The Movie Date is a weekly feature where we discuss movies that may appeal to YA readers. Andrew is The Reading Date’s resident movie critic and this week he has a double feature review: 12 Years a Slave and Beloved.
In an attempt to broaden my horizons a bit, I thought I’d observe Black History Month with a couple films based on significant African-American literary works. Although one is autobiographical and one is fiction, both examine the psychological ravages suffered by black slaves in the 19th century. In both works, slaves poignantly consider the freedom that may be found in death. (Disclosure: I haven’t read either book.)
Most oppressed people dream of being free, but for Solomon Northup it was more than a dream. Before being kidnapped and sold as a plantation worker, he had a life and family as a well-to-do free black in Saratoga, NY,. In 12 Years a Slave, published in 1853, Northup describes the indignities and brutalities he and other slaves suffered at the hands of Southern landowners. In addition to his free status, what sets Northup’s tale apart from many slave narratives is his high level of education: he could read and write (which he carefully concealed from his owners) and play music (he was a talented violinist who played at dances). For this reason he’s easy for viewers to identify with—we could be him—and sympathize with.
When his clever method of transporting lumber arouses the ire of a cruel white superior, Northup is sold to a new owner, partly to save his life. But this new master, Epps, is even more sadistic, regularly beating Northup and Patsey, a hardworking female slave that Epps lusts after. Northup longs to get word to his family up north and request the papers that will prove his freedom. But this seems impossible until a sympathetic Canadian carpenter miraculously appears one day…
Black British director Steve McQueen’s version of 12 Years a Slave is surprisingly unsentimental. We watch horrific events and Northup’s quest for freedom through the same calm, nonjudgmental eyes; we don’t need thunderous soundtrack music or punchy editing to underscore the injustice or bravery onscreen. McQueen also finds many moments of lyrical beauty: Spanish moss waving in the breeze, the rhythm of a steamboat’s paddlewheel, the tuning of a violin. As Northup, Chiwetel Ejiofor displays a barely-suppressed rage tempered with restraint and the faith that, somehow, he will escape this hell. Kenyan acress Lupita Nyong’o imbues the small but crucial role of Patsey with dignity, confidence, strength, and poignancy. The film is up for nine Oscars, with Nyong’o one of the most likely wins at this point.
To date Toni Morrison is the only African-American novelist to win a Nobel Prize for literature, and her 1987 novel Beloved won her a Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It’s not hard to see why; the story is an amazing and unique hybrid of African-American storytelling and supernatural horror. The way the tale inhabits a very specific place and time yet lapses into the mythical is a wonder to behold.
Living outside Cincinatti in 1873 with her daughter Denver, the woman Sethe is haunted by two ghosts. One is a violent poltergeist that she believes to be the spirit of a daughter who died in infancy. The other ghost is the memory of her years as a slave at the Sweet Home plantation across the river in Kentucky decades earlier, followed by her escape and then reclamation by the sadistic owner.
One day her old friend Paul D. stops by for a visit, and soon afterwards the haunting stops. But then a strange young woman shows up at the house and says her name is Beloved. Though seemingly in her late teens, she can barely walk, speak, or feed herself but. The housebound daughter Denver is happy for a new friend and playmate and treats her like a sister. But Beloved is prone to wild outbursts at times, and it starts to become clear that her presence at the house is no accident. The situation forces Sethe to confront her own dark past and the hard choices she made long ago.
The 1998 Jonathan Demme film stars Oprah Winfrey, who optioned the book and put considerable effort into this adaptation, perhaps hoping for another literary hit like The Color Purple in which she’d also acted. But the film died the death at the box office, and it’s not hard to see why. The unusual hybrid of black historical fiction and supernatural horror is hard to market, while the nearly three-hour running time is difficult for exhibitors to accommodate. And certainly the buzz surrounding the book’s release had cooled in the intervening decade, with its title suggesting a simple love story rather than a multilayered masterpiece.
All of this is a shame; though I was skeptical I’d make it through a three-hour “Oprah movie,” I was riveted, moved, impressed, and ultimately quite satisfied. Its epic length and calm pacing made the movie feel like a book. Moving back and forth from the ex-slave tale to the ghost story keeps either narrative from becoming tedious, and somehow Demme keeps the two extremes nicely balanced. Oprah’s frankly excellent as Sethe, and the entire cast, which also includes Danny Glover (Paul D.) and Thandie Newton (Beloved) are clearly committed to the project. But in her quiet way, Kimberly Elise as shy and modest Denver really steals the show. As she realizes she’s the only one who can end this madness, her courage is a thing to behold.
I hope you give one or both of these impressive films a chance. February’s a great time to consider how adversity can strengthen those it means to exploit.