Friday, July 24, 2015

12 Years a Slave (2013)

USA / UK, 134 minutes
Director: Steve McQueen
Writers: John Ridley, Solomon Northup
Photography: Sean Bobbitt
Music: Hans Zimmer
Editor: Joe Walker
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Garrett Dillahunt, Paul Giamatti, Scoot McNairy, Lupita Nyong'o, Adepero Oduye, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Michael Kenneth Williams, Alfre Woodard, Chris Chalk, Taran Killam, Bill Camp, Deneen Tyler

It's probably worth asking why so few honest movies about American slavery have been made, but the answer is pretty easy. White people in the United States still control most such decisions and they don't like being reminded of their heritage of slavery, arguing (dancing madly) that it's in the past and more or less best forgotten (because what's to be gained by remembering?), and besides, they (those alive now) didn't have anything to do with it. In the South, they like to call it their "peculiar institution," and to this day many believe that life for slaves was soft and easy, with all expenses paid—like living on welfare. It took a black British director with the name of a Hollywood icon to make an important step toward changing this, if it's possible to change this.

As a white person, I have been duly reluctant to look at 12 Years a Slave, approaching it both times I've seen it with sinking dread. To some degree that's based on qualms about director Steve McQueen, whose well-respected Hunger left me so cold I never bothered with Shame. Mostly, of course, the resistance is about the subject matter (see title). Based on Solomon Northup's slave narrative memoir written in the 19th century, it tells the story of a talented and accomplished Northern black free man who is tricked and abducted in Washington, D.C.—yes, that Washington, D.C., the seat of all liberty—and sold into slavery in Louisiana, where he experiences all we've heard about and some that perhaps we haven't. Though scrupulously accurate and with little tendency to sensationalize for cheap effect, it is harsh, explicit, and unrelenting.

There is perhaps some clumsiness in how it's put together, with a confusing foreshadowing sequence that frames the start, and an ending bedeviled by a shift toward the existential (as Northup leaves behind those he has loved at a plantation) and the untranquil happy ending. The picture can be too beautiful by half, yet the details of the narrative are focused sharp and overwhelm the usual aesthetic markers. Northup is in the hands of slavers by 11 minutes in to 12 Years and the ills follow quickly. He is chained and savagely beaten, renamed, taken to the slave market in New Orleans, displayed naked to prospective buyers. There is copious use of the N-word, of course. Whippings, of course. Lynchings, rapes, casual deaths by misadventure. Of course, of course, of course.

As a white person, I naturally kept trying to distance myself, mocking a little some of the worst as "too much," much as one does watching a horror movie, attempting to mitigate the impact. It's easy to make the case that things in 12 Years a Slave are overdone. The brutality and raw racism of some of the characters in charge of the slaves, and the patronizing, self-deluded, and willful ignorance of others. The sprays of blood from the whip strikes. The bad marriage of the couple at the head of one plantation, who put the slaves in the middle of their miserable all-night horrible-relationship arguments. Always the characters here discuss slavery in terms of their property and their debt and their obligations. They are Christians and hold devout services—in today's context, the hypocrisy seems unbelievably over the top.

Does all this make 12 Years a Slave just a matter of outrage porn? That's the question I started to ask myself. In a way, I am angry that a movie like this that comes along and obligates us to look at it. I didn't have anything to do with slavery. But then I see how helplessly complicit I am now in arguably parallel matters—you know, trashing the planetary systems that support life as we know it, wanton torture of political prisoners for political purposes (including all the terroristic episodes involving domestic policing), and the utter revilement of the country's first black president. I have to say I'm not so sure how hard a stand against slavery I might have taken if I had been alive then, especially in the South. Sadly, the chances are I would have gone along with it as I do the depredations going on now. Because what do you do?

In that way, for that reason, I'm willing to take 12 Years a Slave the way I might take medicine—because it's good for me. As a nation, we appear wholly unable to deal with our shared legacy of slavery—we're not talking decades any longer, but centuries, and this country is only a few centuries old. It's popular now in some circles, for example, to claim that racism no longer exists at all. That's partly because of the ascendance of Barack Obama—even as his treatment has only underlined how virulently racism does still exist. The same people, often with their addresses in the South, have been denying racism for over 150 years now. So you may as well make a movie about what they did—what all the clamor for "states' rights" was about, this "heritage" they loudly defend yet in their Confederate flags. Maybe it helps get the point across. And the truth is, 12 Years a Slave is also a very good movie on all the usual terms.


  1. This is an interesting take on the film. I am one of those people who can't just say slavery has nothing to do with me ... beyond the simple historical fact of it as an institution, ancestry research suggests that my mother's family were slaveholders. Also interesting that you mentioned the overdone aspects ... in my own review, I compared it to exploitation movies like Mandingo and decided McQueen was actually pulling back a bit to avoid the taint of exploitation.

  2. I took it as like the slave narrative or cinema verite counterpoint to the revenge fantasy cartoonery of Django Unchained, although the production timing is probably mostly coincidental. As if McQueen was saying the brutal indignities of black slavery do not need to be sensationalized; the economics of human property twisted with violence, sexual abuse, and grotesque forms of religious hypocrisy in Solomon Northrup's story speak for themselves.