These two sections probably only make up thirty cumulative minutes of this bloated historical saga, but I think it’s a crucial span of time. It builds a framework with which to view the events contained within and demonstrates McQueen’s outsider's view of American history. Though the director's tonal extremity and emphasis on the tested body bode well for hurling the savagery of antebellum plantation life at the audience, McQueen can't quite escape the lure of a simplified Hollywood narrative, a reality that results in unfortunate soft-peddling, be it in the form of digestible good-bad dichotomies (Michael Fassbender's amoral slaver vs. Lupita Nyong'o's virtuous and quiet dissident, for instance), a barrage of big-name actors, or the distractingly emphatic speaker-busting of Hans Zimmer's orchestra, which by now has a built-in blood-boiling factor. Given the circumstances as McQueen crosses over from arthouse aesthete to prestigious A-lister, some of these irritations are more forgivable than others. What's really problematic is the way 12 Years a Slave's use of a self-controlled, compliant protagonist as a merely temporary eyewitness to history ultimately gestures towards the closure of a larger narrative (racial tensions within the country) that remains anything but sealed off.
At Grantland, Wesley Morris, one of the film's biggest champs, goes long on the movie, which he exalts as a cultural milestone in the representation of national race issues. The crux of his discussion lies in this statement:
“You have to stop accepting apologies, accepting, say, The Help, and start demanding correctives, films that don't glorify whiteness and pity blackness, movies — serious ones — that avoid leading an audience to believe that black stories are nothing without a white voice to tell them that black people can't live without the aid of white ones.”As passionately articulated and polemically charged as Morris’ ultimate thesis is, I would argue that 12 Years a Slave doesn’t go quite as far as he seems to imagine it does. After all, it is not a black man’s determination or anger that finally fuels his discharge from enslavement, but rather an exaggeratedly benevolent, egalitarian Brad Pitt—in a role that’s a shameless reminder of the Good Samaritan sensibility that brought about the celebrity’s well-documented financial efforts in Third World countries. The lasting impression is of a compromised wealthy patriarch saved from obsolescence by a noble white man, and in his dust are hundreds of more fiercely rebellious individuals, most notably Nyong'o's character. The film comes awfully close to implying that it was Solomon’s bred-from-money stoicism, his ability to put his head down and turn the other cheek to acts of brutality towards his brethren, that ultimately enabled his return to freedom, while the less “sophisticated” of the slaves were left to endure brutal beatings until death. That Solomon's outrage ultimately wound up in a belated book only compounds the sense of a neat, detached narrativization of a messy history, an angle that relegates the peripheral slaves to mere catalysts in Solomon's riches-to-rags-to-riches arc.
Guiding the bold, audience-reassuring turn of fate that concludes 12 Years a Slave is a privileged worldview, a perspective from which the horrors of slavery can only be rendered in full, grisly detail if there’s a guarantee of hope, however hard-won or downright unrealistic, on the other side. (No wonder McQueen sees "white people looking at Solomon and seeing themselves.") Despite the grim verisimilitude of McQueen’s achievement, there’s a scrubbed-down softness in its ultimate trajectory. Any attempt to funnel history through a single point of view must be dealt with via a carefully selective process of inclusion and omission, but what these heinous and far-reaching crimes really require is anything but the kind of roundness and schematism occasionally applied here. While Morris skewers pre-existing films about slavery that “pad a cozy nest for white audiences,” I’m not sure McQueen’s film does anything different beyond exerting healthy doses of sweat and gore in scenes of racial injustice that, historically, have received their fair share of watering-down. These troubling images may dominate the film, but they're contained in a package that nearly trivializes them, nearly categorizes them as visions of an exotic nightmare rather than something that truly happened and continues to happen in less violent forms today. There’s plenty to appreciate about the film's brave acts of representation on their own, but I nonetheless find myself disappointed by the few damning bids for audience comfort that prevent 12 Years a Slave from seeing the gut-punching brutality that comprises its stuffed middle section to its most productively unfathomable end.