12 Years a Slave

November 7, 2013

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Perhaps one of the most difficult endeavors a filmmaker – or any artist really – is to tackle a real-life subject of such widespread and impossibly horrible cruelty.  The ways in which it can be approached, as well as the potential offensive nature of any depiction, is hard enough without having to deal with the necessities of storytelling, certainly in such an expensive and entertainment-minded medium as film.  One of the great atrocities of the modern era that Hollywood has tackled a number of times is the Holocaust, a contentious issue amongst filmmakers and critics (most regarding appropriateness and taste), but one that has served well in the sense of privileged American distance (it’s easy awards bait, especially for foreign films when it comes to garnering Oscars).  Slavery has been approached far fewer times, if only because the wounds are still being felt and they’re also so specifically American (we, as a culture, don’t like to look at ourselves too critically after all).  British artist-turned-filmmaker Steve McQueen has now made 12 Years a Slave, which many have called the Schindler’s List of slavery movies”, though that reduction is wildly unfair.  There are crucial differences in the approach to the material that make it a vastly more affecting film.  Still, despite the near-universal praise, there are also a number of critics (the internet makes them not hard to find) who find your standard faults in approach, specifically that it reflects a tourist eyed view of slavery and thus nicely adheres to a privileged white audience view of accepting horrors but also giving the kind of “historical triumph” that makes the medicine go down easier, so to speak.  I’m not unsympathetic, but I don’t feel it falls into that trap, despite the overall narrative of the story.

Adapted by John Ridley from Solomon Northup’s book about his experience being kidnapped and sold into slavery (something that American cinema has largely ignored), we follow Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) from his relatively cozy life in New York with his wife and kids through the horrific process of subjugation and, as the title suggests, eventual deliverance from slavery.  The story offers a hook that any screenwriter would cherish: a man is taken from the recognizable comforts of free American life (which is easily more identifiable to modern audiences than the relative abstraction of 18th Century African life) and then forced to view an alien world through fresh, relatable eyes.  In a sense, this allows the filmmakers and the audience to explore the hardships, psychology, and different types of abuse through a valuable outsider’s perspective.  One of the issues grappled with is the necessities of survival for the individuals enslaved, and key to that is the subjugation of their own individuality.  As he’s being transported Southward, Northup is confronted with opposing views by his fellow passengers – one thinks they can rise up against the men on the boat and escape to freedom while the other believes that keeping one’s head down is the only way to survive (McQueen places these men on either side of Solomon, as though they’re conflicting ideas in his head battling for supremacy).  The man who decides to fight is quickly dispatched and thrown overboard, but when they arrive in New Orleans, the man preaching passivity is greeted by his former master, to whose arms he runs immediately and is walked off like a scared child.

From the moment Northup proclaims that he doesn’t want to survive, he wants to live, McQueen and Ridley set about poking that various meanings of those terms, using both Northup and the various slaves he encounters along the way.  He’s first sold to a kindly slaveowner, General Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch, all preening goodness with an aloof distance), whom he impresses with his ingenuity – something that causes him to become the target of a malevolently stupid “master” played by Paul Dano.  Northup’s ingratiating himself into the good graces of his boss leads him to a confrontation with Eliza (Adepero Oduye), who is still weeping over her forced separation from her children.  Solomon’s plea that Ford is “not that bad given the circumstances” is immediately rebutted by Eliza’s reminding him of the circumstances.  She accuses him of “luxuriating in the good graces” of Ford, which is true, and eventually comes to naught when he’s sold to the far more cruel Epps (Michael Fassbender).  There’s an ambiguous balance in the Ford section, where Northup humiliatingly desires the approval of his new master (something intrinsic within the power structure of the master/slave relationship) but also learns the lie of meritocracy within this system.  The series of opposites continues with Epps, who unlike Ford is not interested in the least in the individual talents of the slaves other than his best picker – and object of desire- Patsey (Nupita Nyong’o).  The key lesson for Solomon throughout the film is to ensure passivity to survive, and when circumstances warrant, the line between “living” and “surviving” is cruelly blurred.

That emotional journey is approached as un-melodramatically as possible, much to McQueen’s credit.  This film is just as much about Northup observing the institution of slavery as much as it is about him dealing with it.  There are a number of scenes where he’s not part of the action, but the camera always keeps him in mind as he stands in the background, especially when the twisted Epps-Patsey relationship comes to the fore as Mary Epps (Sarah Paulson) seethes with jealousy.  That aspect of the story makes Epps almost comically villainous, but also strangely human enough to not reduce him or that situation to caricature.  His late night sessions of forcing his slaves to dance recall the aristocratic theatre of cruelty in Pasolini’s Salo, but the scenes usually pull back from outright absurdity.  He’s a vile drunk who can’t let go of his power and hates himself for his feelings for Patsey, something that culminates in the film’s brutally climactic one-shot of a whipping, which demonstrates in the most violent way possible the impossible struggle of the slavery institution.  McQueen’s long takes and poetic flourishes are somewhat sublimated here in comparison to his two previous efforts, but when he does use them it’s to generally powerful effect.

I say the whipping is the climax, and I stand by that, despite the narrative continuing on a little further to where we know it’s going to go: Solomon’s eventual rescue and return to his family.  Though he tries throughout the film to find some way out, he’s constantly blocked, and we realize that all he needs to do is get a letter to New York.  It’s only when he happens upon a relatively enlightened Canadian in the form of Brad Pitt (probably the film’s greatest misjudgment as he’s so recognizable and he’s also given the most plainly progressive speech possible – although it is taken from the book, it’s the one moment where Ridley’s script falls into a straight-up didactic) that he gets the letter sent, and even then it’s largely an afterthought.  Whereas Schindler’s List depicts the horrors of a concentration camp before embarking upon a redemption narrative that dangles a sense of hope to the audience through the defiant actions of an individual, 12 Years a Slave sticks to the reality of happenstance as deliverance.  It is, in the end, pure luck (of meeting the Canadian and of being born free) that gets Solomon out of the hell of slavery.  Hollywood has a tendency to placate the audience with the self-satisfaction that comes with thinking that if you’re good enough, smart enough, and strong enough, you can overcome anything.  That notion is, frankly, offensive to all of those who suffered horribly under the yoke of a racist economic system.  Some have complained that White Southerners don’t come off very well in the film, but it’s hard to argue that they should.  Being a nice slaveowner still means you’re a slaveowner, and those who aren’t that pop up from time to time have a vested interest in keeping the system alive for their own benefit, especially in the case of the drunken white cotton picker played by Garret Dillahunt.

The difficult needle to thread, and McQueen’s true triumph, is to make all of this emotionally effective without lapsing into sentimentality.  The depiction of brutality is largely unflinching, though the purpose of watching Solomon Dangling from a tree for so long is not so much his own pain, but the ways in which the slaves in the background no better than to get involved so they go about their business, including children just playing as usual.  The are two powerful shots in the final third that involve a close reading of Ejiofor’s face, and neither is underlined with soaring themes (Hans Zimmer’s score is largely very harsh) or audience hand-holding.  The South itself looks quite beautiful, but that only makes the scenario that much uglier (a number of shots lovingly show the beautiful oak trees draped in Spanish Moss, something that might be my favorite metaphor for the region – Spanish Moss is a parasite, after all).

This approach is probably the best serious-minded exploration of America’s “original sin”, and it makes a great companion piece to Tarantino’s flawed Django Unchained – something I would have thought to seem particularly insensitive and silly after such a sobering experience, but in fact the opposite is true.  12 Years a Slave is art as a brutal reflection of realities, while Django maintains its key role as art as cathartic redressing.  The only real way for a film about slavery to be about historical triumph is to rewrite history completely, as Tarantino does, and infuse it with pop culture absurdity so nobody is under any impression that it is real.  McQueen doesn’t give the audience an easy out, or even an individual villain for whom the blame can be carried.  The institution of slavery was not something that could be overcome by individual worth…it’s only escape was the circumstance of birth (of region or of color).  Solomon Northup is reunited with his family, but it is no victory.  It’s all tragedy.

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