When I watched Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, I was moved as much by the story as I was by McQueen’s deft touch: delicate yet bold enough to present Solomon Northup’s life through the harrowing and beautiful tonality it deserves. When I read 12 Years a Slave, the written account of Solomon Northup’s kidnapping and unlawful bondage, I was moved and a little surprised by Northup’s remarkable ability to question his own subjectivity, and also by his determination to convey the kindness of one slave master for whom he was content to toil.
For a page to screen adaptation, McQueen’s film is commendably faithful. Of course, there are still a few points of divergence: a reduction in praise, and perhaps respect, for the kind/cowardly white man who recognises the humanity of those he enslaves, and a tidy ending that forgoes the more mundane and lengthy reality of the legal proceedings required to prove Northup’s identity and return him to freedom. Though I don’t personally take issue with the overwrought, emotional resolution McQueen employs, I am compelled, in lieu of recent events, to explain both my admiration for the film, as well as my concern for the emotional complexity of that admiration.
I’d like to begin by stating very clearly that I think 12 Years a Slave is an excellent film. Formally, it is exceptional. McQueen’s visual control is masterful, the composition and framing of his long shots so beautiful they alone could move an audience to tears. The dull snap of rawhide licking flesh, the earthy quality of melodic singing voices in the diegetic world complemented by the intense building of Hans Zimmer’s score, the muted tones of the colour palette when presenting slave quarters contrasted with the crisp whites and pristine pinks of the white man and woman’s homestead, all set against the rich saturation of the hot Louisiana sun – these are but a few examples of McQueen’s talents in creating an emotionally manipulative atmosphere.
Beyond its formal achievements and respectful treatment of its source material, 12 Years showcases some of the strongest performances to be found in any English language film of the last twelve months – it’s a cast worthy and deserving of the various award nominations. Chiwetel Ejiofor elicits viewer empathy through minor sideways glances, a clenched jaw and the countless individual beads of sweat he musters in his embodiment of Solomon Northup. Lupita Nyong’o strikes a devastating contrast between the perception of caged content and bouts of self-loathing brought about by her calculating oppressors. The supporting cast – one that includes Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Alfre Woodard, Sarah Paulson and McQueen’s male muse Michael Fassbender – perform precisely in that fashion: to support the two characters placed at the centre of the narrative and at the heart of the story.
More than this, however, the film should be considered a success insofar as it is a fair and balanced representation of an historical account of slavery from the perspective of a black man – a man enslaved, deceived and exploited. It is a welcome and wanted entry into popular discourse and public memory on a topic under-explored, under-represented, often misunderstood and deliberately misguided by a history of white narratives. Since the days of DW Griffiths (The Birth of a Nation, 1915) right through to Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained, 2012), white men have been telling the story.
12 Years is more successful than Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2000), a response to Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, which tried to rewrite dominant ideology through satire. McQueen does the opposite and rewrites Tarantino’s so-called satire with straight-up, Hollywood drama, the stuff Griffiths used to draw the blue-prints for public memory in the first place. Today, even as it’s understood as white supremacist propaganda, Birth of a Nation is still lauded for its technical achievements, just as Gone With the Wind (1939) will always be a cinematically significant epic historical romance, despite its horrendous politics on race.
So for all the superlatives and hyperbole, where’s the problem of emotional complexity? Despite my own conviction that the film effectively takes us through various aspects of slavery and some of the many different atrocities it harboured, there is an argument to be made that its violence indulges in a kind of ‘torture porn’ for white audiences (an argument Armond White also makes). For me, the question is not so much whether or not the film is as ‘unpleasant’ as The Human Centipede (2009), or if the conversation it inspires about slavery is one containing ‘howls of discomfort’ as White states in his review. Rather, the question comes down to whether or not its intention is to make white audiences feel good about their grief.
Personally, I don’t think that’s McQueen’s intention. For a director who comes from a fine-art background, his aesthetics invoke beauty to tell a story. His motivations for telling this story as a black, middle-class British man don’t appear, on the surface at least, to be insidious. His comments in the foreword to Northup’s biography suggest something more earnest: ‘I hope my film can play a part in drawing attention to this important book of courage. Solomon’s bravery and life deserve nothing less.’
If it weren’t for the film, Northup’s story wouldn’t be back on the public agenda. And yet, it comes at the height of the Obama administration, when a spate of Hollywood films are trying to engage with issues of slavery in the mainstream on an often superficial level. Does this mean McQueen is also capitalising off of ‘the misfortunes of African-American history’? That’s a cynical question. But a fair one.
After McQueen moved me with his portrayal of one of history’s significant stories, I felt sad, angry and elated. Sad and angry at the wrongs of the past but elated to see that someone had managed to tell such a story with integrity and grace, without profiteering off of the misfortune of others. At least, that was how I – for all my white, middle-class guilt – was certain that I felt. I’m not saying I’m entirely swayed by White – I still think 12 Years a Slave is a remarkable film and that it tells a story a lot of people don’t know but should. Still, I can’t help but question the relationship between my response and my privilege. Many like to call White a contrarian because he often goes against the mainstream. Personally, I find him erudite and admirable in his plight to call out bullshit and ideology. Whether or not this film deserves to be called out on such charges is less clear-cut. It’s only January and already I suspect this film will be a contender for my best film of 2014. That’s my truth, but whether or not I feel good about it is far more difficult for me to say.