This year marks my 30th year in Oregon. To celebrate, I took in a double feature which exemplifies the two poles of my Oregonian experience. 12 Years a Slave and Gravity, both films helmed by directors of color. 12 Years served to ground me in reality, while Gravity took me to my favorite fantasy: a world without borders, floating free among the stars. The reality of space, though, is that it has no breathable atmosphere, extremes of hot and cold and is always trying to kill you, nothing personal. Same with Oregon; sometimes we don’t like your kind.
Perhaps it is fitting that a British director and British leading man tell an American story which resonates today in contemporary Oregon and the rest of America. Britain did end slavery before America. A monarch of African descent sat on the British throne during our Revolutionary War (Charlotte Mecklenburg-Strelitz), and her granddaughter (Queen Victoria) decreed that any American slave who made it into Canada had the protection of the British military.
12 Years a Slave was directed by Steve McQueen, and stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northrup, an African-American citizen living in Saratoga, New York, who in 1841 was induced to go below the Mason-Dixon line, to Washington, D.C. He was drugged and kidnapped into slavery in Louisiana. This was not an uncommon fate for free men of color, living under white supremacy. They were particularly targeted because their intellect often made them more threatening, because they dared to think of themselves as equal to whites. Northrup was a man of intellect, gracious manners and means, musically inclined, well traveled and of course literate. In slavery, other than his musical talent, his pride and his literacy marked him for death.
Northrup is portrayed as a tender husband, a loving gentle father and a man well respected in his community. McQueen is not heavy handed with his subject matter, slavery. He doesn’t shy away from the casual hair-trigger brutality nor the attempts of enslaved people to maintain their humanity, whether in tentative lovemaking or simply staying alive, while being whipped for the crime of acquiring soap after being raped.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays a “Good Massa” to Michael Fassbender’s “Bad Massa.” Like the difference between a drug dealer and a pimp: The former can stand by and allow brutality to occur, while the latter is sadistic and inventive in his drunken cruelty. Alfre Woodard does a turn as a former slave turned mistress of the plantation. While it was never shown, the Confederate flag waves in support of all those activities. Oregon is essentially a Southern state in the Northwest.
As an American citizen of African descent, it would have been illegal for Solomon Northrup to come to live in Oregon. It was the fact of his intellect and cross-cultural competency that made him and people like him threatening to figures like Samuel Thurston, Joseph Lane or their modern equivalents. As it remained illegal for him to live within the Eugene city limits before 1965 or be on the street after dark in Springfield, could he find employment as a college professor? Could he remain 30 years an Oregonian?