Oct 11, 2013
NYFF: 12 Years A Slave
This film by Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) is based on the harrowing real story and book by Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free Black man from Saratoga, NY, who is kidnapped to be sold to slave owners in the South. It is McQueen's most conventional film to date, and though it is a powerful movie that retains his trademark unflinching look at intense human suffering, this time focused on slavery, there is something stilted about it. All his movies have a paradoxical tension between extreme emotional states and aesthetic distance, which works well with their intimate scope. But this is a big period epic, and you can feel the tension between the need to tell a story in a more conventional manner and McQueen's suggestive style. There is tension, for instance, between the eloquent literary, almost theatrical dialogue, which sounds faithful to Northup's narrative, and the realistic depiction of brutality.
The most astounding scene in the movie is a wordless tableau that takes place in the middle of the film and that says more about the depravity of American slavery than anything else in the movie, or anywhere, for that matter. Were it shown separately, it would be one of the greatest short films ever made. This is the kind of condensed visual metaphor that makes McQueen an exciting director, but this style is mostly sacrificed for more straightforward storytelling, and by corollary, more commercial possibilities.
The filmmakers want to make the story accessible to the widest possible audience, which is as should be. But this responsibility to garner a wide audience presents an interesting conundrum. I could not help but think of the Holocaust, because the parallels with American slavery are many and obvious, as are the parallels on how genocidal violence is depicted in film.
Slavery is the African-American Holocaust. McQueen makes sure this is branded into our consciousness by showing episode after episode of unspeakable cruelty. Sticking closely to what Solomon Northup witnessed and lived through, the experience of this film is as close as we're ever going to be to what it was like to be a slave.
Still, cinematically, the magnitude of slavery as a crime against humanity is so unfathomable, that any attempt to dramatize it creates an obvious problem with authenticity, which is generally true of Holocaust movies as well. How, for instance, do you use music to punctuate such circumstances? Any fictional embellishment threatens to banalize the authentic depiction of historical evil. The use of well known actors becomes distracting, even if all the famous talent in this film (Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Paul Dano, Alfre Woodard) rises to the occasion. In United 93, also a movie about a historical act of human evil, director Paul Greengrass bypassed this problem by using unknown actors, giving it unquestionable verisimilitude. It worked, but nobody saw it.
This is the paradox of this film.
Perhaps this is why McQueen chose Ejiofor, a well-known British actor, but not very known here, and newcomer Lupita Nyong'o for the main slave roles. They are both very good. Solomon Northup, urbane, educated, sensitive, and appalled at his fate, learns to obey and quell his temper and dignity in order to preserve his life. He cannot fight back, so his journey is the opposite of what we are used to from cinematic heroes: from being a well rounded, accomplished human being, he needs to do less and less in order to get out alive. His heroism relies in surviving and trying to hold on to his last shred of dignity, even when forced to collude in his own dehumanization. Chiwetel gives a very empathetic performance, but there is something about a passive hero that makes it hard to connect for the audience.
Like any other form of institutionalized sadism, slavery is shown to cast not only a dehumanizing pall on slaveowners and slaves alike, but it is encased in its own bizarre bubble; an insane parallel reality. In the dissolute character of slaveowner Epps (Michael Fassbender), corrupt madness runs like a fever. Epps is an ignorant, Bible thumping drunk; cruel, childish, arbitrary. Fassbender is very good at showing his spineless weakness. There is nothing grand about him. He is at the bottom of the human totem pole, a grotesque character, a second rate bully, clearly inferior to Northup in every way.
From the beginning, McQueen establishes that slavery was unregulated capitalism at its nadir. Although he makes clear that even those who profited from it were aware of its revolting effects, even judicious people, such as Thomas Jefferson, engaged in it. It is particularly chilling to think that Northup's descent into hell, as McQueen shows with close ups of water churning through the wheels of a river boat, was only a short journey from New York to Washington D. C.. He went to dinner one day with whom he thought were potential business partners, and woke up in a dungeon in chains. There was a legal and economic system in place that allowed this to happen, and there was nothing he could do about it.
This powerlessness sparks enormous moral outrage. The film's effect is cumulative: it lashes out at you relentlessly - as life lashed out at Northup - until its cathartic ending. This is not a wishful tale about righteous white people with good intentions. It is not fiction. It is a remarkably evenhanded and perceptive eyewitness account of slavery from a survivor. The hero is a Black man, and he engineers his own survival. In this sense, 12 Years A Slave is possibly the truest film about the topic ever made.
Yet McQueen's approach, even as he meticulously documents the most harrowing scenes of cruelty, feels somehow emotionally detached. The piling up of horrors, if utterly valid and faithful to Northup's experience, makes you brace against it. Only at the end I felt a cathartic emotional release. Perhaps this is intended to mirror Solomon Northup's own journey: in order to survive, you have to harden your heart. Unlike Steven Spielberg's Amistad, 12 Years A Slave is unadorned with human pieties. It's an endurance test that shows no mercy towards the audience.
Hopefully, 12 Years A Slave will spark a serious conversation about slavery in this country. For all of our boisterous public debate about race, very little is discussed about slavery (unless, I assume, you are stuck in history class in high school). This is perplexing, to say the least. Considering how important it is a chapter of American history, more needs to be discussed. Because even today there are economic systems in place that are not too distant from slavery: the abuse of undocumented migrant workers, private prisons that profit from the wholesale incarceration of mostly Black and Latino people. The nasty unethical, yet fully legal, exploitation of certain groups continues.
This movie put a thought in my head:
The still benighted South, home of a majority of people who think universal health insurance is communism, and who'd rather die than pay taxes for a more progressive and cohesive society, should be made to pay reparations to the descendants of slaves in America. This is not a new concept, but perhaps 12 Years A Slave will bring the idea back to the table. This movie intends to reopen an old wound. I certainly hope it does.
12 Years A Slave opens October 18.