Slavery and privilege

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.

Tara Judah

Tara Judah is a freelance film writer and radio critic, programming and content assistant at Melbourne’s Astor Theatre and a committee member of the Melbourne Cinémathèque. Tara's writing can be found at and she tweets as @midnightmovies.

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  1. I found McQueen’s previous two films to be brilliant, though I wasn’t convinced by the aestheticisation of the hunger strikes in ‘Hunger’, or the way the film seemed to reduce the politics to those aesthetics, and to individualise Bobby Sands. ‘Shame’ I found to be cold and joyless – somewhat like the character it portrays – yet original and compelling also. All in all, Queen seems to closest we have to an ‘auteur’ working today. Look forward to this one.

  2. I’m fascinated by McQueen’s aesthetic; it’s so artful and yet his films are also deeply grounded in narrative. Definitely a film to see, however you respond to it.

  3. The suspicion one has with McQueen’s work is that it is superficial in a literal sense – as someone coming to film from the world of conceptual art, there’s a question as to whether he has any interest in the intentionality, or other-mindedness of his characters. Without that no drama. No drama, no tragedy. Hunger was a travesty – the IRA prisoners had created a world of politics and intellect in the prisons, created libraries, classes, debate, rapidly developed themselves, and the same outside the walls. If the dirty protests and the hunger strike separated them from that, part of their strength came from knowing it was there, that it gave their acts meaning, as political, not as grotesque punishments of the human body. Shame seemed to be framed in the puritanism of the era. The Fassbender character had about as much, and as squalid, sex as Henry Miller had in Tropic of Cancer, but the film’s rendering it of it as a gray automatism, seemed part of the current idea that obsession and compulsion are necessarily addiction – ie an alienation – rather than an exploration of the limits of the human condition.
    12 Years a Slave is better than those two, but it is still a decontextualisation. The conditions of slavery were various and complex, not because there was a Downton Abbey style supply of liberal and kind slave owners, but because it was a mode of production, a distinct world, involved in commerce, but not by its nature, yet a capitalist one. The complexities of the household situation meant an extreme variability of life conditions across the South. The abolition of slavery is obviously a categorical advance in human freedom – but that doesn’t mean that day-to-day conditions were, for example, necessarily worse than wage labour in the north. If McQueen had filmed Frederick Douglass’s memoirs, for example, it would have been a more accurate rendition of slavery’s particularities.
    But also a more boring, less spectacular film. One can’t help but recall the joke about Spielberg doing Schindler’s List as his first serious film – ‘well that really changed my mind about Nazism…’ . Both Django Unchained, and – less of a travesty – 12 Years a Slave, can’t help but flatter us morally, simplify the notion of how political-economic systems are emmeshed.
    I can’t say I rate McQueen much – he strikes me a s a bit of a chancer, come up through the pretty empty world of British modern art, via the Turner Prize, then jumping across to mainstream, formally unadventurous cinema.

    1. Just going to respond to your comments on slavery, which wasn’t confined to the South.

      1. While there was some sort of material difference in the conditions between house and field slaves, suggesting that slavery and wage labour could have been equal in the day-to-day conditions is frankly a joke and anti-Black.

      2. Most slaves worked in the field. Slaves were considered the property of their masters. Slavery was not just about ‘labour’. But it’s convenient for white leftists to reduce slavery to labour and to ‘forget’ about the rapes, unchosen marriages, forced ‘breeding’ of babies whom were born into slavery and for more slaves to make money from and taken away from their mothers, selling from master to master, beatings, whippings, torture, narrow religious instruction, attempted fostering of Blackness and self-hatred, Code Noir, lynchings, colonialists fighting for freedom from aristocracy in own countries while owning slaves, and the whole apparatus of chattel slavery and the slave trade. Slaves were perceived as not-human. There were house slaves who tried to poison their masters. It wasn’t a ball in the park for them.

      3. Our ancestors resisted and their descendants are still here – but while you can respect the political subjectivity of Irish rev activists like Bobby Sands and others, you try to equate some slave’s lives with people who were in waged labour. You refuse to see some what I listed up there in the film, which renders this claim ridiculous.

      4. This is heinous and not even being melodramatic, your claim is similar to some of the slave apologist accounts written in the 19th century by colonialists and travellers who denied the cruelty of slavery. Yours is a bit more sophisticated though because you use pseudo-Marxism to deny parts of one of the greatest evils of humanity—all in the name of complexity!

      5. 12YAS apparently decontextualises from the political-economics of the time, when from the beginning you could see how Black people were sold and shipped. And how with the vagaries of the cotton crops, slaves were taken from one household to another. All of that is intertwined with affect, bodies, survival, how constructions of whiteness are/were tied up with owning property and land, making something of that land and owning human beings–Black people, assumed to be inferior, how Blackness is associated with death and how Black lives are seen as disposable.

    1. Yes, and add to that some horrid clunkers, like this one : ‘McQueen is first and foremost a visual director.’

      And I thought he was a company director. Geez.

  4. By referencing the above, I’m both agreeing and disagreeing with Guy. I think McQueen IS a striking stylist, even if, as Guy mentions, he does decontextualise. But I’ll report back on ‘Twelve years a Slave’. I can’t say the idea of Downton Abbey-esque ‘kind’ slave owners fills me with joy though.

  5. The past is a foreign country? Let McQueen make a film on contemporary slavery, then I’ll judge his representations of historical slavery.

  6. No Rjurik, you misunderstand me. I was clarifying that I wasnt saying that slavery conditions varied because some owners were kindhearted – but simply because it was a complex household/estate system, in which slaves fulfilled multiple roles, from servants to implements of production. So there were incentives and disincentives to harshness and cruelty.

  7. McQueen is certainly interested in individuals, their bodies, faces, etc. So it is quite interesting/provocative/problematic that in his films he chooses figures that are very much representatives of collective suffering. This could be seen as a conservative or at least deradicalising aesthetic: through an intensified visuality, he atomises or disengages figures from social engagement. So I agree with Rjurik and Guy on these points. But I’d day the physicality/sensuality of pain — or shame or hunger –- is not entirely personal/individualised: our very openness to the perceptibility of pain is very much a contemporary, social phenomenon. I must say much of the overt discourse of this movie left me unmoved (I already knew slavery was/is evil, etc.) and it’s quite possible that I lack Tara’s humanity. I don’t, at any rate, think its focus on the intensity of an individual’s somatic/moral suffering and its avoidance of the collective are essentially the tropes of depoliticisation. They are an expression of a contemporary politics (of the suffering body).

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