12 Years a Slave (2013, Steve McQueen)

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12 Years a Slave is not the last word on slavery, on the black experience in American history, on even the biography of Solomon Northup, a working musician whose life was thrown into upheaval for over a decade when he was kidnapped by conniving slavers in Washington. It is a sobering chronicle of a tragic fact in the ancestry of a dauntingly sickening number of Americans, a direct and unfettered narrative of the cruelty, sadism and institutional abuse in the ancestry of many of the rest of us. By virtue of its sheer dispassionate reportage — an argument can easily be made that it’s quite safe and toned down when compared to actual slave narratives, including Northup’s own — it holds a mirror up and demands debate and thought. It’s not a film that can or should be ignored. But nor is it the challenge or the revelation that it could be, and this is perhaps because it covers material so rarely acknowleged in American film that it feels the need to carry weight of an entire people and an entire ugly blight on the legacy of the United States. It has so many obligations to do so many things without upsetting or enriching its sense of somber balance that it becomes, in essence, a nearly artless work.

Nevertheless, Steve McQueen’s film is engrossing and gorgeously shot by Sean Bobbitt, capturing the idyllic beauty of the South and positioning it both as a visual fixture of cruel irony and as a faithful evocation of the narratives it adapts; the stunning glory of the region is so often noted by those who faced unimaginable horror there. There’s no doubt it’s as difficult and terrible as it should be — if one has no emotional reaction to the violence within it, one’s heartbeat deserves to be called into question — and occasionally as adventurous as you might hope: two long takes, one that involves an attempted hanging of Northup himself (portrayed with subtlety and intelligence and, in this scene, nightmare anguish by Chiwetel Ejiofor) and one agonizingly documenting the for-no-reason whipping by drunken plantation owner Epps (Michael Fassbender), in a jealous rage, of his slave and mistress Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o, haunting and brilliant). These are raw moments of cinematic near-miracle — as admirable as they are technically, their emotional utility of communicating fear and violence raw and unbroken is what resonates and renders them unforgettable.

Like all of the best directors, McQueen is a great spotter and cultivator of talent; beyond the inspired casting of Ejiofor and Nyong’o, he convinces Hans Zimmer to write the best and most interesting score of his entire career. But when things revert back to the simple act of telling this story, the film seems to falter. It’s one long chase scene and, while it feels much shorter than it is, it doesn’t trust its audience with complexity or challenge. If anything, a large proportion of the film seems as clinical as some Norman Jewison or Stanley Kramer examination of race, even if McQueen obviously has more bravery and nuance than either of those filmmakers. Kramer’s films were so often motivated by a fear of misinterpretation — they would stack the decks so sharply in favor of their then-liberal viewpoints that only an audience member filled with bile and hatred could mistake their messages. 12 Years is about such obvious evil that it seems trite for it resort to manipulation. Northup’s own book is not humorless or obvious, it’s a study of a horrible time and a horrible situation that’s identifiably written by a human being with all the singular perspectives and thoughts thereby implied. It’s adapted into a film that amounts to not much more than a simple bearing witness of victimhood — which likely has its purpose, though I’m dubious on its longevity, but it could have been so much more were there not such evident apprehension at alienating audiences.

For there is pandering and compromise even here, in such a seemingly safe place for catharsis over a still-searing pain. The black people forced into slavery are universally less strongly developed characters than the white folks who make their revolving celebrity presences known like guest stars on Hotel, peaking with the entrance of Magical Producer Brad Pitt, replete with Legends of the Fall haircut. Pitt’s character really existed and really did play a major role in bringing Northup home to his family, so there’s no reason to accuse this of being a typical “White People Solve Racism” story, but what should make us apprehensive is the casting. The British performer Ejiofor is mostly an unknown quantity in Hollywood, though a lot of us will have strong memories of his sophisticated work as the duplicitous Luke in Children of Men. The plantation class, on the other hand, are nearly all portrayed by relatively popular actors: Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Michael Fassbender, and Pitt, who also coproduced the film. Pitt plays the role with a 2013 sensibility, and his friendly presence is troublingly simplistic: not only does he agreeably aid Northup when asked to do so, he throws in some bon mots at the cruel Fassbender as a bonus. Why would an unknown not have served this part better, divorced from the inevitable audience association with and warmth toward Pitt? The question is less of a concern in the other white roles, but it’s significant that Ejiofor and Nyong’o have to fight against underwritten parts while their castmates, especially Dano and Fassbender, get a nonstop parade of showpiece moments, like a whole picture of death or drunk scenes.

To a degree, it makes sense that the slaves would be stripped of any serious inner life or depth, but it still seems a shifty compromise in a film with ample room for greater intricacy. Much of this blame sits not on McQueen but on screenwriter John Ridley, who seems determined to streamline Northup’s story until it becomes, in essence, the story of all American slaves — which is the single most fatal mistake made by this film, rendering it episodic and flat, the kind of movie (like Lincoln before it) that U.S history students are doomed to sit through in class for the next several generations. No one makes any serious argument that we need just one Holocaust film, or even one film about Ed Gein, so the determination not just by the filmmakers here but by people who write about and discuss film to dilute this massive portion of history into one single striking beginning-middle-end True Story is something of an insult, even if unintentional. A truly bold film about slavery would not be about slavery at all, but would be about people forced to contend with the reality of slavery as background. A truly realistic one would require ambiguity, unease, and more evil than 12 Years has time to even begin to contend with. A faithful film of Northup’s story would have to accept that it only encompasses a small part of something huge. Ridley and McQueen, perhaps correctly, assume this may be their only chance and try to define something that occupied the thoughts, hearts, lives of millions, that couldn’t fit inside a hundred of the world’s biggest libraries.

At least part of McQueen’s background is in exploitation cinema, which he somewhat adroitly uses to get a handle on the acts of madness and evil he does have time to explore. The realism is astonishing at times, but the effect sometimes underlines the futility of victimhood narratives — in other words, films in which the entire subject, story, climax is human cruelty — and their tendency to turn into wallowing misery porn for a tsk-tsking privileged audience. Having seen the film in the South with an elderly crowd, I witnessed a lot of this firsthand: there was so much vocalizing, so little of the quiet respect this material deserves, and it struck me as an act of distancing. People can so carefully declare within earshot of others, in a setting that can and should discourage such communication, how “horrible, horrible” all of this stuff is, but in the end their major action in doing so is to make themselves feel better. It’s not that I blame them, and it’s a kind of progress that the terrors in this film are being acknowledged as such, but there is a comfortable convenience in play here.

Despite the ambiguity inherent in someone like Cumberbatch’s Mr. Ford, remembered by Northup himself as a good man who owned slaves but was kind to them, the film generally carefully marks white people as “good” or “bad,” and black people as “free” or “enslaved.” Black audiences don’t need their hands held to understand human nature, or to be moved inherently by the cinematic evocation of this systematic, centuries-spanning violation of their ancestry and culture; white people, on the other hand, seem to demand constant reassurance or careful announcement that no, we’re not all like these terrible people. See? Look at Mr. Cumberbatch. Look at Mr. Pitt. Look at me, telling all of my fellow white Southerners in this theater — most of whom (the person writing this included) had ancestors who “owned” people and treated them like cattle — that seeing this actress being whipped for the camera is a “horrible, horrible” thing. What the film never does is shake these people, make them truly uncomfortable, or force them (us) to contend with the harsh reality of our complicity in what we’re seeing, in the socioeconomic and societal results of the imbalance created by the routine, institutionalized actions depicted in the film. McQueen might even have gone so far as to suggest that this complicity continues with our buying movie tickets to see these things happening, but he stops short and is carefully mum on the line between condemnation and self-congratulation. I don’t blame him a bit.

Let me be absolutely clear: this story needs telling, and at times it’s beautifully told (I cried in the much-praised moment when Solomon loses himself in a song) and acted — but it doesn’t express or reveal much, not even about the exceptionalism implied by its narrative arc. People keep talking about Schindler’s List, but The Pianist is a more suitable comparison, and in contrast to that film, which struggled with questions of art and class sidestepped here, we only receive Solomon as a cipher and vessel, most of whose emotional revelations seem forced by the film. The central irony of the narrative, of the absurdity of a “free man,” with papers, deserving to go free when others must remain chained, goes woefully unexplored, even though it sounds like Northup himself did wrestle with it. It’s precisely for this reason that I dearly wish the film made more of Northup’s life after his escape, which he devoted to abolitionist causes. He became a passionate activist and speaker and was involved with the Underground Railroad. I’d love a movie about that. I’d love a movie about the family dealing with the pain of his absence during his enslavement. I’d love any version of this film that allowed him to be something more than a pawn. Instead I get platitudes and a few dispassionate title cards at the end.

It sounds like I disliked this, which I didn’t. It’s a strong and compassionate film, but it’s too much exactly-what-you-expect and there’s something missing at its core. Catharsis, maybe? Humanity, more specifically. Of course slavery dehumanizes, and the film captures that all too well. But that’s very nearly all it does. Maybe we should just be glad it does that much. That’d be easier if we weren’t still dealing with an industry in which “black movies” nearly always are expected to fall into certain categories if they are to be successful. There are never multiple genres or ideas of black cinema at one time in this country; we even had to journey outside our borders for the director and two major cast members of this one. And all too often, we reward only those filmmakers of color who present to us films about themselves and their own cultural history that we can very easily digest. Celebrations of black culture? When those aren’t ignored, they’re toned-down and hijacked interpretations from white directors like Tate Taylor, Michael Mann and Taylor Hackford. 12 Years a Slave had every right to make me shift in my comfortable seat instead of just filling me with sorrow. I wish it weren’t so easy to just file it away as a sad session of gawking at ugliness and feeling slightly uplifted at the end. Unquestionably, there’s merit in what it does achieve.

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