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Posted on Monday 15 July 2013 at 9:18 pm

12 Years a Slave

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I study American History with an emphasis on the Political Culture of Dissent. Basically, I'm crazy into anything involving protests, marches, uprisings, revolts, rebellions, or the people in some way acting outside the normal boundaries of voting and maybe writing or phoning their congressman to demand change from the political system in particular but also changes of the social and culture structures. The antislavery movement of the 1850s in particular but even before that is one of the biggest protest movements in US history so it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that I'm interested in that and have read many of the autobiographies written by former slaves to publicize the horrors of slavery and try to draw supporters to their cause.

One of those autobiographies is Solomon Northup's Twelve Years a Slave. Northup was born free in one of the northern states. As an adult he was kidnapped and illegally claimed as a runaway slave and sold into slavery. Due to the legal system of the time, he had no way to argue in court against the white men claiming him as property and no way to prove his free born status. He finally regained his freedom in a series of complex political and legal maneuvers after he spent the years in slavery that gives his book its title. There is a movie based on Northup's autobiography coming out this fall or winter (I've seen the date get bounced around a couple of times but it is currently October for the US release). I have a lot of trepidations about this film. Everything I've seen about it has been talking about it as a Brad Pitt movie. I understand Brad Pitt is a big Hollywood name blah blah blah whatever. When you are telling the story of a black man who had his life stolen and all you can do is tell me about some white actor, that rather sounds to me like you're just stealing his story on top of the years he had already had taken. Even when the buzz around the movie went beyond Brad Pitt as the man who believes Northup's claims of having been born free and who helps him regain his freedom, it was all about Michael Fassbender as the mean and terrible slave owner and Benedict Cumberbatch as the benevolent slave owner (or at least the not so terrible one if you don't like the idea of a slave owner being described as benevolent). There was very little about Solomon Northup himself nor Chiwetel Ejiofor, the actor playing him, and I've been getting increasingly frustrated with this over the past few months. Hell, the IMDB listing for the movie has five white actors named before Ejiofor (as a friend pointed out to me).

All this has led me to fear that this movie is going to be nothing but the sadly typical story of "Benevolent white person saves the poor oppressed other who crosses his/her path and learns a valuable lesson at the same time." A trailer just came out. Again, Hollywood marketing is Hollywood marketing but... it doesn't look bad. It is actually focusing on Northup and his story rather than the white guy "saving" him. I'm almost 100% likely to go see this film when it is released no matter what else the marketing does between now and then and was so before I saw the trailer, but this trailer gives me more hope that they won't completely screw this up than anything else I've seen so far. I'm still not exactly optimistic because I've seen this same thing play out way too many times, but if this trailer is an at all accurate representation of the film, well, it might not get Northup's story exactly right, which I'd never expect it to, but it might just manage to be true to the spirit of it and actually tell a black man's story as his story rather than use him as a prop for telling a white man's story and that will definitely be something worth seeing.


What's Taters, Precious?
mrstater at 1:46 am on 16 July 2013 (UTC) (Link)
I just saw the trailer a few minutes ago on tumblr. I really hope it's good--it's a phenomenal cast. Fassbender scared me already just in those brief clips.
bratty_jedi at 10:40 am on 16 July 2013 (UTC) (Link)
It really is an amazing cast. If they don't screw up the tone and focus then this has potential to be a truly fantastic film.
A work in progress
ancarett at 2:06 am on 16 July 2013 (UTC) (Link)
I'd be more than wary, too. We can hope but, dang, I'm tired of endless movies about white man's pain.
bratty_jedi at 10:44 am on 16 July 2013 (UTC) (Link)
We can hope but, dang, I'm tired of endless movies about white man's pain.

Exactly! This has happened so many times you'd think each individual one wouldn't matter so much anymore in comparison to the aggregate, but somehow doing it to Northup's story just feels extra wrong. It isn't even just about it being a "Based on a True Story" kind of film because it feels even worse to me than making The Amistad case into a movie all about Matthew McConaughey. I really hope they get this one at least partially right.
author_by_night at 11:44 am on 16 July 2013 (UTC) (Link)
I agree, and it's also a double standard. Can't there be two protagonists, one of whom is the non-white character being defended?
Wine gums, envy, pieces of rainbow
qwentoozla at 4:16 am on 16 July 2013 (UTC) (Link)
I read an article recently that made it sound like Brad Pitt's part is actually pretty small. They do seem to be selling it more based on him, Fassbender and Cumberbatch, which seems unfair since Chiwetel Ejiofor is a great actor and it should obviously be his story...
bratty_jedi at 10:49 am on 16 July 2013 (UTC) (Link)
I read an article recently that made it sound like Brad Pitt's part is actually pretty small.

I really hope so. I've been telling myself all along that it was just marketing using the big names* to get people to the theater and I can't really judge the movie based on that. The new trailer is all about Northup's story so hopefully the movie will be as well.

*Though the larger questions of why the white guys are all more famous than Ejiofor, perhaps tinged with a bias in the US at least in favor of Anglo or Anglicized names over all else and "Chiwetel Ejiofor" being too weird for people or something, are all problematic issues far beyond the scope of some ad execs to handle in this one movie's campaign.
author_by_night at 11:55 am on 16 July 2013 (UTC) (Link)
Well, sometimes they do use big names just to drag people along (I've seen "Jennifer Aniston" films where Jennifer Aniston shows up twice and has four lines each time) so that could very well be it. I hope you're right.

I think movie studios also aren't very willing to take risks. I know film is a business, but it's one that's starting to hurt precisely because people are sick of it being the same white male actors every single bloody time. Yes, there's a lot who will only watch actors and actresses they know, but I think Hollywood decides for us what we're willing to try. Maybe spending twenty bucks on a ticket would be worth it if I thought I was seeing something new and original. Yes, it's easier said than done, and I do think a lot of audiences are shallow, but there's a lot of audiences who aren't.

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