Moviegoers laughed during the scene where the plantation owner chases after Solomon Northup (“Platt”) with a knife and falls once and again. A few even chuckled when Northup hanged by his neck from a tree on plantation grounds while slave children played nearby and the white mistress looked on from her porch. Not a sound was made, however, as I grimaced and glanced away from the screen when Solomon was forced to whip Patsy, a fellow slave, tied to a pole, barenaked, on account of she went to a neighboring plantation to ask for soap. I did hear at least one person laugh when as part of auction proceedings, the slave trader forced a black boy to do a high knee run for a potential buyer. The laughter subsided quickly as the child's mother had to be restrained and ushered off screen for pleading desperately that her family not be separated. Then Solomon played the violin. Which is a terrible instrument, by the way. All the while it was hard to follow the film, insomuch as the Fine Arts movie theater in San Juan often does not screen Hollywood films with subtitles and the English spoken by whites and blacks alike in the American south of the 19th century is considerably harder to understand than contemporary American tourist speak on the Island, be they white or black. As such, I can only talk about the visual aspects of the film 12 years a slave, which I saw yesterday among a sizable crowd in an upscale movie house in Puerto Rico.
The size of the crowd is noteworthy considering that the only truly recognizable name among cast members was Brad Pitt and it appeared next to last on the movie poster next to the ticket counter, so audience members could not have expected him to have an important role in the film. People did react though when he finally appeared on screen—many breathed sighs of relief— as surely everyone expected him to be Solomon's white savior; which he was, in a way. This notwithstanding, the film is definitely lacking in images of good old fashioned white heroism. Instead, it depicts white on black oppression in old fashioned and seemingly eternally contemporary ways. Which begs the question: How does one explain the brief instances of laughter during scenes depicting such crude and hateful acts of violence? One possible explanation is that the laughter heard in the theatre was simply a response to the high levels of stress caused by one of the few Hollywood films that depicts slavery as a “total institution” shaping both black and white people's lives, and not simply as an interrupted sequence of unfortunate events, mitigated by acts of human kindness, however tiny these might be (see Paul Gilroy, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/nov/10/12-years-a-slave-mcqueen-film-legacy-slavery). Another is that when it comes to the violence inflicted upon black people on screen—both fictional and true to life—there's something inherently funny about it. Not inherent to the film, but rather to the viewer.
So, what's funny about the black boy running in place at the behest of the slave trader? The same thing that's funny about Solomon running for his life from his drunk slave master—that certain acts of violence and their filmic representations have historically been too damn open for interpretation, which in turn has opened up a space for play in our collective imagination. Thus, in order for serious images of white on black violence to be interpreted as such by moviegoers, the level of violence must be alarmingly high and graphic and terrible. And, at least in Puerto Rico, the image of a black man hanging from a tree is not.