12 Years a Slave

Scout Tafoya places Steve McQueen’s film in context, considering McQueen as a distinctively British film maker, and his new film as a masterpiece of looking afresh at a historical atrocity.

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Though a few American directors have tried making movies about slavery, it would be more accurate to say that Slavery has haunted motion pictures. It’s in the background of many of our best known films and stories but the prevailing attitude seems to be akin to Martin Scorsese’s response when asked to direct Schindler’s List – this is a job for someone else. Big marquee names like Steven Spielberg, Lars Von Trier, Quentin Tarantino and Jonathan Demme have all made movies in the shadow of the issue but not a one of them had the right temperament to look the issue square in the face. So time and again well-meaning films come and go and lurking in the background is not just the spectre of one of history’s great evils but an ever-growing shame that no one seemed able to tell the worst part of the story. The parts that matter. In Django Unchained Tarantino put harsh language in his characters’ mouths and punished them, but not for the crimes they’re guilty of: the villain’s slave fighting ring is missing from history books because it’s a fiction left over from Richard Fleischer’s dubious Mandingo. He was avenging a cinematic past, not a historical one. Among those he might have included that the world seems to have forgotten that the life of Solomon Northup, a free man captured and forced into slavery for 12 years, was once adapted by Gordon Parks, one of the few successful black directors this country ever produced. That film, theTV movie Solomon Northup’s Odyssey has been forgotten while Glory and Gone With The Wind are on permanent rotation on American TV networks. It’s with great pleasure that I add ‘retroactive justice’ to the list of Steve McQueen’s considerable achievements. He’s returned to the story of Northup, one of the few men who ever endured slavery and lived to write about it, and made the first film that actually has a full list of crimes America’s guilty of and the boldness, not to mention impeccable elocution, required to read them all.

The story of 12 Years a Slave is simple, horrifying and true: Northup (played by the peerless Chiwetel Ejiofor in a performance I’d love to see him try to top), a free black man trying to support his family with his violin playing, is asked by a couple of excitable young agents to come to travel from his home in upstate New York  to a job in Washington D.C. He’s excited for the work and after a night of celebrating with the two men, he wakes up in chains. So begins a miserable odyssey that will see Northup shuffled from one plantation to the next, unable to find an ear sympathetic enough to believe that he doesn’t ‘belong’ in bondage. The bitter irony isn’t lost on Solomon, or McQueen for that matter. Explain to the wrong person that he’s educated and the consequences will be dire. Say nothing and regret it with every crack of the whip and sweltering minute spent picking cotton. Sadder still is the question of whether being born into slavery and having never had expectations beyond cruelty is worse than knowing life can be lived in relative peace and having that taken away?

McQueen has a lot to wrestle with and the aesthetic challenge of the material is the slipperiest tightrope one could ever hope to walk. The cast and crew have nailed every role and responsibility, making the film a handsomely appointed marvel and an impeccably acted achievement, but that wouldn’t mean much if he wanted for a point of view. In the past he’s made as many enemies as friends with his quietly detached tales of self-annihilation. Many found the distance he keeps from his subjects detrimental to audience sympathy and in questionable taste. He’s been accused of pulling back a little too much, the beautiful visuals and stylistic devices acting as a barrier not meant to be crossed. A refusal to judge, one way or another, his damaged men, played in both cases by Michael Fassbender, returning here as another psychologically crippled brute, was taken as a lack of perspective. In short his critics see him as a creator of morally vacant tableaux of suffering. His background in video art and gallery installations didn’t help him escape the idea that he’s more interested in how suffering looks than what it means or feels like. I happen to take the opposite view of McQueen, though I didn’t have much of a say. When I saw his first feature, Hunger early in 2009, I staggered away from the Kendall Square theatre in stunned silence. By the time I hit the couch I was sleeping on at the time, roughly 24 blocks away, I had vowed to never again eat anything made from any kind of animal. Something about watching Fassbender waste away in front of me made it very easy to say I’d never willfully cause suffering or death to any living thing so long as I lived. Shame, his second feature, also did a number on me even if you can only go vegan once. In the meantime I’d tracked down his installations, the stuff he made his name on, and saw he was up to something slightly different than I imagined.

It isn’t that his shortform work (specifically his early works Bear and Deadpan) are thematic Rosebuds  so much as they remind you that A. McQueen’s a hardcore cinephile and B. he’s British. Maybe that last one should be obvious, but I mean to situate him in a VERY specific tradition. Specifically Bear is a reinterpretation of the infamous nude wrestling scene from Ken Russell’s Women In Love, and Deadpan, though a homage to a beloved Buster Keaton gag, takes place in dreary countryside familiar to fans of vintage Hammer Horror Films or their feisty rivals at Tigon. That last name is important because horror maestro Michael Reeves called the British studio home, creating his best films under their banner. You could look at Reeves’ The Sorcerers and McQueen’s Shame and shrug off what I think is a very direct influence, but I’d have a hard time believing someone could watch Witchfinder General and 12 Years a Slave and not see very similar methods at work. This is not just believable but commendable when you realize that McQueen looked not to the overly reverential or misguided American works on slavery in developing his own take on the subject and instead took cues from much more honest (and brutal) British films.

12 Years a Slave and Witchfinder General both plant a well-meaning young man in the thick of a civil war; specifically they’re wrongfully placed in the crosshairs of the entitled tormentors who profited from monstrous, government sanctioned institutions. This renders slavery and witch hunting not just morally wrong but surreally corrupt. Both worlds are governed by Catch-22s; once made to look guilty, there’s literally nothing the victims can do to prove otherwise. Both films have scenes that reinforce the injustice by forcing their protagonists to hurt defenseless women. Both allow just enough of the beauty of the country to creep into their language, but take care never to linger too long on any vista for too long. They mean only to show an idealized landscape being perverted, or that something naturally lovely can be made to look alien and menacing (a serene river used for drowning witches, the foliage of plants about to be harvested presented like prison bars) when used as the site for these particular crimes against humanity. This was no great stretch for Reeves but so much of McQueen’s working method involves patiently staring at his characters and their environs. Restraining himself to the occasional painterly composition, stupendous long take (the most heart-stopping of which has Solomon hanging from a tree just low enough to avoid strangulation) and a burst of Brechtian address where Ejiofor looks imploringly into the camera near the end of the film, a devastating aside that calls to mind Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s grim anti-western Whity. These are all incredibly effective strategies but McQueen clearly didn’t want to get in the way of a clear, accessible narrative.

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What he allows in place of his characteristic austerity is an earthy rhythm that spans the whole film. There are the spirituals, a near-constant chorus sung in fields and at funerals, but there’s a persistent beat that follows Solomon throughout his ordeal. As with the landscape, the sounds of human life can also be filled with dark portent. From the march of feet to the clapping of a riverboat’s paddle wheels against water to the striking of metal against cotton stalks, the music of misery cannot be suppressed no matter how Solomon tries. His relationship to music is the most important window into his being during this time in his life. His skill at the violin is used as a selling point to slave owners when he arrives in Louisiana, and on occasion it allows him to entertain plantation owners and their guests instead of working the fields. Like his memories of home and family this proves more painful than hopeful and the instrument suffers a symbolic fate. Robbed of his one means of expression, he still can’t get quit of the sound of singing. Forget Hans Zimmer’s weepy score, the music you’ll remember when you leave are the spirituals. Paul Dano, as the sadistic overseer Tibeats, gets the first show-stopping number when he makes the slaves clap while he belts a tune intended to give hope to runaway blacks in the south. His song mixes with horses braying, saws squealing, axes falling, and the deep baritone of Benedict Cumberbatch’s pious master reciting bible passages and the result is horrific but enthralling. Indeed, 12 Years a Slave approximates a living, breathing field song far more often than it does an issue film.

The sound of voices harmonizing will plague Solomon, his violin serving as a counterpoint to the cruder work songs. Only after he’s been stripped of all hope that he’ll ever wake from this nightmare does Solomon finally understand the purpose of the music he’s been hearing since his capture. At a funeral for a slave who dropped dead in the fields, a woman begins singing and soon the bereaved congregation joins in. Solomon looks around and for the first time understands what it means to have never known anything but this life. In that moment he silently comes to terms with his lot and starts singing louder than everyone else. He may have been forgotten but he has nothing left to lose now. In that moment the previously perceived distance between Solomon and the other slaves doesn’t exist. Modern audiences can’t pretend that they’ll ever know what slavery felt like in the bones of those who suffered through it, but what shines through is that there’s no ridding the world of hope, of that music, no matter how fractured and filled with loss it is. That Ejiofor can convey that particular whirlwind of deeply felt conflict so clearly with just his eyes and his singing voice speaks to the Herculean achievement of his performance. That McQueen made a film which allows a moment this unseating ought to acquit him of all counts of coldness and distance. He means to make us remember or rather, make it impossible to forget, something no American film has yet had the balls to try. I for one would like to think that we can stop being haunted by the past and maybe take a leaf from McQueen’s book and start staring straight at it.

Scout Tafoya is a writer and film maker.

4 thoughts on “12 Years a Slave

  1. I’ve yet to see this, mostly because I stand on the critical side of the McQueen fence following Shame and Hunger. Your review is quite lovely though and makes me wonder if I should give him a third, perhaps final try.

    1. That’s very kind of you to say. I think this is the closest McQueen’s come away from his highly aestheticized view of suffering, in that there is a firm viewpoint, in my opinion. I would love very much to hear about your experience with the film, positive or negative.

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