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‘12 Years a Slave’: Is it relevant to South Africans?

By Thulani Grenville-Grey

I saw 12 Years a Slave recently. I wanted to see something real that would make me feel “deep-down” things, you know, fundamental things. I wanted to feel outraged about something worth feeling outraged about, have an opinion about an Oscar-nominated movie, form a critique, have something to argue about into the early hours.

Well, I got what I wanted. Any movie about slavery is taxing to watch at the best of times, to watch one in South Africa, at this moment in time, among a racially mixed audience still grappling with its racial dis-ease, deferred dreams, and residual grief over the passing of a man that tried to “make this a better place”, is super-taxing.

I have never in my life sat in a cinema so clothed in personal silence, and silence can be very noisy. It was a silence that had a beginning, a middle, and an end. We all went in, anticipating some pain, we surely witnessed it, sat in it, reached out a hand if there was someone to hold it, and left with it.

I can’t speak for everyone, but just to make sure I wasn’t “over-feeling”, I did make a point of parking myself by the popcorn stand afterwards, to see how people looked and sounded, emerging from the darkness … it was not good!

Some nattered incessantly, some snippets I heard were highly removed and intellectual, some were more of a “Yoh! Yoh! Yoh!”, some preferred to analyse the acting and Oscar-worthiness.

It all reminded me exactly of my colleagues reactions in a combi trip I took in Rwanda on the way back from “that church” where more than 4 000 Tutsis were slaughtered by hand. Just everyday people reacting to an emotional kick in the stomach in their own somewhat quirky and idiosyncratic way.

I saw at least three couples from the movie wondering aimlessly through the mall, puff-eyed and blushy, seemingly reluctant to just jump into their cars and get away, trying to find a way to land this emotional troop carrier, I was one of them.

So what was going on, why the silence and the soft shoe-shuffle? And is a slave story really that relevant to us as people first, and South Africans second? I guess the answer to that has to do with how much you feel connected, or have an affinity to the historical continuity of “your people” and how much one feels related to a racial group of which you are a part.

Do the values and behaviours of one generation automatically become inherited by the generations that come after? It would seem logical that they do, albeit in varying degrees. And if they do, does inheriting mean we have to feel responsible in some way? I don’t think we have to, but there is an emotional default that does at least puff out our chests at the good legacies and squirm at the bad, whether we like it or not.

And so it is, that unlike a movie about potatoes, a movie about despicable human injustices touches us at a personal level. Throw in racial injustice and it touches us more viscerally, screen it in South Africa … and well, it’s just plain uncomfortable. How can it not be?

I think one of the most glaring and painful emotions that prevail on the part of the viewer is loathing and self-loathing, whatever side of the racial divide that slave movies nudge us into.

It would be simple to merely think that to watch a movie about slavery leaves a black man angry and a white man guilty. That is not to say that those flashes don’t happen, but the truth is more layered and the movie lays down much more subtle expositions, scenes and ideas that do have significant contemporary relevance.

There is much to loathe:
* The expedient economic commodification of black people, slaves or not, without any regard for familial togetherness or basic human respect;
* The elevation of the ability to entertain as the only aspiration and worth of a black man;
* The unbridled intoxication of absolute power that spills over into distorted sexuality and violence;
* The learned helplessness of the helpless, clothed in verbal bravura that quickly melts when faced with the simple instinct to survive;
* That the worst pain to be inflicted on you can be by “your own” when they should be your protector;
* That sometimes, as mad as it seems, circumstances can be so unbearable that death can be a plausible escape;
* That individual freedom can seemingly exist in the bosom of collective incarceration, and
* That a victim can become so indoctrinated by their master’s values that they revert to them in order to “keep up appearances” (you’ll have to watch it to get that one!)

So do these expositions, sometimes beautifully depicted, have relevance for South Africa? You bet they do!

Thulani Grenville-Grey: mental health specialist for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, HIV specialist and jazz student.

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