This year marks the 24th anniversary of the New Orleans Film Festival hosted by the New Orleans Film Society, which also plays host to the French Film Festival, Film-o-Rama, and the New Orleans International Children’s Film Festival. In a city so rich in art and culture and given the major uptick in projects being filmed right here in our own backyard, I’m glad to see that New Orleans has become such a force on the international stage of film.
Thursday’s opening night screening of 12 Years a Slave with director Steve McQueen and cast was an in-your-face, no-holds-barred, true story of Solomon Northup, an educated free black man from upstate New York who was kidnapped, transported to New Orleans, and sold into slavery in 1841. His years of utter terror, darkness and cruelty took place right here in Louisiana, so it was fitting that the project was also filmed here.
Published in 1853, 12 Years a Slave became a national best-seller but was overshadowed by the book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Northup did not hold back the details in his autobiography, and Director Steve McQueen held true to the script. Nothing sugar-coated. Nothing left out. McQueen also captured so well the nuances of southern life–the heat, the sweat, the sound of cicadas.
It took a while for any of us to actually form sentences once the credits rolled. People weeped. Of the 134 minutes, there was no relief, no pause for the audience. We endured for two hours the story of this man who suffered relentless physical abuse. He was one of the very few free men sold into slavery to eventually regain freedom. Northup became an abolitionist, published his autobiography and lectured throughout the Northeast about his years in slavery.
This is an ugly, grotesque part of our history. I will never look at a plantation home the same. I am actually having a very difficult time coming to terms with the fact that we celebrate our plantations, hold festivals, laugh and play, and pay for tours to admire the beautiful remnants of an old southern world. But let me tell you. There is nothing beautiful about a plantation home. They may as well be called house of horrors.
This film is so important because it forces us to confront our history. As much as we would like to, we can never forget our human ability to inflict pain on each other and then justify it in our heads. No one is exempt.
Racism in America today is the offspring of slavery. Anyone who sees this movie will be changed.
Visit the New Orleans Film Society for a full lineup of this week’s films.