Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Known Things

I generally read reviews after I’ve watched a film, which might seem odd, but is a natural part of my assessment process, seeing what others have to say. Obviously, this time of year, as I catch up with the prestigious and high-minded films catching awards heat, what others have to say gets more diffuse, specific and hair-splity, since in general such films have at least a base level of competence. Usually. Anyways. Two such films I made sure to catch are 12 Years a Slave and Fruitvale Station, which respectively have aggregate review scores of 96% and 94%, and one criticism I saw levied at both, from professionals and cinephiles, hinged on matters of existence. Specifically that they didn’t “say anything [the speaker] didn’t already know.” Looking at the posters for both, you might see something else they have in common. Further, if you’re familiar with the backstory of each, you might see yet another.

            Fruitvale Station is a modest, largely low key film about the last day of Oscar Grant, a real person. Oscar is 22 years old, he plans to celebrate New Year’s, he goes to the grocery store, he gets food for his mother’s birthday party, he argues with his girlfriend, he struggles to avoid the life that previously led him to prison, he picks up his daughter from day care, he charms a shop owner into letting his girlfriend use the restroom, and he gets shot in the back and killed while restrained or while struggling against being restrained by a BART cop who claims to have wanted to Taser him because he appeared to be reaching for something.
            Recreated through interviews with his family and friends, Fruitvale is content to follow around Oscar, as played by Michael B. Jordan (who really should have gotten a nomination), on a day that should have been prosaic and typical. This was the intent of director Ryan Coogler—to give Oscar the weight he lost when he became an easily reducible archetype for the 24 hour news beast. Before Oscar Grant was young black man with a record, shot by authorities under dubious circumstances, he was a multifaceted person, and Coogler’s desire was to present him as such, unburdened by the narrative of him a typical thug, or a similarly dehumanizing martyr. The focus remains on Grant, ending not long after his death, well before the officer who killed him was sentenced to 2 years with time served, the ensuing protests, and the hijacking of those protests into riots, and the further context that would have distanced us from Oscar as a person by layering on the tale of Oscar Grant, news item.
            It’s, too be sure, a modest purpose. So modest, some ask if there is any value in making a point (“This human being was a human being”) so self-evidently true. And, the review from the AV Club put it: “If America needs a movie to make that much clear, God help us.”
            Inevitably, as I looked over Fruitvale Station’s reviews, I’d find comments of similar theme, if varying structure, taking the film to task for glossing over Grant’s criminal history (which, incidentally, reveals that the commenter had not actually seen the film). The point of such comments? Generously, to the people who make them, it’s apparently ok for someone with a record to be executed at any time for any reason, because that record is reason enough. I don’t much feel like extrapolating the less generous take.
            That AV Club review went up on July 11, 2013. Two days later, a jury would acquit the murderer of Trayvon Martin (another case where we “don’t know” because we “weren’t there”). I’m here, almost exactly 8 months later, reading about Jordan Davis, who was killed because his murderer “hates that thug music.” For something so known, our society has a real problem  
            In such an environment, when murder victims of a certain color are subjected to scrutiny and second-guesses and character assassinations and campaigns of discrediting on the same scale sexual assault victims are subjected to, when poor Photoshop jobs playing to racial stereotypes traced back to Neo-Nazi groups get play on mainstream news networks, to me, at least, the modest aims of Fruitvale Station have an obvious value.
            Award season fare has a long tradition of simplistic takes on charged racial history, with an aim toward making white people feel good. A few people saw that tradition at work in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, adapted from the memoir of Solomon Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, northern-residing son of a freedman, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the south, where he remained for 12 years (as you may have guessed). But, what’s the big deal, when we all know that slavery is bad?
            Well, there are still a few fringe elements who’d disagree (or, at least, they’d assert it wasn’t that bad), they’re so fringe as to not really be worth addressing, even if a lot of them hold political office. Rather, there’s a worrying lack of intellectual rigor behind asserting 12 Years a Slave is just about how slavery is bad.
            Quite frankly, it’s absurdly reductionist, like saying War and Peace is just about, well, you know. It’s the sort of statement born out of the good and evil binary sort of thinking that plenty of lesser movies have been eager to employ for effective but ultimately cheap gravitas, and the sort of statement that makes it easy for we modern Americans to divorce ourselves from the past. I even unconsciously did it right there—our past, that should read. Slavery is bad, and we know that, so we are not the obvious villains who perpetuated it.
            When I say 12 Years a Slave is not binary, that is not to say it introduces some shade of grey, or that its nuance is in ambiguity. Rather, its nuance is in showing how thoroughly slavery’s evil had infected the environment, what its madness had done to everyone in that society. It’s even hard to see Northup’s northern friends, who eventually see him released, as particularly noble as they leave uncounted others behind. While historically accurate, it still feels deliberate and pointed that Solomon’s best white ally is Canadian—he earlier confided in a former overseer, forced by poverty into field work, and traumatized by past actions as an overseer, who still betrays Solomon.
            While the deranged, cruel, booze-swilling rapist slave owner Epps, played by Michael Fassbender, is the most fearsome and threatening to Solomon Northup, sitting in the film-bathed darkness, he was easy for me to dismiss—he was, after all, a type I’d seen plenty. The bad guy. Slavery is bad, and there was the bad guy profiting from its perpetuation. No, the figure who frightened me was Ford, the one played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who speaks openly of slavery’s wrongness and the human dignity of its victims even as he profits from its practice. While in his memoir Northup would write admiringly of Ford, it’s tough with modern eyes to see authentic benevolence or respect from someone who claims ownership rights over other human beings. Ford may not whip or beat his slaves, and he even may not allow others to do so either, but he seems no better for that. He seems dangerously foolish, deluded, and hypocritical. It’s easy to separate from the snarling, beastly monsters, but the monster who just doesn’t swim against the tide it tough to shake.

I now really know that much.

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