(Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Last Saturday morning I woke up still shaken by the movie "12 Years a Slave" after watching it in the theater with my wife on Friday night.
On Sunday morning, I was still reeling.
I never thought Hollywood could deliver a dignified, honest sensitive portrayal of slavery and the pernicious effects of racism in America but it has in this film and I encourage everyone, if you can take it, to go and see it.
The film is a fictionalized adaptation of the 1853 autobiography Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Washington, D.C., in 1841. He was then forced to work on plantations in the state of Louisiana for 12 years before he was released.
I had heard the buzz that this filmso directed by Steve McQueen and written by John Ridley with actor Chiwetel Ejiofor starring as Solomon Northup was a stunning piece of work but I didn't believe it. I was wary after seeing preceding films in the same genre that turned out to be nothing more than glorified buffoonery or watered down truths.
So at the start of "12 Years a Slave" on Friday night I was slumped in my seat sipping Coke and chomping away on popcorn laced with too much butter, half expecting some type of overly dramatized entertainment to unfold.
But this movie quickly mesmerized me and the entire audience into complete silence. It made me sit up, stop chomping that popcorn and lose my desire to eat. I was watching truth unfold and I couldn't believe it.
"Just watched 12 years a slave. It was epic and hauntingly brutal. I've never seen or heard people cry so collectively except at a funeral. And in the end, they all applauded this masterful symphony of grief that will likely keep them shaken...," I wrote on my Facebook page more than two and a half hours later.
It was the first thing that I could manage to write several unblinking moments after I had walked out of the theater behind people still dabbing their eyes. My wife and I were dazed into an understood knowing.
She had squirmed out loud and gasped at several points during the film when it became too much. I soaked it all in like the Gus Fring character from AMC's "Breaking Bad" and turned my head away when I felt like tears would jump from my eyes on their own.
It was like a slow moving hurricane had moved through me and laid bare some of the very things I dared not say out loud for fear it would make others too uncomfortable.
I listened to a grown black man tell someone on his phone as we waited in line to use the restroom that "12 Years a Slave" was "hard on the eyes" – and it was.
It was hard because it is a searing, gut-wrenching and particularly intelligent statement on the African-American experience that dares you to "say something." It subtly yet all the while agonizingly paints a complex pathology depicting the nuanced response of black people to slavery and its attendant racism debunking that offensive N-word the black characters are called so repeatedly in the film it will make you feel dirty for listening.
This film moved me because perhaps for the first time in my memory black anger is not reduced to a march or a riot but is intelligently articulated by dignified characters I could identify with in spirit.
There are times when I have felt like Mr. Northup in 21st century America.
Several years ago after just over a year of living here I was snatched from a sidewalk by two police officers in the Bronx, N.Y., who thought I looked like that N-word and everything it connotes. They had fingered me for trying to steal my own car. I was later locked inside a holding cell and I felt like I would lose my mind.
I was released from the cell only after I finally screamed that I was a journalist with a well-known newspaper at the time and I had a graduate degree from Columbia University. Nobody called me a n***er like Mr. Northup that night but I was surely made to feel like one.
That whole ordeal doesn't come anywhere close to the 12 years Mr. Northup spent as a slave but I took it as a good enough glimmer. If I told you that I have been the same since that fateful night when I learned that when people see me they also sometimes see a n***er I'd be lying.
Blacks in America may not be picking cotton or chopping cane anymore, but there are still many living a plantation like existence.
Mr. Northup in the film illuminates the difference between merely existing and living. He knew what it was to live an unshackled life and even though his white oppressors try to bludgeon him into existing for their pleasure and comfort, he never stops trying until he finally makes it back home.
But this only happens for Northup mainly because of his exceptional talents and experience. He is a superb violinist who can read and write and has travelled much more than the other blacks on the plantation and he had been legally allowed to be free. And it is that exceptionalism that finally takes him off the plantation
The rest of the characters, despite their best efforts are not so lucky.
Eliza, played by actress Adepero Oduye, refuses to stop crying after her children, including one whom she bore for her white master, who are taken from her. She had done everything she thought she could do to earn her freedom until all of it was upended by her master's white daughter who sold them off like livestock.
Unlike Northup who was secure in the knowledge that his kids were safe in freedom with his wife in New York, Eliza, despite her protest, had her kids ripped from her hands and she wailed and wailed and wailed until she is dragged off to some uncertain end on the plantation.
At one point, Northup, unable to comprehend the depth of Eliza's grief, tells her to be quiet and quit griping. Her response to his complaint is bitingly poetic and forces him into silence as he is made to understand that unlike him, she had nothing left to do but weep.
"12 Years a Slave" will be released nationwide on Nov. 1.