The Hope Chest
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The Hope Chest

Revisiting Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave 10 Years Later

Photo Courtesy of BFI

Twelve Years A Slave

Steve McQueen’s 2013 award-winning biopic, “Twelve Years A Slave,” delves deeply into the psychology of slavery and what it means to be a free Black person in America.

The film opens at a plantation on which Solomon Northrop (Chiwetel Ojiofor) is a newly enslaved person. Under the hot blistering sun, he stands among a group of other newly indoctrinated field slaves, receiving instructions on cutting sugar cane. Solomon is seen working from sunup to sundown, retiring to a cramped sleeping stable where he lays on the floor, and recalls his prior life as a free man. McQueen uses his storytelling abilities to capture every nuance of slavery from its relationships, the construction of race, and its roots in capitalism.

Before his capture we witness Solomon as a remarkably prideful and genteel musician. He is seen playing at a party for white people and is very secure in his freedom. A chance encounter with an enslaved man named Jasper in a shop, brings the hidden world of slavery close to home.

Up until this point, he has had no reason to be mistrustful of good white people or connected to those in bondage.

Shortly thereafter, Solomon is enticed by two white “artists” that appeal somewhat to his vanity. They continually refer to his talents as exceptional and promise him many opportunities. He eats and drinks with the men, praising them for their kindness and generosity, only to quickly learn that he has been sold into slavery.

Photo Courtesy of Ebony

The following scenes are what we are familiar with when it comes to slavery. Lots of whipping, beating, begging, and intolerable cruelty. Throughout the film the slaves are constantly “told” who they are. They are brutes and animals, exposed to merciless violence and torture that silence them into submission. Solomon is told by a slave “if you want to survive, tell no one who you really are.”

Ultimately, he decides he doesn’t want to simply survive, he wants to live.

Solomon is willing to placate his oppressors while continually looking for opportunities in which to regain his freedom. After several setbacks and betrayals at the hands of whites, an opportunity presents itself once again in the form of a white man from Canada named Bass (Brad Pitt). Solomon reveals to him his identity and pleads to him for help. Bass warns Solomon of the dangers to them both if they are caught.

In the end Bass keeps his word. Solomon would be one of the lucky ones to regain his freedom. He is seen running into the arms of the white man that has come to rescue him, revealing his identity in the face of Master Epps (Michael Fassbender) who fights to keep him oppressed.

When Solomon returns home to his family, he is deeply apologetic. His new awareness causes him to become an abolitionist in fight against the institution of slavery. Although he had to leave behind many of the people that were trapped in slavery, he used the gift of his freedom to help free those in bondage.

(You can view Solomon Northrup’s original journal here).

My metacritique of my viewing experience:

I wrote this over a year ago. Now I have the opportunity, during this Black History Month to reexamine what I was thinking. The genius of Steve McQueen was to allow this narrative to feel present day. All narratives that involve the institution of slavery, as well as the design and construction of our nation, within the context of race — must feel present day. Many of the ideas, and systems of discrimination, remain in place and ideas surrounding people have been concretized in our psyche. However, in the short span of a year, people are becoming more aware of the narratives that’ve served as barriers to understanding our history and each other. Like the weeds that spring up with the grass, alongside the flowers that are blooming, so are influences of our experiences.

Solomon Northrup was living his best life. He had a beautiful family. He was a highly skilled and sought-after musician. He counted some whites as his friends and was living as free as he was able to. But some people, as we know with Tulsa Race Massacre, African Americans do not deserve joy unless it’s been imparted by a white master. I believe this sentiment is becoming the minority and people are coming together.

For me, this movie was about safety. What will you risk for the truth? What would you risk for what is right? As long as there is a perpetuation of entitlement, rooted in white supremacist ideals, we will remain in trouble. What will you do to curb it?

To learn more about African American History and Culture visit: The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture online. #bhm

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