The Vitality Of “12 Years A Slave”

Jazz musician Max Roach strived to press political agendas when he perused the musical scene in the 1960s. His most infamous album, We Insist! – Freedom Now, is a stimulating and unsettling work discussing the horrors of slavery and the aggression of segregation laws. Through shuddering jazz riffs and dissonant, chant-like vocality from Roach’s then-wife Abbey Lincoln, the heart of We Insist! is relatively unforgiving, presenting things as they were in relation to how they are and looking for a comprehension of the now by forcing listeners to remember what came first. Unfortunately, listeners didn’t want to remember. Guilt stemming from the memories of slavery is immeasurable, and in the 1960s, during the thrust of the Civil Rights movement and just a century after the Emancipation Proclamation, Roach’s thematic thesis didn’t prove to be enjoyable or acceptable. We Insist! became blacklisted for years. It was banned during Roach’s prominence and became enshrined with infamy; a musical HUAC intended on never letting it reach the ignorant ears of the public. While it has been resurrected, it was pressured to take its time. In fact, it didn’t even become a part of iTunes’ public store until 2008.

So what does the late Max Roach and his taboo album have to do with 12 Years a Slave? I connect them because of the dialogue they both have worked to incite. Roach was a gifted musician and a bold idealist, one of the first instrumental minds in jazz to address strong social themes in his music since Duke Ellington, but his timing of We Insist! was still too close to what he was referencing and bringing to tuneful light. It was a grave instance of it all being ‘too soon’ and the inability of a stubborn public to accept the racial equality that the country was fatefully heading toward. Following another fifty years, there seems to have been a change – the dialogue that Roach fought to begin is only now being accepted through pop cultural presentation. With near universal acclaim for Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, in all of its jaw-dropping rawness and nearly unwatchable sense of realism, this face-to-face reconnect with one of our most irredeemable moments in U.S. history is being bundled within the four star and A+ reviews. Awe toward McQueen’s audacity to present the material in such a beautifully relentless format is absolutely warranted, but I can’t help but think this kind of praise deserved to have been tossed to Roach fifty years ago. Why now does it seem appropriate to have this dialogue with our humiliating past?

I don’t have the answer, which is why I pose it to readers. Why is it suddenly an astonishing moment of clarity due to McQueen’s auteuristic film work when Roach’s album was crusaded against? It’s interesting that 12 Years a Slave makes its public appearance just about a year after Django Unchained, another slavery-centric feature, though a tonal one-eighty from 12 Years. Still, Django wasn’t privy with its depiction of slave brutality. While its pulpy and adventurous tone admittedly enraged more reserved viewers, 12 Years a Slave plays everything with a very straight face, choosing to substitute gentility with honesty. Django will call you stupid for taking it too seriously but 12 Years a Slave will make sure you remember every image it puts forth.

There are moments in 12 Years a Slave that are likely to remain discussed and poured over for years to come, be it the staggeringly choreographed zig-zag through Paul Giamatti’s ‘slave station’ of a home or the static take of Chiwetel Ejiofor hanging from a tree, barely supporting himself on his tippy toes, while the other surrounding slaves go about their business, expertly avoiding any notice of Ejiofor’s life-threatening situation. And, of course, the third act whipping sequence. These are just three singular and very memorable moments – there are a ton more – but they speak to appropriate the place in contemporary history in which we reside. We are at a juncture where it’s time that we look at these instances square in the face and cower because of their visceral nature and feel ill because of what was done to these human beings. Sure, this is a movie, but it’s one adapted from an autobiographical account that looks to make the plight of protagonist Solomon Northup as lived-in as possible. It’s a ruthless direction for storytelling but it’s effective, transmitting the message of Max Roach and the real Solomon Northup loud and clear.

To those who find 12 Years a Slave to be a bit too much, I must agree that, yes, it’s sickening, an unnamable reaction so incomparable to something traditional because we’ve been too afraid to address such a horror head-on. Is slave brutality being sold to the public as entertainment? Hardly. It’s being presented as education, like paying to browse an art gallery or museum. It’s a true story even more harrowing on screen than it surely was in text. But can you imagine what it must have been like in real life? To take part in such an atrocity or to fall victim to it? Neither are imaginable, no matter how meticulous and hard-hitting McQueen is with his production. By the time the film reaches the gruesome whipping sequence, ferociously told in a lingering long take closing in on the reactions of the innocents and on the satanic psychopathy of slaver Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), your emotions are as broken and your insides are as twisted as they’re probably ever going to get from a movie-going experience. This material should curdle your blood and McQueen’s affinity for presenting beauty through pain can make 12 Years a Slave a torturous viewing experience. But if were at all saturated, or censored to any degree, the ultimate impact would be undoubtedly lessened. The reason why 12 Years a Slave works is because it breaks you.

Max Roach’s ambitious track, ‘Prayer, Protest, Peace’ from We Insist!, works now as a musical accompaniment to the progression of 12 Years a Slave. The work song chant that opens the track will eventually be reflected by an exhausted, but nonetheless refreshed peaceful melody while an ear-numbing scream segues from one reeling to the next. The middle portion – Protest – is minutes of Abbey Lincoln screaming bloody murder, a powerhouse piece of lyrical work and a bravado of scat-less, word-less emoting that conveys exactly what it intends. Lincoln’s scream is so similar to that of actress Lupita Nyong’o that on my first listen I shriveled in my seat as I was immediately brought back to the image of the fragile young woman’s back being shredded by a whip. These are the mental, connective images that the public feared Roach’s music would brew, but Steve McQueen has gone ahead and crafted the imaginative work for you. If Roach’s album is too conceptual for your taste, 12 Years a Slave doesn’t leave much to ambiguity. You will see what you’ve been afraid of seeing; McQueen’s mastery builds upon Roach’s bravery and finally swings open the doors to the dialogue that should have began decades ago. If people are firmly unafraid of facing their ancestral demons, let 12 Years a Slave be the decisive icebreaker.

We Insist! may still wear a chip on its shoulder, forced into submission by those unprepared to wrestle with its concepts and personalized recollections of savagery. Times have changed fortunately, and the fawning over 12 Years a Slave will now ensure the arrival of a conversation with the past. That’s the vitality and the cemented importance of 12 Years a Slave’s filmmaking properties. Historical films are supposed to represent or reflect reality, but rarely does the realism percolate so affectingly than with Steve McQueen, who began his artistic résumé with installation art. Installations consume you by engaging you from all sides. You must absorb every piece around you by taking time to piece it together. McQueen’s films are just as absorbing. 12 Years a Slave grapples you with its content, rectifies your perceptions, and ultimately changes you. That is why it should win Best Picture – it fearlessly addresses our biggest fears by dropping a crushing truth. 

“There is nothing to forgive,” says Solomon’s wife at the end of the picture. She speaks calmly to him but sternly to us. That is the truth in McQueen’s film.

We just have to accept what we’ve done. 

Article by Mike Murphy


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