Thoughts from our artistic director Judith Jerome on 12 Years a Slave
Back on the sweet Piedmont in Oakland last night; my daughter, Effie, her sweetheart, Art, and I went to see 12 Years a Slave in the little Piedmont art house cinema where a callow youth gave a charming intro and preview of what’s to come, just like at the OH, and at the end an even more callow phalanx of youths came in with brooms and dustpans to clean up just like Annie Baker’s The Flick!
We sat not only through the credits after, but for maybe another five minutes still while first I and then Effie stopped sobbing. It is as hard a movie as I have ever seen. We talk after about how much better and more truthful we become about portraying violence in film—at the same time, Art points out, that another kind of gratuitous violence becomes the norm in many mainstream films.
Because of choreographer and dance therapist David Harris, I am thinking a lot, again, about muscular empathy, which has obsessed me for decades in live performance. Those live neurons firing muscle, even when an actor is not moving, kick off similar neurons in an attentive audience, and are what make really good theater really good theater. It’s different in film, without the presence of the live. Film depends on the visual, and on sound—which is maybe why it has to be so much more egregious, or extreme and detailed. It still affects the viewer’s body, but not in the same way, I think. What is the difference? It all comes through the eyes and ears?
Much of the violence in mainstream films is like a thrill ride, with films like The Lone Ranger, and James Bond at one extreme and both hilarious and terrifying end, and whatever the other end is I know only remotely because I don’t see those films and can’t even think of a title at the moment.
Then there are films like 12 Years and Saving Private Ryan and I am trying to remember the film set in Afghanistan with Rachel Weisz, or The Hurt Locker, films that try to tell the truth, with the visceral portrayal of violence and cruelty a principle tool of that truth telling. I was thinking last night about films from my childhood, Gone With the Wind, about the Civil War; Stars in My Crown, about the Ku Klux Klan; that famous movie—ah the painfully slow retrieval of proper nouns!—with Jimmy Stewart about World War I. These were films that dealt with our collective trauma, and were very affecting at the time. When Ashley went off to fight in GWTW my little child body rose up out of her seat and waved good bye with tears streaming down my face; and I was terrified for years of the night riders in their white hoods in SIMC. But they were a pale imitation of the terror and violence we are now able to portray, both technically and—this is the crux of what I am trying to get at—humanistically or psychologically or culturally.
It is like those early portrayals were all euphemisms for violence and inhumanity, and we are getting closer to the real thing, at being able to handle really looking at the real thing. Or is this just my idealism, my what do you call it, eschatological tendency to think in terms of final happy ends? A progressive development?
The Deer Hunterwas the first such film that I recall. And it paralleled a growing awareness of war that, as I perceive it, began with the Vietnam War, and that we are still in the midst of. (Our friend and war historian and ptsd expert, Tom Ricks, might argue with this timeline.) I was citing last night the terrible statistic that the number of military suicides now exceeds the number of combat deaths. We are no longer able, culturally, to compartmentalize war, to justify or glorify it. Surely this is a good thing. A kind of coming to consciousness.
I and of course many others have long argued that in this country racism is our deep and abiding cultural wound. It is the split, the dissociation between the avowed idealism of Christianity which propelled Europeans out of the old world and into the new, which are our founding values, at the root of us--and the reality of how we performed that Christianity relative to the Others we encountered. Any psychologist treating an individual client presenting this split would diagnose trouble here.
Does the making and reception of a film like 12 Years a Slave say something about our cultural ability to align, to incorporate a dissociated part of ourselves, our deep racism, back into the fold, into consciousness? To really look at it in all of its manifestations? Not only at what graphically happened to black bodies and psyches, but at the true insanity of its white perpetrators at the one end; and the passive agony of those who erred on the side of non-action at the other.
One last thought, the story is told through a black man who was “civilized,” in a white, European manner. Who enjoyed the privileges that were already accruing on the backs of Africans and Native Americans. We see slavery through the eyes of a privileged black man, which is part of why it is so unrelentingly, as Effie pointed out, awful. That is, the filmmaker gives us a very particular point of view, which might allow white audiences a different kind of access, allow us more empathy. I haven’t got this quite, and am not done with this topic.
Today I am thinking, laterally about the brutality of the white overlords in 12 Years a Slave.
In David Harris’ work with child soldiers in Sierra Leone he created a safe space of movement and language in which, through very simple exercises that any of us in the expressive arts know, he and his team slowly established a muscular empathy among the participants—which led to a growing conscious and articulable empathy among them. In stages the boys were able, through dance, ritual, and role playing, to begin to identify in their bodies what had happened to them, the atrocities, as parents were murdered before them etc., and they were initiated into perpetrating violence themselves, often through required acts against their families. And then to begin to identify and feel empathy with the victims of the atrocities they themselves had committed. And finally to genuinely ask for forgiveness from the community.
What I was particularly interested in in his account was the changes in the boys’ faces, the way the masks dropped away. And I am thinking about the masks of the faces of the plantation owners and overseers.
And I am thinking about Jeannette Wall’s work, The Glass Castle and Half Broke Horses, particularly the latter, which is a semi-fictional telling of her grandmother’s story. Very much a story of the rural west at the latter part of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, and brutal, too, in many ways, in its poverty, the realities of subsistence farming, what was required of a person in terms of bucking up, independence, handling extreme and often cruel circumstances. I am also rereading The Grapes of Wrath for a project that we are doing in the school in the spring. The characters Steinbeck draws are so gorgeous, and so brutalized by poverty, and of course by the weather and a system that is totally exacerbating the exigencies of the weather through breaking open the soil, mechanization, unfair usury practices. Steinbeck is so spot on—I say that with knowledge of my own Okie family, very much part of this lineage.
Or I could think about the first European settlers, the Mayflower and other stories, the terrible cold and hunger and lack of coping skills.
And I’m thinking of Peter Levine in Waking the Tiger and his argument that animals have a physical mechanism for kind of literally shaking off trauma—which we humans do not similarly possess
Poor people, my friend Debbie Little says. Marx and Engels via Art and wholly simplified by me: Bronze Age tools inaugurated a new order in which excess production, beyond what was immediately needed, carried with it the potential or impulse for using others. But I don’t believe that brutality is simply part of human make-up. I don’t believe that the plantation owners and overseers just made some kind of choice to see Africans as less than human, an error in judgment, or even that they were taken over by greed. The masks of their faces tell something different, tell of their own brutalization. Poor people. The first years of settling this country were HARD, and the events that sent Europeans here were hard, as were the millennia that preceded them. Ours is a brutal history.
Harris’ work tells us that if we are unable to deal with what happens to us the events are stored in our bodies. As long as they remain stored and unconscious they lead us to behave in horrific, unfeeling ways.
My eschatological impulses surfacing again—are we developing now the possibility for responding to the brutality of millennia of human existence in a different way? Is the emergence of a film like 12 Years a Slave another indication