Thoughts on Recent Black Slave Movies & Watching Stuff at Home

I usually do, I'm arriving late to this particular party, mainly because our household rarely sees movies in the theater any more. So first some thoughts on that.

Movie-going has gotten outrageously pricy in the last few years, mainly as a result of ballooning production costs and far too many people in the food chain squeezing every last bit they can from the end consumer. What the market will bear and all that. But the price isn’t my main discouragement from movie outings these days, nor is the ubiquitous availability of movies online what is luring me away. Instead, it’s mainly the complete collapse of social etiquette in theaters. You know, the guy in casual business attire who keeps taking cell phone calls during the movie; the middle-aged couple with their “emotional support companion” Chihuahua that keeps whining and panting a few seats away; the teenage girl who illuminates the theater with her texting throughout the showing; the couple in the back who contributes a piercing stream of giggling commentary about the film; the elderly man a few rows away who alternates between loudly crunching upon hard candies and long, staccato overtures of farts that overwhelm the senses; the college student who is obviously masturbating over in the corner of the auditorium; the tall guy who refuses to take off his tall hat; and so on. And either these sorts of rude intrusions are becoming more commonplace, or I am becoming more sensitive to them, because I can’t remember the last time I was in an average San Diego theater when they did not occur, and repeatedly so.

That said, our family does occasionally avail itself of some of the few “value add” theaters in San Diego. The ArcLight, and the lavishly upgraded AMC La Jolla 12, have enticed us with the seat reservations, adult beverage service, excellent audio and video quality, and overall luxurious experience – for an equally luxurious price. But even here, where great effort has been made to encourage rudimentary considerations for fellow moviegoers, we have still encountered the etiquette-retarded. On multiple occasions, we’ve discovered people in our “reserved” seats who didn’t want to move when we pointed this out, or parents with fussy infants or crying young children who thought an evening at a violent “R” rated film would be a pleasant family outing, or large parties who smuggled in noisy food wrapped in equally noisy paper sacks. Even at these higher-end establishments, the ability of patrons to weigh the impact of their behavior on the experiences of others is often profoundly impaired.

Now it is possible – just possible – that this is some sort of karmic payback for my own past behaviors. I, too, once smuggled cold chicken and champagne into a movie theater in Seattle; although we did eat quietly, I’m sure the sounds and smells were disruptive to those nearby. I also had a habit of laughing loudly and frequently during a comedic film back then, something the perpetually depressed and sleepy Seattle moviegoers undoubtedly resented. And, in my younger years, I occasionally engaged in roughhousing and ruckus in theaters with my friends, though we usually would calm down once the movie began. Well…there was the one time as a teenager that a friend and I got really stoned before watching a rerun of The Empire Strikes Back, then proceeded to lay on the floor at the base of the screen, yelling up at the actors. Yeah, so maybe this is karmic payback after all.

Still, these are the main reasons I would rather watch movies at home. So that’s why it was only recently that Mollie and I watched Twelve Years A Slave. We enjoyed the film a lot – the careful direction, the compelling story, the superb acting. On first viewing, there really wasn’t much to complain about, and we were riveted throughout. In particular, I thought Christopher Berry’s portrayal of Burch was stunning; he so fully inhabited his villainous role you would expect people to assault him in the street. On a more abstract level, I am also glad that modern culture is being reminded of the dehumanizing horrors of slavery, especially since it still goes on today, in factories overseas where products Americans buy, love and use every day are made.

But, after the film was over, there was something about the film that struck a sour note for me. At first I couldn’t really put my finger on it, but then it hit me with full force: it was the astounding stupidity of the choices its main character, Solomon Northup, made throughout the film. Is it possible that a free black man living in New York would never have heard of slave kidnappings? Or that he would not find the offer of his kidnappers somewhat odd? And why would Solomon allow himself to be cast in such a troupe? And, as if to reinforce his lack of good judgment, Solomon keeps making bad decisions: his allowing himself to be drugged with excessive alcohol, his brainy assertiveness that embarrasses a white master, his trusting a white criminal with his secret, his inability to navigate the small-mindedness and paranoia of others, and his glacial learning curve with respect to his destroyed social status (beating up a white man, etc.). In all of these situations, Solomon demonstrated a complete lack of street smarts and an almost silly course of reckless social calculations, each one just kept worsening his situation.

So what is the film really trying to say? That blacks living in New York at that time were completely ignorant of the experiences of southern blacks? That this particular black man was too naive and trusting? Or was it that Solomon was just a simpleton, an idiot deserving of everything that befell him? Are any of these positive statements about Northup, or about black people of that time? I don’t think so. And although I likewise had appreciation for some of the casting, production, cinematography, acting and directing after watching Django Unchained, I came away from that film with a similar feeling that the Django character himself was a bit demeaning to blacks as well. Yes, that was a completely different film, but the failures feel very similar to me. So is it just me, or is Hollywood generally incapable of capturing the black experience in an intelligent and sensitive way? Yes, these were good films – perhaps even great films in some respects – but, other than raising awareness, do they really do justice to the black experience of slavery? I’m not sure they do.

There have been many compelling films in recent years that attempt to celebrate black America or educate the mainstream about black history or modern African American culture. But how many of them have made it to the Big Screen that didn’t distort, or stereotype, or oversimplify, or dumb down? Let’s contrast Roots with, say, Amistad or Glory. Or Introducing Dorothy Dandridge and The Rosa Parks Story with The Color Purple and The Help. The TV films told real and difficult dramas, often with hard, uncomfortable edges. I will never forget when one of the slave characters in Roots explains why he was so big (and strong enough to lift the front end of a car) to a youngster: “They bred us this way.” This softly spoken line had me crying myself to sleep that night, and stuck with me for years. With some rare exceptions, such as the early work of Spike Lee, the Big Screen adaptations of black stories have almost always been entertainment first, with accuracy and insight a far second.

Is this a bad thing? I don’t know. I despise the Harry Potter books but I understand they inspired a reading revolution among young people. So perhaps creative storytelling, if it raises awareness about important current or historical issues, can be excused a bit when it distorts, cheapens or waters down. But as I think abut how utterly stupid, ignorant and artless Solomon Northup’s choices were in Twelve Years a Slave, I can’t help but wonder if the potency of the slavery message was itself undermined. I suspect that there were plenty of free black folks kidnapped back into slavery who weren’t clueless simpletons - and that Solomon could have been portrayed as much more savvy and capable. So why tell a story that casts such a dim light on its protagonist? As the gold standard for this sort of demeaning characterization, I’m reminded of Mel Gibson’s portrayal of young Mayan men in Apocalypto; yes, the indictment of Northup is more subtle, but is this really the best Hollywood can do…?