Saturday, September 9, 2017
21st Century Essentials: 12 Years a Slave (2013)
Director: Steve McQueen
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong'o, Michael Fassbender
Country: United Kingdom, United States
Even before its first screening at Telluride’s 2013 festival, 12 Years a Slave had the recognizable markers of a movie that was going to be designated as an “Important Film.” That designation, which burnishes a few films every year sight unseen and in anticipation of Oscar season, can be a blessing to those films that manage to live up to the expectation, but even those films that are successful in that respect tend to lose a bit of that glow as time goes on. What seems like an “Important Film” in the heat of awards season becomes simply a great (or even just very good) film as the cycle resets itself. When it won Best Picture in 2014 it would have been easy to assume that 12 Years a Slave would experience that same kind of fading that accompanies the sudden cessation of the awards season hype, particularly since some Academy voters admitted to not actually having seen it but voting for it out a sense of obligation, but instead 12 Years a Slave has not only maintained but grown in its importance over the years, a result not only of it being a great film borne of the meticulous craft of director Steve McQueen, but also of the fact that its challenges to Hollywood convention are something that the industry and society generally are only just beginning to reckon with.
Spanning 12 years from 1841 to 1853 and based on the memoir of the same name, 12 Years a Slave is the story of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man living in New York with his wife and two children until he’s drugged and kidnapped into slavery. Renamed “Platt” and kept silent about his real name and past life through threats of violence, Northrup endures the abuses and indignities of slavery, first on the plantation of William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who is forced to sell him after he fights back against the cruelty of his overseer, Tibeats (Paul Dano), and later on the plantation of Edwin “slave breaker” Epps (Michael Fassbender).
The bulk of the narrative takes place on the Epps plantation, where Solomon meets Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). Nicknamed “Queen of the Fields” for her ability to pick more cotton than any other man or woman on the plantation, Patsey is singled out by Epps for sexual and physical abuse, his obsession with her so open and complete that it has brought on the wrath of Mrs. Epps (Sarah Paulson), who has no ability to punish her husband and so subjects Patsey to tremendous violence and wishes for her death. So great is the pain that she endures that Patsey, too, wishes for her death and in one of the film’s most bracingly powerful scenes begs Solomon to kill her, while he urges her to hold on and not fall into despair. Despite everything, he himself never loses his hope that he will one day regain his freedom and be reunited with his family.
12 Years a Slave is a film that is often difficult to watch because it doesn’t shy away from the evil it portrays, from the physical marks of violence to the psychological scars of degradation, and because it lacks the softening, apologist elements that so often feature in Hollywood depictions of slavery. That is precisely why, even though it was embraced as a film, it was embraced in a way that was somewhat ambiguous. Following its Best Picture win, the Los Angeles Times published an article revealing that “two Oscar votes privately admitted that they didn’t see 12 Years a Slave, thinking it would be upsetting. But they said they voted for it anyway because, given the film’s social relevance, they felt obligated to do so.” Although two voters isn’t representative of AMPAS membership as a whole (though I would not be at all surprised if there were more voters who did the same), I think that the attitude implied in that admission speaks to the complacency that, until recent events, many people were happy to adopt. We know that racism is repugnant and we express our abhorrence of it, but we would prefer not to be confronted with the facts of racism or be challenged to recognize the ways in which we have reaped the benefits of living in a society built on violence and hatred, and in that way we often acknowledge and ignore racism simultaneously.
The shock to the system that 12 Years a Slave delivers is not merely a result of McQueen’s direct and unblinking style, but also of the fact that Hollywood’s method of dealing with the subject of slavery up until that point had been through the Antebellum mythologizing of films like Gone with the Wind or through more modern narratives in which slavery is framed as having been the solely pursuit of abnormally evil men, allowing other white characters to be coded as “good” through little more than their abolitionist attitudes. People who were admirable in other respects engaged in the evil of slavery and Hollywood’s inability to reconcile itself to that complicated notion – and, by extension, the thornier truth that the effects of slavery are not an issue of the past, but an issue ever present and entrenched at an institutional level, contradicting the notion of America as a meritocracy in which the only thing separating a person from success is their willingness to work for it – has resulted in films which pitch the battle as having been between unsophisticated/bad white men and progressive/good white men with little room for nuance. Hollywood prefers to build its slavery stories around white saviors, men with whom the intended audience can identify and through that identification see the story of triumph over the evil of slavery as their story, too. 12 Years a Slave does not allow for that.
Though there is a character in 12 Years a Slave who, on the surface, might meet the definition of the white savior trope by virtue of the fact that his willingness to act ultimately helps Solomon achieve his freedom, McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley effectively undercut the character’s ability to truly attain that status. The most obvious way that they accomplish this is through the fact that the character (played by Brad Pitt) is not at the center of the film but occupies only a very small portion of it towards the end. The other way is in how the film depicts white people generally. While characters like the Eppses and Tibeats are vicious in the ways that we are accustomed to villains being, they aren’t contrasted with Pitt’s character so much as they’re contrasted with characters like Ford, a man who might try to buy a mother and her children at auction in order to keep them together but to whom it wouldn’t occur to grant them their freedom, a man depicted as feeling compassion for the suffering of slaves but who would never let that compassion cloud his economic need for slave labor. Solomon acknowledges Ford as a good man, but he also challenges Ford about the fact that he recognizes that Solomon is educated and unlike the other slaves but will do nothing to rectify his situation. Ford is a “good man,” but he’s only good in ways that don’t affect his interests. Similarly, Ford’s wife is portrayed as someone moved by the weeping of a newly arrived slave who has been separated from her children, yet offers the woman comfort by assuring her that her children “will soon be forgotten” and, when they aren’t, becomes so offended by the woman’s ceaseless weeping that she has to be sold. Ford’s wife isn’t inherently evil, she’s merely the product of a society which views black people as subhuman and therefore she can equate the woman’s anguish with, for example, that of an animal separated from its young, and she can do that without a second thought. It’s ugly but it’s not unrealistic, rooted in the sense of entitlement at the core of white supremacy, and McQueen and Ridley view the twisted internal logic of a society built and sustained on the practice of slavery in a way that is clear-eyed and complex. The Pitt character may be a catalyst for the film’s resolution, but this is always a story about the suffering and endurance of the black characters and never about white heroism.
Before there was 12 Years a Slave, there was really no movie like it. This is true both because it’s a story about slavery made by a director who is not only black but is also not American, which I believe is important because McQueen approaches the material as both an insider and an outside, the insider delivering a point of view that is in complete sympathy with the black protagonist, the outsider free of the patriotic impulse to paint the US in anything remotely resembling a favorable light; and because it was so widely embraced by the industry. Movies about black people in which white people appear almost exclusively as greater and lesser antagonists just don’t get awards – except for this one. While the short-term effects of that win can probably be said to be minimal (the following two Oscar seasons would, of course, be marred by the “Oscars So White” criticism), in the long-term I believe that 12 Years a Slave will secure its place as a cultural touchstone of our era, both for what it is (a great film) and for what it isn’t in terms of Hollywood’s conventional approach to American history which, despite Hollywood's reputation as a liberal mecca, has always been conservative with an output that more often than not works to preserve the social status quo rather than challenge it. 12 Years a Slave is a film that challenges and the artistry with which it has been made rises to that challenge in scene after scene, creating an indelible picture that is destined to last.