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The film 12 Years a Slave – a conversation
17 February 2014. A World to Win News Service. 12 Years a Slave is one of the most important films people in many countries are seeing and talking about today. It is based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup, a Black musician in the state of New York, who in 1841 was kidnapped and sold into slavery. After winning major awards in the U.S., the British Film Academy (Bafta) recently named it the best British film of the year, and lead Chiwetel Ejiofor best actor. (Steve McQueen, whose breakthrough as a director came with his 2008 film Hunger, about the Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands, and Ejiofar are both British of African diaspora background). After opening in North America in late 2013, it is now playing throughout Europe and South America and will soon be released in some countries in the Middle Est and Asia.
Following are excerpts from a far-ranging and detailed conversation on this film with Carl Dix of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA. It appeared in issue no. 330 (17 February 2014) of the RCP newspaper Revolution (revcom.us).
Carl Dix: It’s very important and very fine that millions of people are seeing this story about slavery, seeing this story about the history of this country, the real history of this country, and a movie that is very well done, is based in the reality of slavery with a cast… and basically people behind the picture who really felt like this story needed to get out. I mean everybody from the director to the screenwriter to the people in it felt like we need to have this story out and watched by millions of people in this country. And then the way that they did it and brought to life the brutality, the dehumanization that characterized slavery I thought was – it was just astounding. Here’s a free man getting kidnapped into slavery, waking up in chains and then finding himself with others, some of whom are in a similar situation, and others of whom were enslaved already and were being sold down the river, down to Louisiana where it’s kind of like there is no way out of this.
And then there’s the things that he’s going through, and then there’s the things that all of the people who are enslaved are going through – like the ripping apart of the family right at the beginning and the cavalier way in which it’s done and related to by the people involved in the slave trade on different ends from that initial buyer, and the seller. The woman lands at the plantation and is sobbing about her kids and the mistress says, “You’ll get over it. It’ll go away in a short while.” Like it doesn’t really matter to you, you’re not really human so it won’t bother you that long that your kids were ripped away from you and you have no idea where they ended up and what fate awaits them.
And then even some of the things that might in one sense seem smaller but actually have their own significance… like when the family was being ripped apart actually the guy who was buying the mother was trying to persuade him to cut him a deal and he’d take the kids. And the guy was kind of like… I forget the exact term he used, but his humanity extended to the edge of a coin. In other words, “oh yeah, I’ve got humanity but that’s trumped by the fact that this is property and I’m out to get the best return on that property and if you can’t match it then, yes, I will take these children, I will send them to who the hell knows where because that’s what this is about. That’s what this is based on and it trumps any other considerations.”
And then the way that people were forced not only to endure brutality, but even if it wasn’t like you were directly experiencing it you did experience it because you had to watch as this stuff goes down, you had to live your life and know that there is nothing you could do about it. And this comes out in several scenes: the scene where Solomon is forced to whip Patsey and he doesn’t want to do it but then it’s like we’ll both get whipped if I don’t and she’s saying I’d prefer you to do it to him doing it, so then he does it but he’s kind of not really unleashing it and then it’s like “I’ll kill you and every other Black person, every other person I own, every other slave of mine, if you don’t do it.” So it’s like you’ve got no choice. And then other people have to watch that.
Revolution: Could we go back for a little to the beginning of the film? From the very beginning he’s a slave and you see what’s going on. And then they pull back to how he got there. There’s been a lot of movies where slaves are kind of in it or part of it, or it’s even about slavery but the main characters were not the slaves actually. The main characters were other people and then this question of slavery came up. This one was his story and you start out by being where he is as a slave.
CD: Yeah, that is actually very important because I guess there’s an argument in the film industry that you can’t do that. You can’t center a film on the experience of those who are enslaved. Or in other situations, too, the same thing is brought up: well, we can’t center it on the experience of those being oppressed and brutalized, we have to figure another way to do the story and come at it from the eyes of maybe someone sympathetic to that. And while there are things that can be accomplished in that framework – it’s not like it’s always bad to do that – in this film you were right there with Solomon. He wakes up in chains and you’re feeling that.
It actually reminded me of a Richard Pryor skit about where Black humour came from. I think it’s in his Bicentennial album and he says: “You all know where Black humour started, don’t you? It started in the slave ships. There’s two guys in there rowing and one of them starts laughing and the other one says: what’s funny? And the other guy says: Yesterday I was a king.” And it’s not the same thing, but it’s like yesterday he was a free man playing the fiddle, enjoying life with his family, a respected member of the community, and then he wakes up in chains. And then he starts to protest and they’re going to beat into him that this is now your station and whatever you were yesterday, right now you’re our property. You maybe used to be Solomon, but you ain’t no more, you’re no longer Solomon Northup, we’re going to give you a name and you have a new station and there is nothing you can do about it.
And then you’re there right next to the brutality, and you can’t do anything about it. Like in the scene where one of the whites, Tibeats, gets into it with Solomon over Solomon not following his instructions to the letter – he had had it in for him for a while because he felt like “this is a slave who does not know his place, he does not recognize my superiority” – even over the thing about where they are going to take the produce, the wood, by water. And it’s like: “Oh you can’t do that. And here is this enslaved person challenging my authority – and then even worse, proving me wrong.” And that’s an affront to slavery – a Black man, property, standing up to a white man – Tibeats is the part owner of Solomon; the other guy, Ford, holds a mortgage on Solomon. So when Solomon refuses to be beaten and fights back, that’s a potential killing offense, and he comes with his people to take Solomon’s life for this affront, and the only thing that saved Solomon’s life at that point was that he was valuable property to Ford.
So they’re not allowed to kill him. But he does get strung up and it’s just torture. Because he basically had to be on his tiptoes to keep from being strangled, hog-tied, and he’s left there for what seemed like a prolonged period. I don’t know how much was the elapsed time but it seemed like a prolonged period of time. Then everybody else, all the other people who were enslaved, had to go about their life around that. Everyone knew that they couldn’t go in and cut him down. I mean, one woman comes and gives him water, and she even does it kind of on the sly, looking out to see if she’s being watched because even this, even giving water to a person in that situation, could be seen as an affront.
So this is the deal: whether he lives or dies depends on him being property, and in this case he only lives because one of his owners doesn’t want him killed. And it even came down to who had the right to rape enslaved women. In the plantation that Solomon was at, Patsey belonged to the owner. If another white man wanted to rape one of the slave women he would have known… if he was tied to the plantation, he would have known to steer clear of Patsey, but not because maybe Patsey is reluctant, doesn’t return your advances so you can’t force her. Stay away from Patsey because she belongs to Epps, but everyone else is fair game and can be raped by anyone associated with the plantation. A white man not associated with the plantation… if he’s caught forcing himself on enslaved women, then that’s a violation. But not a violation of the woman that he forces himself on, it’s a violation of the property rights of whatever white man owned her. And this is something… that’s just really on display in the movie.
Revolution: One of the things when you’re talking about the scene where Solomon is hanging there and everybody’s going on about their business – on the one hand it’s clear that if they intervene they’re going to get in trouble. But it does pose the question, I think for everybody watching it, of how can you stand by and see this going on? That’s the example you’re forced to look at, but how many times where things like that happened – it’s clear that this was a regular occurrence, this was the way things were done, and that people were put in such a situation that they felt they could not and did not – or rarely did they – stand up. And of course the price of standing up against it was often death or extreme punishment. But it poses the question, I thought, when you’re watching this, of how can you just stand by when such horrors are going on And what would it take to break that? I don’t know, I thought there were some questions there that are posed not just historically, but…
CD: I think that’s real because you look at that scene with today’s eyes, and the illegitimacy of the authority that was enforcing that barbarity, that brutality, that barbarity, is real clear. And sometimes today for a lot of people the brutality that is being enforced throughout society isn’t as clearly illegitimate. And so many people are standing aside as unspeakable brutality and illegitimate force is being used against people. And we have to… it needs to be transformed from: well, that’s just the way it is, or even those are things done for a reason – to, well, wait a minute: why is this happening, why are more than two million people in prison [in the U.S. today]? Why are hundreds of thousands of people in prison for simple drug possession? Why are the people who get sentenced and put away for that disproportionately Black and Latino? These are things that people have to start looking at with eyes as clear as the ones you apply to: it’s clearly bad to hang a guy up because he basically responded to the way you were messing with him by saying some truth – which was Solomon’s “affront”. But a Black person, an enslaved Black person, in fact any Black person actually in the South in that time, had no right to stand up to a white person. Which is even brought out at the end of the movie – that in legal proceedings around the people who kidnapped Solomon, one or two of them got tried in Washington, DC, and Solomon was not allowed to testify against them because he was Black.
Revolution: One important thing about this movie is that people today don’t have a real sense, a living sense, of what this meant, what all this wealth and power is actually founded on. And people should really read the book as well as see the movie to get a really living sense of it
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