12 Years a Slave: a film impoverished by its confrontational approach and narrow focus on slavery

Steve McQueen, “12 Years a Slave” (2013)

British director Steve McQueen’s third film “12 Years a Slave” is a harrowing study of the institution of slavery in pre-Civil War America based on the memoir of Solomon Northup, a free-born black man who was tricked into slavery by two kidnappers in 1841 and kept in that state until 1853. The film adheres to a more or less factual chronological re-telling of Northup’s memoir. Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a violinist and farmer, naively follows two men, Burch and Hamilton, to Washington DC when they promise him an on-going job performing as a musician with a circus. They drug him and sell him into slavery down in Louisiana.

Northup, renamed “Platt”, is traded to one slave-owner Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) who treats him well until an incident between Northup and his white overseer (Paul Dano) forces Ford to sell him to another slave-owner Epps (Michael Fassbender), to whom Ford owes a debt. Epps treats Northup and all his other slaves harshly, and uses a slave-girl Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) as his mistress. Epps’s wife Mary (Sarah Paulson) is jealous of her husband’s attentions towards Patsey and treats the girl badly. Much of the film’s psychology and exploration of slavery as a cess-pit for human desires, frustrations, jealousies and fears revolves around the complex love-hate triangle formed by the Epps couple and Patsey, into which Northup is frequently forced to participate and mediate among its players. Throughout his time as a slave, Northup looks for opportunities to escape his plight but is frequently thwarted. The effects of his condition weigh heavily on him, and he is by turns angry, depressed and resigned to his fate. Two chance meetings with two white men promise freedom but the first man proves to be Epps’s informant; will the second man, a Canadian abolitionist (Brad Pitt), be any better?

McQueen’s approach is to immerse the viewer deeply into the action with many close-ups of actors’ faces and steady shots of scenes in which the most brutal and sadistic violence is portrayed: Northup is nearly hanged by Ford’s overseer but another man’s intervention forces the black man to stand on tip-toe while hog-tied by the noose and his other bonds until Ford frees him; and Patsey is subjected to rape, beatings by Mary and a lashing by Epps. Quite what the point is to prolonged sequences of unmitigated brutality can only be guessed at but with such scenes, there is the danger of becoming numbed to them and accepting them as normal and I must admit that after an hour of seeing such violence, I did start to feel inured to it. Only by reminding myself that perhaps the point of such violence is to illustrate the degrading effects of the institution of slavery on the Epps couple as well as on their slaves, and how the example of this particular household could be extended to other slave-owning households like theirs in their part of the US, could I maintain a mental distance between such graphic depictions of the effect of slavery and what “normal” means to me.

The upside of such a confrontational, even pornographic approach is that occasionally viewers see something of life on cotton and sugar cane plantations in the Deep South during the 1840s, how slaves were treated and cared for, and the kind of life the plantation slaves were able to make for themselves. They comfort themselves and one another with whatever scraps of religion are taught to them by the whites and with their style of singing and music (from which viewers can see the beginnings of Afro-American gospel music and hiphop). We see how the wealthy and middle class whites treated their slaves as property, to the extent that slaves are used to pay off debts and white men quarrel with one another over ownership or the treatment of their “property”. We also see how some poor white people, who would otherwise be the lowest of the low, obtain some pride and self-respect by treating slaves abysmally as Ford’s overseer treats Northup.

However such an approach to making the film and concentrating on the most violent aspects of slavery prevents a proper interrogation of slavery as an institution and the social, economic and political context in which slavery survived in the US Deep South while it faded out or was “banned” in other parts of the US and in the British Empire generally. (I placed apostrophes around the word because in many respects slavery continued in the form of indentured and convict labour in the Anglosphere throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century.) As long as plantation agriculture was the mainstay of the economy in certain parts of the US, the enslavement of black people by whites would continue. Elsewhere in the US, where manufacturing was starting to replace small-scale farming as the engine of the economy, immigrants from poor parts of Europe were subjected to working conditions in factories and mines that were equally as horrific as what Northup had to suffer as a slave. In parts of the West where ranching was common, the role of “slaves” was filled by cowboys of mixed black, poor white, native American and Mexican heritages.

The film’s narrow focus on Northup’s enslavement also makes for an impoverished narrative. There is a hint of a personal journey that Northup might have made from being a naive young musician, accepting of slavery (in a very early scene, he is confronted by a slave who envies his free-born status but the stranger is then whisked away by his owner and Northup shrugs and accepts the situation), to a man who acknowledges his common humanity with his fellow slaves; but McQueen chooses not to make more of Northup’s inner awakening, if indeed it did occur. The film is based after all on Northup’s memoir; surely that memoir had moments of reflection and black humour, that McQueen could have deployed in the film? As a character study, the film fails: there is hardly any character development, least of all in Northup himself. In some ways the Epps couple is surely no less deserving of a sympathetic portrayal than their slaves; just as Patsey suffers, so too Epps and his wife suffer from their isolation from other white company, their poverty when a cotton crop fails due to weevil attack and the effect such poverty has on their social standing. Are the Epps not slaves themselves to their society’s expectations?

Much of the emotion in the film is very forced, making for a certain manipulative quality, and the music is overbearing. All that was needed for a musical soundtrack was the slaves’ own singing and a solo violin.

On a more technical level, the visuals are lavish and overwhelming, and the actors distinguish themselves by bringing out the psychological complexity of the Epps’ marital relationship, how Epps and his wife punish each other through their slaves, degrading themselves in the process, and by demonstrating the immorality of slavery as an institution. Unfortunately for his technical skills in deploying the camera and choosing and directing his actors, McQueen overlooked the possibility of making his film much more than merely a brutal historic illustration of slavery and its effects on people. This could have been a film that speaks to everyone beyond its narrow context.

 

 

 

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