12 Years a Slave
February 17, 2014 § 3 Comments
Currently on the side of London buses is an advertisement for the film 12 Years a Slave that shows its star, Chiwetel Ejiofor, running. As if for dear life. The still is taken from the only scene in the film where, unobserved in the woods and seizing the opportunity, he runs, a mere sprint that ends when he finds himself confronted with a lynching. Here are slaves who must have thought like him and now have nooses around their necks, their terror infecting him. No more escape attempts are made in the film, either by Ejiofor’s character, Solomon Northup, or by anyone else. Solomon makes the choice to regain his freedom by legal means, by proving that he is a free man from New York State, brought to a Louisiana plantation in the wake of a kidnapping.
This film, directed by Steve McQueen, is not the first based on Solomon Northup’s memoir of the same title, published in 1853. In the 80s a US television film was made by Gordon Parks, the photographer and civil rights activist who also directed Shaft. Nor is it the first cinema narrative to depict the workings of slavery. Among others are Jonathan Demme’s 1998 film based on Toni Morrison’s great novel Beloved (doubtless a well-intentioned project, though it seems to have sunk without much trace), and Spielberg’s Amistad, which, despite being a big Hollywood commodity, was neither a critical nor a box office success – his talent for fantasy and adventure movies being unequal to the vileness of slavery or Nazi concentration camps. Most recent of all is Tarantino’s controversial Django Unchained.
McQueen is not only a film director, he is also a video artist who has won the Turner prize and represented Britain at the Venice Biennale. His film work is equally distinguished (Shame and Hunger, both starring Michael Fassbender, who also appears here). After a struggle for production finance, 12 Years a Slave is doing wonders at the box office and picking up sundry awards and nominations. The reviews have been rapturous, greeting it is an unprecedented achievement. Critics have stressed its truthfulness; one, Mark Kermode in The Observer, wrote of ‘seeing an artist using the medium of film for its highest purposes: to elevate, educate and ultimately ennoble the viewer by presenting them with something that is visceral, truthful and electrifyingly “real”‘. This is not high praise, it is higher bombast.
I saw the film prior to reading Mark Kermode’s review. I knew about the accusations of ‘torture porn’. But while I foresaw a harrowing cinematic experience, the buzz around the film was so great that I had high expectations. More than a week later, I’m still trying to work out why in the end it failed to move me or prompt any sense of greater insight into the realities of slavery.
McQueen is a formalist and his formal devices have a distancing effect that allows pause for thought. For me the most shocking part of the film is the sequence immediately following Solomon’s capture, when repeated brutal beatings are meted out to instil subjection and fear. There are other captives and they are aligned with Solomon in having individual tragedies. At one point the camera shifts from inside the building that imprisons them to a wide shot of Washington, across the rooftops, with a distant view of the Capitol dome – a view that is both strange and disquietingly familiar: the modern city, albeit in its infancy, but horribly congruent with the squalor and violence of slavery. This sequence is the closest the film gets to a fresh perspective on its subject matter.
Stunning visuals are what we can expect from McQueen the artist. The American South becomes a beautiful sunlit nightmare, a landscape in contrast with the horrors to which it gives a home. As the captives are transported by river, there is a painterly shot of the steamer’s paddles ploughing through the water, their motion alive with the rhythm of colour and light. The later scene where Solomon is hanged from a tree with his toes barely touching the ground is prolonged and terrible: day changes to night and still the audience facing the screen waits holding its breath. The tree-shadowed hanging man is set against a luminous pastoral complete with the sounds of birdsong and children’s laughter, forming a cruel tableau vivant that made me think of Billie Holiday or Nina Simone singing ‘Strange Fruit’. This theatricality is emphasised by the hurried entrance, screen-left, of a young black woman who dares, fearfully, to give the succour of some water before exiting screen-right. The longer the camera lingers the more this scene feels like an autonomous artefact, a video in one of McQueen’s gallery shows.
It has a poetry that gives it force and yet it works against the balance of the film as a whole. From this point Solomon is foregrounded as a suffering hero, while his fellow slaves (with one notable exception, the young Patsey) recede into the background. The second half of the film becomes increasingly melodramatic, indeed it turns into an all-out psychodrama when Solomon falls into the hands of the vicious plantation owner, Etts, played by Michael Fassbender. The two enact a duel between sadistic punishment and dignity. Etts is tortured by his inability completely to control those he presumes to own, and particularly by his desire for the young Patsey, whom he punishes ferociously – Fassbender has said he played the role as if Etts were in love with her – all of which drives him to ever greater excesses. He is the worst in a series of monstrous individuals who have inflicted pain and humiliation on Solomon.
This emphasis on the extremities of the master-slave relationship makes these the crux of the film. Yet this is the experience already most recognisable from film and television. Writing in The Guardian, the black American academic Carol Boyce Davies described 12 Years a Slave as a failure “to challenge the standard trope in films about slavery: a cathartic display of the intense violence and degradation of enslavement of the black body”. She notes the discrepancies between film and book: the former omits Northop’s accounts of escape attempts, and of the “Great Pine Woods”, a symbolic and literal refuge for runaway slaves. If we still need to be shown the spectacle of slavery’s cruelty, don’t we also need to understand it as an economic system and don’t we also need to be reminded of slave resistance. Films shouldn’t be taken to task for deviating from their literary sources, but these discrepancies are striking because they render the film’s specific focus all the starker.
I’m loath to criticise this film on the basis of the story it tells. It’s the skewed manner of its telling that bothers me. Watching the reiterated scenes of brutality, I could only detach myself emotionally. I wondered about how the violence might be differently represented or contextualised. I thought about the violence in some of Michael Haneke’s films (Hidden, The Piano Teacher, The White Ribbon, Funny Games) which is the more powerful for being sparingly used or just intimated, or from taking place offscreen. 12 Years a Slave is a serious film. It could have been a better film without the recourse to melodrama, without the recourse to a full repertoire of whippings and beatings. Nor does it lack subtleties, but these are smothered by what is overwrought.
With intervention from a sympathetic Canadian (Brad Pitt) to establish his legal status as a free man, Solomon has his liberty restored, and is returned from the bright hell of the South to the more muted light of New York State, whose Dickensian cosiness and comforts we also saw at the start of the film. Is this pseudo-paradise of the North meant ironically? Perhaps.
It seems ironic too that McQueen, a Brit, has made this film with a non-US cast of principals (Brad Pitt’s role is peripheral and anyway he is a co-producer). For a film received by some as if it were the definitive truth about slavery in the southern states, this could look a little embarrassing. That won’t, however prevent it from winning an Oscar or two, and it may even be an advantage if Oscars can help assuage guilt.
Which is not to suggest that Britain is blameless in the history of slavery. Far from it. And where are the films about its own colonial story and the crimes committed in the less distant past? India? Kenya? Malaya?