“We human beings do real harm. History could make a stone weep…” – Marilynne Robinson
Sometimes one sees a film and needs a good six or seven months to process it. Way back when,“Schindler’s List” might have been associated with this kind of visceral reaction; “Requiem for a Dream”, certainly. Theater originally developed among ancient civilizations such as Greece and Rome, or further back among tribal groups in Neolithic, inchoate human societies, as a spiritual exercise to expand the mind and psyche. It was a way to practice and perform emotional resonances of lived experiences either so traumatic, sad, joyful, or all of the above, acting it out through music, dialogue and/or dance was the only way to control the engendered emotional cascade in such a way that residual pain didn’t (continually) damage. I sometimes like to think film preserves, however adulterated, this original artistic intent inherent to drama, comedy, or the complex intermingling of the two we call Life.
Though long since gone from Philadelphian theaters, Steve McQueen’s masterpiece will long live on in the hearts and minds of all who view it. Bleak depravity is somehow transmuted into a thing of beauty- the tide-pooled landscapes of centuries-past southern provincial life are conveyed within eerie, sun-dappled, moonlit plantations. The urban and rural north, toward the framing of both the film’s end and beginning, is also re-created with haunting authenticity. And never so accurate a depiction of what slavery was has perhaps ever been documented in filmic media; from children being sold- ripped from their mothers and families- to the cold, confrontational way southern couples very literally concretized "their" human slaves as chattel and property of which they owned, “12 Years a Slave” is almost clinical in its realism.
The images we witness on screen during this film are uncensored, true to all that slavery was, and necessarily traumatic. They sear into one’s memory. Such dramatic impulse toward catharsis relives pain as a way to remember it, perhaps even honor it, and thus prevent such experiences from ever again surprising, or in this case such horror from ever becoming institutionalized once more.
Slavery- the epitome of all of humankind’s cruelty to fellow humans- is indeed the past and present wound that seems never to fully heal. The fact that politicians and merchants of history cited Biblical scripture as way to justify and excuse moral turpitude leaves one shaken, questioning the very foundations of a country rooted in “equality”, or humanity with "equality" as its philosophical foundation. In that America fought a war to end slavery, some consolation may be reached, but war and slavery and human cruelty seem to never go away. Slavery still exists in many parts of the world. In that Aristotle once wrote of the moral justification of slavery evidences how far our conceptualization of moral truth versus moral debasement has come since ancient times.
One is left with sadness for all the lives destroyed by slavery- not so much a “curious” institution, as so famously quoted- as debased, immoral, disgraceful, and depressingly obviously so.