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The Shame of Victimhood

We finally saw 12 Years a Slave last week.

And yes, it’s stunning. Both in its “sober beauty” and in the powerful wallop it packs, it’s stunning in the sense that it renders you speechless — and fills me with admiration for the professional movie reviewers who had to digest and render account of the experience on deadline. I know I couldn’t have done so, though I can urge you to see this movie if you haven’t. Even if (as we did) you’ve been putting it off because you know it’ll be painful.

It will be painful, and I’m guessing it will remain so in your memory, perhaps as it has in mine. But for me, anyway, it wasn’t painful in the way of trauma that shuts off thought and inquiry. Not only have the images lingered, but they’ve raised questions, first sending me back to Solomon Northup’s original 1853 narrative, and then forward to a gazillion movie reviews and articles, to see how other viewers took it in, and whether they understood certain scenes as I did.

Which is why I’m writing about it here — to try to think through my questions some more. And — if you have seen it — to check in with you and see what you made of, in particular, the movie’s closing scene, of Solomon Northup’s reunion with his wife and (now) grown children, that Slate’s critic Dana Stevens rightly called “soul-rending,” and “the unhappiest happy ending” she’d ever seen, “a moment that makes you weep not just for this one man who found his way back to freedom, but for all those men and women who never knew it in the first place.”

All of which is true and eloquently put, if impossible to imagine without reference to Chiwetel Ejiofor’s face, emotions passing over it in agonized, complicated sequence. But which doesn’t account for what he says, which is to apologize to his family through his tears, and which I found deeply mysterious.

Apologize for what, I wondered? There’s no such apology in the memoir. And surely (as Northup’s wife hastens to say) no apology is necessary, most especially from some one so unambiguously victimized. Is it because Northrup nonetheless feels he ought to have understood this own vulnerability? That it was vain, self-regarding, simply foolish, to have let his guard down? That not only he but also his family have suffered for his hubris?

Is there something about the sight of his children, grown up without him? Is it all of the above, in some inextricable combination?

Or is it perhaps that there’s a kind of shame that adheres to suffering, even the most undeserved suffering? I’m not even exactly sure what I mean by this last, but it’s the pole to which my thoughts continue to gravitate, that seems to me to sum up all the other possibilities. The isolation of the feeling.

And does this have anything to do with director Steve McQueen’s last movie, called Shame?

I’d be grateful to hear what you think.

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