Saturday, December 7, 2013

Depicting slavery

Many might argue that as Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave already achieves so much, it’s churlish to criticize it for not achieving even more, but that’s all I can honestly do. It’s based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a black man who lived freely in New York before he was kidnapped in 1841 and transported to Louisiana, renamed “Platt” and sold into slavery. His ordeal continued until 1853, when he met a Canadian who helped send word to Northup’s family and friends, eventually effecting his release. He documented his experiences in a book, and became active in the abolitionist movement.

Twelve Years a Slave

In a Film Comment interview, McQueen talked about how he “wanted to make a movie about slavery and didn’t know how,” trying without success to develop a screenplay before happening on Northup’s work. “I read his book and was astonished,” said McQueen. “I thought it read like a screenplay. I saw images on every page.” Although one respects McQueen’s intention and the creative difficulties attaching to it, this instantly points to my own reservations about the film. The fact of Northup’s story being true doesn’t make it the true story of slavery. The film doesn’t allow us much light or redemption, but the little that it allows is nevertheless too much. The Toronto film festival audiences gave it the people’s choice award, but you can argue a fully achieved film on the subject of slavery should leave them shuddering in pain, landing far outside the territory of smiling commendations.

A scene from the middle of the film sums up its limitations. Solomon is sent to the local store, with a tag around his neck to evidence his ownership; he briefly thinks of escaping and leaves the path, where he runs into a lynching. His tag secures his safety; as he walks away, the camera briefly shows the faces of the two men, then McQueen frames the murder taking place behind him. As a cinematic flourish, it’s reminiscent of those clichéd shots where the action hero strides away from the explosion or other mayhem, his control over the situation removing any need to look back. Of course, the intention here is very different: Solomon has no choice but to keep walking – he can do nothing for the men, and his ability to keep on going depends on not becoming consumed by the brutalities he’s witnessed. But still, the scene is about the black man who’s walking away; not the unknown stories of the two who are being killed in the background. As I was watching it, this struck me as a morally wretched choice on the director’s part, especially because nothing about the visual construction suggested an awareness of the matters I’m raising here.

Dialogue with America

Another kind of problem attaches to the film’s casting: McQueen fills just about every white role possessing more than two lines with a recognizable “name.”  Watching CP24 during the festival, an onscreen caption at one point identified the film’s stars as Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender and Benedict Cumberbatch, with no mention of Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Solomon. Of course, McQueen isn’t to be blamed for the carelessness of some underpaid TV production assistant, and commercial realities no doubt apply here too. But deliberately or not, McQueen has thereby allowed his recreation of the past, and the clarity of the core experience, to be distorted and infiltrated by transient cultural baggage and tired celebrity resonance.

This might be productive if the film were deliberately engaging in a dialogue with today’s America. As a formal institution, slavery is far in the past, but many of its practical effects persist in only slightly altered form: a privileged and mostly white elite drawing on a vast bedrock of poverty and disadvantage, filled with people for whom things get worse and worse, with chronic lack of empathy, if not outright racism, endemic in virtually every aspect of public policy (and marked by a self-serving appropriation of religion, something also depicted in the film). These conditions make slavery a matter of contemporary as well as historical gravity, but McQueen’s film feels mostly shielded by the meticulousness of its period details (Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, although a lesser film in most respects, was more successful in constructing bridges between eras, albeit mostly through juvenile methods). The difficulty of shaping the material shows through in other ways too, such as its unclear depiction of the passage of time: if not for the title, one might assume the events covered maybe three or four years rather than twelve.

As I suggested, maybe I’m asking more of the film than it could ever have achieved. Writing in The New York Times, Stanley Fish said the film “withhold(s) from the audience an outlet for either its hope or its sympathy” and went on: “I think what McQueen is doing is remedying the defect Northup detected in his own narrative. ‘If I have failed in anything,’ Northup writes in his final paragraph, ‘it has been in presenting to the reader too prominently the bright side of the picture.’ McQueen has carefully removed the bright sides.” But this overlooks the most obvious “bright side” of all, that Solomon came into the experience with knowledge of what freedom could be, and ultimately regained it. His story allows some basis for faith and belief in “American values,” even if it shows them to be wretchedly capricious. Still, the fact that even the ultra-engaged Fish perceives the film as being so difficult to watch - as being “basically an anthology of beatings and whippings” – suggests that calculations about the audience’s tolerance  might have been necessary, and were duly applied.

Strengths and limitations

For me, the most wrenching story belongs to another of the slaves, Patsy, prized by her deranged master as the most productive of his cotton pickers, but also sexually abused by him, and so in turn mentally and physically abused by his wife (I’m sure the point that slavery corroded the sanity of the powerful as well as the weak is a valid one, but it seems to occupy relatively too much of the film here, as it did Tarantino’s). At one point, Patsy asks Solomon to help her die, but he refuses; there’s no sign that anything will ever happen to alleviate her suffering. We see her as Solomon sees her, as one of the earth’s saddest creatures, but subject to the same limitation, that ultimately the film allows him to stop looking. Still, her presence in the film is one of its most rawly affecting, unspoiled aspects.

I should emphasize that these criticisms are all the mark of a “good” picture, in that Twelve Years a Slave promotes productive and stimulating reflection on how to appropriately and effectively represent enormous, complex events. It’s always powerful, always engrossing, always meaningful. For all the reasons I’ve stated, I think its impact is unnecessarily limited and skewed, but given how little we’ve come to expect from society and ourselves, there’s no doubt only so much we can expect from a single film.

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