[This is not a review in the traditional sense, but it does contain SPOILERS]
Jehoshaphat Kingston is driving down the highway when he notices a woman changing a flat tire on the highway shoulder. Even at seventy miles-an-hour, Kingston can tell that the heavy, brown, dowdy woman is struggling badly. It is a hot and breezy January day, brutally dry, the currents of hot air full of thievish imps, their busy little hands plucking away at any exposed moisture. Kingston pulls his Merkur XR4Ti off the highway and backs carefully along the shoulder until he is close to the woman and her minivan.
“Hello,” He shouts, exiting the spotless black XR4Ti, the dignified clomp of his alligator-print shoes reverberating outward, despite the highway noise and the static cracklings of the road grit. “Would you like a hand with that?”
“Sí, gracias,” The woman says. Her hair blowing tumbleweed-tangled and dry in the wind. She continues in rapid Spanish. When she is done, Kingston shrugs.
“Lo siento, no hablo Español.”
“I take the kids to the park for soccer. Now the tire is gone bad.” Kingston looks into the car and sees three children at the window peering out. Two boys and a girl.
“What are their names?”
“Santiago, Paulina y Franco. My name is Guadalupe.”
“Let them know I’ll have this fixed up in no time Guadalupe.” Kingston removes his vest and tie and gets to work. He struggles with, and overcomes, the slightly bent tire iron, the nearly-stripped lug nuts and the rusty jack. He is setting the spare tire when he hears a car pull up behind the minivan. Kingston turns his head to the still decelerating police car. He stands slowly and turns his whole body, spreading his feet a bit, hands hanging open and ready by his sides. He longs to wipe the sweat from his forehead before it drips to his eyes, but his posture in this moment is everything. Any furtive movement, any sign of weakness could consign him to a drawer in the city morgue, if not a shallow grave somewhere in the desert scrub…
The cop steps out, along with a partner that Kingston did not notice inside the car. They are dressed and groomed the same – aviator sunglasses, vests, utility belts, thick black mustaches, black Stetson-style hats. “Is this your vehicle?” The first one asks.
“No, the van belongs to the woman over there.” Kingston does not actually know whether the woman is in the minivan, or somewhere else. He is determined not to break eye contact with the officers.
One of the cops wrinkles his nose. “I smell Marijuana. That means we have to run these plates and talk to the driver.” He pronounces this as one would incontrovertible fact. Not up for debate.
“You should probably get back to work on that tire, buddy.” Says the other, sneering. Kingston does not reply or move. There is a High Noon moment. The cops dangle their hands provocatively near their police revolvers while Kingston has fantasies of crushing their heads with the tire iron. Eventually Kingston sighs and looks through the van’s windows at Guadalupe, who is sharing juice boxes with the children in the grass at the edge of the highway shoulder.
“Damascus Orrents, Damascus,” He hisses to himself as he drops back to the tire. He is tightening the last lug when he hears a shriek.
“No! Mis Hijos!” Guadalupe is being dragged away by the police. The children swarm and try to extract her, drawing a series of kicks and commands from the officers.
“This woman is in this country illegally. We’re detaining her. Get these kids away before one of us has to use the taser.”
“Are you kidding? You can’t separate this woman from her children! Have you no decency!?” Cries Kingston. Stricken with denial, he finds himself slowly drifting toward the melee.
One of the officers manages to disengage himself, stepping into Kingston’s face and removing his sunglasses. Horrid cold hard piggy blue eyes glint out from remorseless and shadowed sockets deep as hate. “My sense of decency extends 1,954 miles along the southern borders of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. The brats are citizens, unfortunately, so either you take them or we let the tow truck driver decide what to do with them.” The officer stares into Kingston’s eyes for another moment before replacing his sunglasses, striding to the police cruiser, and opening one of the rear doors. The officers shove the howling Guadalupe in and drive away, nearly running over Santiago in the process. Franco runs along the shoulder and hurls the tire iron after them, almost striking a passing Kia. When the cruiser is out of sight, the crying and panicked children surround Kingston, their tearful eyes looking up at him as if to ask What do we do now?
They find Hector, husband of Guadalupe and father of the children, easily enough. He is with a crew constructing a house in a subdivision. When Kingston tells him what happens, he grows grave and convenes a conference of the exclusively Latino workmen. This has obviously happened before, though perhaps not to Hector himself. A few minutes later he comes out of the conference and pulls Kingston aside.
“We need to finish the work then make a plan with our lawyer. Can you watch mis hijos for a while? Take them to the cinema, buy them ice cream. They need to forget the situation.” He peels a couple twenties – dirty and damp – off of a roll and presses them into Kingston’s palm. Kingston takes them reluctantly. He is putting the money in his pocket when a White BMW pulls up to the construction site. An older white man gets out, sunglasses wrapped around his head and rolled up drawings under his arm.
“How’s the work coming?” He shouts patronizingly. “¿Como va el trabajo?”
“What movie do you want to see? Frozen? Frankenstein IMAX 3D?”
“12 Years a Slave!” Shouts Paulina.
“Huh? I don’t think we can see that – it’s too rough. It’s not for kids your age.”
“What are you, a coward?” says Franco.
“Hey now, I never said-”
“Come on Jehoshaphat,” says Santiago. “We want to learn about America.”
“I think you learned enough today,” Kingston mutters, quietly. He is not mentally prepared to see the film. Rosewood still gives him nightmares. He remembers his parents taking him to that one, almost seventeen years ago, their teeth grimaced in the same jagged prelude that accompanied spankings, the birds and bees talk, and a number of financial pow-wows during college.
Kingston worries that taking children – children that are not his – into such a film may constitute a felony, but he relents in the face of their loudly chanting “12-Years-a-Slave! 12-Years-a-Slave!” Ticketing goes smoothly, and once the previews are finished, the children fall silent.
Kingston takes in the film. Solomon’s gentlemanly life in the north fascinates him. Saratoga seems like an oasis, a mirage. Solomon is better dressed and more respected than most blacks in America today, Kingston thinks. And yet he feels that dread foreboding – the knowledge that the good times will not last, and that violence, brutality, racism and evil will rear up and assert its awful weigh upon our dark-skinned hero Solomon, as well as many of the people that he encounters.
Kingston wonders how human beings could possibly treat each other the way they do in the film and still claim to be civilized. Kingston’s mouth hangs open during Solomon’s initial beating. Years of reputation and relationships invalidated by the words of a white man and the swing of a paddle. A strange industrial process – the making of a free man into a slave.
Kingston is almost smiling during Paul Giamatti’s exhibition of his slave boutique. His callousness is so over-the-top, his display of his wares so choreographed and full of flourishes that it seems impossible that this is not a passage of very dark satire. However, when Eliza is separated from her children, the moment rings out as a cold shockwave that tears the new skin from the day’s wounds. Franco, Paulina, Santiago and Kingston all begin to weep loudly, their wails intermingling with those of the characters onscreen to create a nigh-intolerable atmosphere of pain and loss. A number of patrons turn to shush the group, but the anger drains from each face when they make out just who it is that they would chastise. Kingston and the children are only quieted when an usher, a freckled, nervous teenager with red hair and a red vest, stands at the end of their row and makes desperate, frantic gestures at them, like an air traffic controller seeking to avert a multi-million dollar collision.
During the scene in which Eliza and Solomon argue about her loud and visible grief, and his lack of same, the children grow confused. “What are they saying to each other?” whispers Paulina, who is seated next to Kingston.
Without thinking he replies “It’s Shakespeare. You’ll read it in high school.”
There is a scene of perverse beauty when Solomon is nearly lynched, then left hanging just above his standing height in the noose, his toes working desperately in the mud to keep his windpipe uncrushed. The scene is stretched beyond its presumed boundaries, the frame reaching a hypnotic, intoxicating level of Barry Lyndon-esque richness as Solomon struggles for air and purchase.
“God, I want a print for my living room,” Kingston thinks aloud, watching the dreamlike spectacle of the slaves going about their business in the background, too terrified to acknowledge the man nearly hanged a few feet away from them. He is surprised when the girl sitting in front of him, a white girl with big, thick-rimmed glasses, turns around and whispers “So do I. No offense, but it’s just such a fucking brilliant image.”
Kingston feels horrible discomfort during the scenes in which the Eppses make the slaves dance in the plantation house for their entertainment. When Mistress Epps attacks Patsey not once but twice, Kingston can’t help remember an incident in college where a white friend struck a black friend in a spell of drunken anger at a previously friendly get-together. He remembers wanting to sink through the floor, to melt backwards through the wall, to not deal with the events and all the meaning behind them. He remembers the other witnesses, too embarrassed to allow their eyes to meet his. He sees it in Solomon’s face, and realizes that slavery was in large part a long succession of these horrific and surreal moments. Moments of behavior beyond any social etiquette or acceptable standard of human interaction, stacked end-to-end and vanishing into the horizon of years interminable…
When the film ends, Kingston checks for notifications on his iPhone 5, which he forgot to turn off before the film, despite the repeated on-screen admonishments from the theater’s corporate cabal. He wonders what kind of treatment the employees at Foxconn endured for him to have this technology. “How many iPhones did you assemble today?” “185.” “Tsk tsk, the average worker in good health should be able to assemble at least 200. Step forward.” The whippings then administered with a sort of scourge woven together from earbud headphones and charging cables. The white rubber coating gone red and brown with repeated punishments.
On the way back to Hector they drive past a group of convicts in orange jumpsuits picking up garbage along the side of the road. Armed guards stand vigil among the men and at the prison bus.
“Are they slaves?” Asks Paulina, innocence in her voice.
Kingston believes Paulina is being provocative, perhaps at the behest of her brothers. Very cagey, these children. “Yes,” He replies. “Yes they are. Now who wants ice cream?”
Jehoshaphat Kingston drops Santiago, Paulina and Franco with off with Hector. Hector thanks Kingston profusely, and refuses the change from the movie and the ice cream. In counter-offer, Hector gives Kingston a business card and the promise of almost-free home improvement, redeemable any time. Kingston wishes Hector and the children the best of luck in freeing Guadalupe, and offers his testimony and any other assistance he can provide.
As Kingston makes his way home, he drives past a group of young black men. Their pants sag almost to their knees, slightly below the hems of their oversized white t-shirts and sports jerseys. Ostentatious chains dangle from a few of their necks, and flat-brimmed hats sit askance on a few of their heads. They walk in strange rangebound gaits, communicate in a slang impenetrable, and shoot mistrustful glances at Kingston. Are they slaves? Kingston asks himself. Of course not! But he can’t shake the image of Solomon near the end of the film – stooped and terrified, speaking in the imprecise drawl of the field nigger, moving with the subservient deference of one always broadcasting inferiority in order to avoid punishment. He sees echoes of the process here, long bloodlines of postures unofficially sanctioned by generations. Every would-be pundit and social scientist in the present day sees these distinct black behaviors through a different prism. For Kingston they are an unpleasant reminder, now heightened to painful acuity by his witnessing of 12 Years a Slave. As he drives past, Kingston yells at the group of men “The more things change!” he shouts to confused glares, feeling like another pound cake crank in inter-class judgment, but not caring enough to pull back. “The more they stay the same!”