News Column

The Kansas City Star Jene Osterheldt column

October 29, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 29--It's haunting and harrowing, but it's not a Halloween movie.

"12 Years a Slave," in KC theaters Friday, is a different kind of scary. It wraps around your heart and squeezes it to the point of discomfort. It makes "Roots" seem small. It pushes "Django" into pop fantasy land.

I have never seen a movie about slavery in America that is so visceral: A scene of a near hanging lasted so long my throat ached. I wanted to leave.

But I couldn't. I needed to see this. I needed to be pulled into the picture, into the reality of slavery in our country, with no glossing over the whips and chains. Finally, a movie that doesn't blanket every slave as a stereotype and every white man as a master. There is no escaping the depths of this film based on Solomon Northup's memoir.

Northup was born a free man in upstate New York, where he was a respected musician with a wife and kids and a house of his own. And then, in 1841, he was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Director Steve McQueen doesn't soften the horrors Solomon faced as he tried to survive.

The lash of the whip rips into the skin until meat shows. Lynchings linger. Rape delves beyond the physical act.

Chiwetel Ejiofor brilliantly embodies the role of Solomon, and he has described it as falling down the rabbit hole in "Alice in Wonderland." It's not a struggle for freedom, he told NPR, it's a struggle for sanity.

Shawn Edwards, Fox 4 film critic, says very few movies have shaken him. But for him, "12 Years a Slave" is as striking and powerful as "Schindler's List" and "The Deer Hunter." He's seen it three times -- in Toronto, New York and Kansas City. Each time, the audience left in stark silence.

"I don't want to scare anyone from seeing it," he says. "But it is a mental cleansing. You see the world completely differently. There are very few times when you see something and the impact is so direct and severe it changes you. You need space after you watch it, but you also want to learn more and you want to talk about it."

At 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday Shawn's iloveblackmovies.com will host a special screening of "12 Years a Slave," at AMC Town Center (11701 Nall Ave. in Leawood). Afterward, there will be a Q&A with noted educator and activist Carl Boyd. Going is as simple as RSVPing iloveblackmovies@yahoo.com.

Shawn says this is a must-see. Not only does he anticipate that the film will earn at least seven Oscar nominations, he believes it is a game changer, one that will alter the way we view all other movies about this topic.

"Other movies have portrayed the institution of slavery in America, but this is the best film to do it," Shawn says. "It's not a soap opera or a fan boy fantasy. It has the uniqueness of being told from the perspective of a slave that was once free. It's one of the first films to dive into all aspects of slavery: emotional, physical, sexual, intellectual and economic. Slavery was a business, and this film does not shy away from showing the different aspects of that. And it's done brilliantly and bravely."

But some people cannot handle another slave movie. Celebrated actor Morgan Freeman will not see the film.

"I don't want my anger quotient exacerbated, you know?," he told the Daily Beast. "Things are bad enough as they are. I don't want to keep punching myself in the face with it."

Freeman, well, he's 76, he's seen a lot. He knows a lot. And he's right. This movie will anger you. And it will hurt. The truth is hard like that sometimes.

See it anyway. I encourage my generation and those younger than me to watch it. Just once. No matter how much you learned in school, you haven't seen our country's history quite like this before. And I doubt you've seen someone cling to their humanity the way Solomon Northup holds onto his. It's inspiring.

It's easy to feel held down, to complain about how far we have to go. But "12 Years a Slave" shows you how far we've come and the kind of people we should strive to be.

To reach Jene Osterheldt, call 816-234-4380 or send email to josterheldt@kcstar.com. "Like" her page on Facebook and never miss a column. You also can follow her at Twitter.com/jeneeinkc.

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(c)2013 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

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