When Jolene Pinder, executive director of the New Orleans Film Festival, told a tear-stained, emotionally exhausted Opening Night audience that after the grueling experience of 12 Years a Slave, we were being asked to do a “second line” from the Civic Theater to the after-party in Gallier Hall, my first thought was, No.
Whatever a “second line” even was, I wanted no part in an after-party. I’d been awake for almost 20 hours, I hadn’t had time for dinner, I smelled of stale airplane, and I had some real weighty feelings left over from the film that I was planning to head to my hotel room and feel.
And I wasn’t the only one. The air in the theater was subdued, somber. This was an audience, after all, that had thrown out some unabashedly tough questions to the attending 12 Years cast and crew (director Steve McQueen, actors Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Lupita Nyong’o, and Sarah Paulson, and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt) during the post-screening Q&A; questions about the sacredness of bloodied ground and America’s continuing legacy of debt. These people weren’t in the mood for cocktails.
On some private level, also, I was intimidated—by the awe-inspiring caliber of talent in the room, of course, but also by New Orleans itself. I’m from Singapore, a nation that had barely been founded by the time of Solomon Northup’s ordeal, and I share my people’s general suspicion of the past. History unnerves me as much as it thrills me, and the city reeked of it, even within the Civic’s newly refurbished walls. With the film in question, and the particular history in question, of course, a sense of a provincial cultural memory was undeniable. “It’s present in the oak trees that are 300 years old,” said Lupita Nyong’o during the Q&A. 12 Years a Slave has a distinctly local heartbeat (the majority of the 12 years being set in Louisiana); Dwight Henry, that jocund New Orleans icon, sat behind us in the audience all night and cheered every name announced in acknowledgment.
At the same time, the discussion had brought up the idea about undoing the racial possessiveness of the slavery narrative. “African Americans do not own slavery,” boomed McQueen sonorously (he isn’t that sonorous, actually, but I like to imagine him so) in reply to a question about respecting the essential Americanness of his subject. “It’s not about ownership. Don’t try to put artificial barriers up between us. We’re the same—your boat went left, my boat went right.”
So back to my fleeting misgivings when faced with the prospect of joining the second line outside the theater—which turned out to be a dance parade. (It was later explained to me by various New Orleanians in line for screenings that a second line is the second half of a funeral procession, whereby friends celebrate the life of the deceased with Dionysian cheer.) A brass band materialized on somebody’s cue; the audience poured out onto the humid street. We were shuffled somehow to the front, where lo and behold McQueen and his cohorts were already starting off into the night.
Propelled onwards by the music, sporadically firing off excited tweets, we trotted along in a daze behind the joyous cast—Paulson doing some kind of shimmy with Nyong’o and Woodard, Ejiofor dancing with his onscreen children, McQueen heading the whole endeavor with remarkable spirits. If we were tired incredulity woke us up. What is happening? Where are we going? We turned corners; the pace was lively; there were no cars—this was very obviously not real life.
At Gallier Hall, our final destination, the band and its merry comrades piled up the stairs and inside (McQueen turned around for one last triumphant wave at the crowded street, hopping up and down with arms akimbo). In the building’s stately lobby the cast continued their dance, lost in some sort of soulful reverie, as the band played numbers that got progressively faster and wilder and the spectators at the margins started slipping away to get flutes of champagne from the next room.
The rest of our weekend in New Orleans is a happy blur of daiquiris and alligator nuggets, passionate, intelligent filmmaking and bizarre bouncy castle encounters, but the story we kept returning to over the next few days was of this second line. If the festival could have planned a more beautiful way to celebrate 12 Years a Slave, I don’t know what that was. I won’t attempt to clumsily spell out the aptness of a joyful funereal parade to succeed this film. What I will spell out is the enveloping acceptance I felt in that dance line, my way in to the true heart of New Orleans I’d been looking for (even throughout my jury duty in the Louisiana Features category). I danced a dance that could belong to me as much as to Louisiana, and to a British director of Grenadian descent, and to his international team of collaborators. “More people in this one than the other one,” McQueen had quipped earlier in response to a question about the differences between his previous features and 12 Years. Yes, more people, more heart, more life.
The 2013 edition of the New Orleans Film Festival ran from Thursday, October 10 to Thursday, October 17. MM
To subscribe to MovieMaker Magazine, click here.