Finally today, I went to see Steve McQueen’s movie, 12 Years a Slave, though I knew that it would affect me emotionally. At one point in the movie I got up to use the bathroom and on my way out of the stall a white woman was at the sink putting on pink lipstick. Approaching the sink next to her, I was visibly tearful and looked quite pensive. Wanting to say something, I suppose, she said, “That was such a good movie,” which instantly annoyed me. What compelled her to speak to me? What movie was I there to see? What privilege was she taking with me in the bathroom for crying out loud? These were the questions going through my head at that moment. I could have ignored her, but in the mirror I turned my face to her and asked, “What movie did you see?” She replied, The Butler, you should see it.” After a brief pause, in an effort to think clearly about what I was going to say, I informed her, “I am here for 12 Years a Slave, and I almost said, “You Should See It.” But quietly, I walked away as she continued to delight in putting on her pink lipstick.
As I returned to my seat, I endured the movie though of course, with much emotion. Many of the episodes in this film were tragic but painfully accurate of the horror associated with chattel slavery. I recalled the many courses on African-American history that I have participated in as a student and as an instructor. Once, while teaching an African-American heritage course at Claflin University, I encountered a few students along the way who took the time to write me at the end of the semester thanking me for bringing to life what was once for them a very boring subject. As such, I imagine that they may have walked away from the course with a newfound interest in black history. Perhaps, one day I will hear from them, which is something that happens to me every now and then. I suppose my own love of history [as a personal and professional discipline] informed my feelings during the movie.
Near the end of the movie, and as my face was then constantly covered with tears, I wanted to weep aloud. In fact, I wanted to wail from the depths of my stomach for those captured and enslaved by slavers. I knew it wouldn’t bring them back; I knew it wouldn’t change anything at all, but I wanted to weep until I couldn’t weep anymore and regardless of who tried to console me or not. I wanted to weep. Had I been there alone I probably would have done it as I have before with movies about history, in particular, the history of African-Americans.
There have been several programs that have discussed the significance and accuracy of this film. The day before I saw the movie, I listened to an interview with Lupita Nyong’o, who played the character of Patsey. Nyong’o said that after the show “you want to go and hug someone.” Hugging was the last thing on my mind at the end of the show, and I definitely didn’t want anyone to touch me. I just wanted to weep for Solomon Northup and for what he endured during one of the worst periods in American history. It seemed to me the least that I could do to show my empathy for his story and my disdain for the institution of human slavery.
There is a part in the movie where a young mother is alongside of Solomon Northup, the main character who is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. Prior to being transported into slavery with Solomon, Eliza, played by Adepero Oduye, is separated from her children. Frustrated by this, Solomon attempts to stop Eliza from weeping by telling her that the weeping would take her deeper into despair. His posture at that point in the film was one of defiance and resolve. Dedicated and perhaps convinced of his own escape, Solomon had few tears to shed early in the plot (except, understandably, due to his outrage at being deceived). But, as the movie progressed, Solomon began to weep as he came face to face with the reality that he may not escape, alive. And, as he experienced the grotesque and inhumane nature of slavery – one that he apparently had not considered (and how could he if he was a free black man?); as he watched others, especially the women characters presented in this film who bore a most peculiar sexual kind of assault under enslavement, we saw the character Solomon, slowly but surely, begin to weep not only for his own condition, but for the suffering of others.
I worry about those who do not weep when it is appropriate to do so; for men and women who go through life surviving, yet numb putting on veneers of strength when the situation calls for tears. I saw this a lot when I was a pastor, a minister in the United Methodist Church, often from men. Because of patriarchy they learn as boys to hold in their emotions; they learn to lie about their feelings (often to get what they want); and they learn to go through life appearing to survive but struggling to express great fear and pain just under the surface. Thus, when they erupt they often do so towards those who are neither responsible nor a part of their pain. Consequently, they do great harm to innocent people. When I returned home from the movie today, for instance, I learned of yet another school shooting in Nevada where a young male student had opened fire on his teacher, other students and finally, tragically, upon himself. Of course I don’t condone this kind of violent behavior (school shootings), and I believe perpetrators should be punished, but I do understand patriarchy and the fact that it does, perhaps, irreparable harm to boys as well as girls and thus, to men as well as women. In some ways it is better that girls are socialized so that they learn to weep while the boys are taught that they must quietly, inwardly, suffer and erode away in silence by their own inner sorrow (a term used in the movie by the character Eliza), which can and does manifest as apathy and violence against others. And, in that sense they become more inhumane and prone to unpredictable, violent behavior.
So, when I think about Solomon Northup and all of those enslaved by slavers driven by the lust for money and profit, I weep. I weep not only for a man tortured by twelve years of slavery, but for the millions, including myself, who are and who know that we have been compromised by a violent, patriarchal approach to life, which is an inhumane aspect of chattel slavery. And, I weep for the many who stand at the window of life as if they were putting on pink lipstick without a care or a clue as to how they too have been captured and constructed by an entire system of slavery.
© 2013 annalise fonza, Ph.D.
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