And justice for some: 12 Years a Slave **1/2 & The Trials of Muhammad Ali ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 2, 2013)

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One of the lighter moments in 12 Years a Slave.

Let me make this perfectly clear. It is my sincere personal belief that slavery is evil. There is nothing that justifies robbing human beings of their freedom and treating them as chattel. And I do take the subject of slavery throughout the history of mankind (whether in discussion, literature, theater or film) seriously, from what the Pharaohs did to my own ancestors 5000 years ago, to the odious exploitation of Africans by European and American slave traders over a 300 year period. I offer this disclaimer to any of my fellow liberals who may be offended that the following review is not going to be a fawning one, no matter how noble and righteous the filmmaker’s intent.

Somewhere around the halfway mark of British director Steve McQueen’s latest wallow in human misery, 12 Years a Slave, one character begs the protagonist (in so many words) to “Please…kill me now.” Oddly enough, those are the exact words I was silently mouthing as I stole a glance at my watch to assuage a suspicion that I may in fact now be living in the year 2019. However, in polite deference to my fellow moviegoers in the packed, reverently hushed auditorium (and my sworn duties as your film reviewer), I took a deep breath, girded my loins for the 6 remaining years of the film’s running time and kept mum. I did hit a rough patch about 7/8 of the way through when one of the characters says (to the best of my recollection) “…and do you agree, sir, that slavery is evil?” To which I nearly leaped to my feet to exclaim “YES! Thank you for finally saying it! Now…for the love of god, please roll the end credits!” No such luck.

The film is based on an 1855 memoir by Solomon Northup, an African-American resident of upstate New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841, remaining in bondage until his rescue in 1853. Now, I have not read this source book, which I gather to be one of the earliest detailed first-hand accounts to shed light on the machinations of the American slave trade (most significantly, from the victim’s perspective), as well as an inspiring account of survival and retention of dignity in the face of such institutionalized horror. Sounds like perfect fodder for a multi-dimensional film that could personalize an ugly chapter of American history traditionally glossed over (at least when I was in grade school back in the Bronze Age).

Unfortunately, McQueen and his screenwriter John Ridley have chosen to fixate more on the “horror” than anything else. We are barely introduced to Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a genteel, well-educated, top-hat tipping gentleman who supports his family with his skills as a carpenter and accomplished fiddle-player, before he is bamboozled by a pair of con men with a laughably simple ruse and shanghaied into slavery by the next morning (if I didn’t already know that this was a Very Serious Film, I might have begun to suspect I had been bamboozled into a sneak for the latest Hangover sequel).

What ensues is not so much a tangible story arc as it is a two-hour aversion therapy session (how many repetitive scenes of beatings, lashings, lynchings and rape can you sit through with your eyes pinned open like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange before you beg for mercy? Start the timer!) As the years tick by, Solomon is bought and sold and loaned and traded and sold again. Then more beatings, lashings,  lynchings and rapes…different plantations.

Occasional Malick-esque interludes offer some respite, with painterly antebellum dioramas that would make James Lee Burke moist. Using a sliding scale of evil, a few of the white folks Solomon encounters are “better” than others (including a sympathetic owner played by Benedict Cumberbatch and Brad Pitt as a Canadian abolitionist), but mostly cartoonish villains (Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano and McQueen veteran Michael Fassbender try to out-Snidely Whiplash each other).

I sense there is a really terrific film here, screaming to get out from underneath all the ham-fisted slavery porn. I understand that a film doesn’t have to be a “comfortable” experience, especially when dealing with an uncomfortable subject. I get “provocative”. I get “challenging”. That’s what makes good art. But a film also has to tell a story. I don’t care if it’s a happy story, or a sad story, or even a linear story. But a film shouldn’t be merely something to endure (unless you’re a masochist and  into that sort of thing; I  won’t judge you).

In an odd bit of kismet, I recently devoted several successive evenings to watch all 9 ½ hours of Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 Holocaust documentary Shoah. It is, hands down, the most harrowing, emotionally shattering and profoundly moving film I have ever seen about man’s inhumanity to man. And guess what? In 9 ½ hours, you don’t see one single image or reenactment of the actual horrors. It is people (victims and perpetrators) simply telling their story and collectively creating an oral history. And I was riveted. To be sure, Solomon Northrup had to endure 12 years of pure hell. I get that. But I’ll bet you he also had a story to tell. Sadly, I get no sense of it here.

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Rope-a-trope: The Trials of Muhammad Ali.

“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father… Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail”

-Muhammad Ali

There have been a number of films documenting and dramatizing the extraordinary life of Muhammad Ali, but they all share a curious anomaly. Most have tended to gloss over Ali’s politically volatile “exile years” (1967-1970), during which the American sports icon was officially stripped of his heavyweight crown and essentially “banned” from professional boxing after his very public refusal to be inducted into the Army on the grounds of conscientious objection to the Vietnam War. In a new documentary, The Trials of Muhammad Ali (not to be confused with Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight, the 2013 made-for-cable drama that HBO has been running in heavy rotation) filmmaker Bill Siegel (The Weather Underground) fills in those blanks.

As we know, Time heals (most) wounds…and Siegel opens his film with a fascinatingly dichotomous illustration. We witness a young Ali in a TV talk show appearance as he is being lambasted by an apoplectic David Susskind, who calls him (among other things) “…a disgrace to his country, his race and what he laughably describes as his profession.” (Ali deflects the insulting rant with a Zen-like calm). Cut to 2005, and footage of President G.W. Bush Jr.  awarding Ali the Medal of Freedom. It’s easy to forget how vilified Ali was for taking his stand (scars from the politically polarizing Vietnam era run deep; I know a few folks who still refer to Jane Fonda as “Hanoi Jane”).

Sigel then traces the evolution of Ali’s controversial stance, which had its roots in the early 60s, when the wildly popular Olympic champion then known as Cassius Clay became interested in the Nation of Islam, guided by the teachings of the movement’s leader at the time, Elijah Muhammad. Interviewees Kahlilah Camacho-Ali (Ali’s first wife, whom he met through the Nation of Islam) and a longtime friend only identified as “Captain Sam” provide a lot of interesting background on this spiritual side of Ali’s life, which eventually led to the adaptation of a new name and his refusal to serve in Vietnam.

As you watch the film, you begin to understand how Ali the sports icon transmogrified into an influential sociopolitical figure, even if he didn’t set out to become the latter. It was more an accident of history; Ali’s affiliation with the Nation of Islam and stance against the Vietnam War put him at the confluence of both the burgeoning Black Power and anti-war movements. Either way, it took balls, especially considering  that when he was convicted of draft evasion (later overturned by the Supreme Court), he was not only stripped of his heavyweight title (and primary source of income), but had his passport taken away by the government. This was not grandstanding; it was a true example of standing on the courage of one’s convictions.

Sigel has  dug up some revelatory archival footage from Ali’s three years in the wilderness. He still had to pay rent and feed his family, so Ali essentially found a second career during that period as a professional speaker (likely making him the only world-famous athlete to have inserted that phase of life usually associated with post-retirement into the middle of one’s career). During this time he represented himself as a minister of the Nation of Islam, giving speeches against racism and the Vietnam War (he shows to have been quite an effective and charismatic speaker). One mind-blower is footage of Ali performing a musical number from a Broadway play called Big Time Buck White. Wow.

It’s hard to see this film and not draw parallels with Edward Snowden; specifically to ponder how he will be viewed in the fullness of time. Granted, Snowden is not as likely to get bestowed with the Medal of Freedom-but god knows he’s being vilified now (remember, Ali didn’t just catch flak from the usual suspects for standing firmly on his principles, but even from dyed-in-the-wool liberals like Susskind).

Another  takeaway is that there was more going on than cloaked racism; Ali’s vilification was America’s pre-9/11 flirt with Islamophobia. Ali was “safe” and acceptable as a sports celebrity (as long as he played the face-pulling, poetry-spouting ham with Howard Cosell), but was recast as a dangerous black radical once he declared himself a Muslim and began to speak his mind on hot-button issues.

As one interviewee comments on the Islam quotient “…Since 9/11, ‘Islam’ has acquired so many layers and dimensions and textures. When the Nation of Islam was considered as a ‘threatening’ religion, traditional Islam was seen as a gentle alternative. And now, quite the contrary […] Muhammad Ali occupies a weird kind of place in that shifting interpretation of Islam.” Welcome to Bizarro World.

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