The film “Sophie’s Choice” was the reason I was reluctant to go see “12 Years a Slave.”
I saw “Sophie’s Choice” soon after it came out in 1982, and, though it was a powerful, moving film, I came out of it feeling manipulated. Just the fact that I remember this after all these years shows the impact it had on me.
The film stars Meryl Streep as Sophie, a Polish Holocaust survivor. In a series of flashbacks, the story of her experiences is revealed piece by piece. In one of these fragments, Sophie speaks to a Nazi officer.
She tells him, “A mistake has been made.” She hands him a folded piece of paper, an early document suggesting the Final Solution. “I helped my father to write it. Perhaps you will realize the injustice of my imprisonment.”
By this time in the film, I, as a viewer, had already developed sympathy for the character of Sophie. I cared about her and wanted her to escape, to continue her life, to live happily ever after.
When I heard this line, I agreed with her: she didn’t belong there. And then the rational part of me was horrified that I’d even had that thought. Now wait a minute! Her imprisonment is certainly unjust, but no more so than anyone else’s in the Holocaust!
So when I heard about “12 Years a Slave,” I was afraid that a similar thing would happen. I knew just from the title and the back story that this film is based on a true story of a free black man who was captured, brought to the South, and forced into slavery. He didn’t deserve that, but neither did anyone else who lived in slavery, whether for 12 years or a lifetime!
I realize that almost every film has a protagonist, and part of the storyteller’s job is to make us, the viewers, sympathize with that person. We are meant to root for him or her.
In most films, that’s not hard to do. We identify with the hero or the underdog or the victims, and we want them to succeed. And there is usually only one or a small number of them, all of whom we get to know over the course of the film.
But a film like “12 Years a Slave” or “Sophie’s Choice” is different. The protagonist is just one among millions. Yet because we feel such a strong emotional connection to that one, or because that one person is presented as special in some way, we tend to ignore the rest. In “Sophie’s Choice,” we overlook the rest of the victims of the Holocaust, as if they’re a side issue, at least for as long as we are watching this film. In “12 Years a Slave,” we skim over all of the other enslaved people depicted in the film.
So I finally went to see “12 Years a Slave” last night. I should say first that it deserved the Oscars it received: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay. It’s a powerful film, but difficult to watch, illustrating a whole range of inventive forms of cruelty and violence.
“12 Years a Slave” is at its best when it portrays the casual, everyday cruelty of the slave plantation system: the slave owner, for example, who forces his slaves to dance for him for entertainment after a long day picking cotton in the fields. The bitter slave owner’s wife who denies soap to the female slave in the hopes that if the woman stinks, then the slave owner won’t desire her anymore.
But, as with “Sophie’s Choice,” I kept having this feeling of indignation on behalf of the main character: Solomon Northrup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. He’s educated, he’s articulate, he can play the violin, he’s got a family up north. He doesn’t belong there! Is he somehow more deserving of freedom because he’s educated?
The film does portray very clearly how the other blacks on the southern plantations where Northrup ends up working are just as oppressed as he is, perhaps more so because they accept their subjugation with resignation. They’re just as cruelly treated as he is, and they’ve presumably been enslaved their whole lives. They are commodified and persecuted.
It’s clear that this structure — focusing on the one to represent the many — helps viewers who perhaps have never thought about that group of persecuted people. It raises awareness, in some way, by presenting us with one person we can identify with to help us understand the larger group.
I went into this film conscious of this issue, and realized that I felt sympathy for many of the other characters as well, especially the only other one we meet in any depth: a slave called Patsy, played by Lupita Nyong’o. She is young and beautiful and horribly persecuted by her owner and the owner’s wife.
Yet our sympathy, our emotional connection, stays with Northrup. He is marked as special, as different, which enables this feeling in us. That’s in the nature of filmmaking, but it still makes me feel uncomfortable, even manipulated.