few — if any — answers and no resolutions. I keep reading personal reviews about what an important film it is, how it is to black people what Schindler's List was to Jewish people, and every black person should see it. But I find myself wishing I hadn't, at least not without a therapist or African-American studies professor on hand.