Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Brief Thoughts and Rebuttals Towards 12 Years a Slave

To bookend its dutifully merciless tour of America's darkest hour, Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave begins and ends in relative comfort. Its first twenty minutes involve enigmatic intercutting between the wealthy Washington lifestyle and subsequent enslaved drudgery of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and the dreamlike way in which it transitions between these two existences – some of the shifts are actually prompted by shots of Ejiofor lying down in the dark – establishes a feeling of vertigo, of disbelief at what's happening. Two hours later, the film concludes on a sudden, miraculous return to normalcy and a parting image of harmony and reunification—with a family, with a lifestyle, and with an identity. With this structure alone, the film gives off a sense of the evils of slavery merely being a bad dream out of which moneyed connections can be a dependable savior.

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.


Peter Labuza said...

An Interesting piece, and I have many quibbles with the film as well, but two things stick out to me.

1) "miraculous return to normalcy and a parting image of harmony and reunification" -the last scene hardly strikes me as the image you describe. Yes he is returned to his family. But this is what we don't get: any score, any smiles, any parting speeches about the morals of slavery etc. "There is no forgiveness" strikes me as a line that might maybe "resolve" Solomon's story but it also tells me something more - there's no action that's being corrected; there's no one really brought to justice; there's nothing to really resolve - it's a continuing issue. Also that final text is hardly the uplifting narrative.

2) The why Solomon question; I agree maybe the casting of Pitt may have been intrusive, but I tried to read it within the context of the film, which I think works (his speech is automatically corrected by Epps telling him "that Yankee talk means nothing down here."). But to your larger point, I don't think the film is implicating the idea that Solomon's intelligence and class a privilege saved him...well I think it does suggest that. But I don't think that's an issue as much as fact, and as implied in that final shot of Solomon looking back at Patsy, hardly the end. I thought, he's somehow lucky; not look at what he accomplished.

This gets to my further interest in the film, which is that as McQueen implies, white people can identify with Solomon. For me the most interesting lines and aspects of 12 Years are the more ideological ones - the description of Solomon as an "exceptional nigger," the wife of Cumberbatch telling the first woman "your children will soon be forgotten," the workers going about their day as Solomon is hanged. Solomon is an outsider in this system, slowly brought into the system (less interesting to me is Fassbender's comically evil owner, his physical bits - sliding in the pig sty? - feel like a different strain of movie than the detachment McQueen brings). I think only by having this contradictory character in the center do these things come to the forefront - that fact that if we use a Judith Butler term, we are seeing the becoming of a slave instead of someone inherently born into it.

I do agree that Morris's piece does strike a little too much "AND THIS IS THE ONE WE MUST SHOW OUR CHILDREN" vibe, and hardly this should be the last film to deal with the pre-civil war American South, but it does strike me as a film that speaks less to the "evils of slavery" than seeing it as an institution, and that for me merits the film quite well in my book.

Carson Lund said...

Thanks for commenting Peter. Obviously, the film's very much worth talking about and it's still fresh on my mind, so some of my criticisms may come more from the gut than the brain right now. Regarding your questions:

1) That we don't get any of the expected cushioning you speak of in that final shot seems to me like McQueen trying to push some serious ambiguity over an image that is fundamentally conventional (let's be honest, it's a freaking medium shot of the family hugging). Almost would have been better if he went all Flight-mode Zemeckis on us. Instead, we get a scene at odds with itself. I see a very straightforward core hidden beneath an aesthetic of detachment. BUT, I do like your interpretation of the forgiveness line, which suggests an angle I wasn't thinking about. For me, that line, intentionally or not, closed off the narrative.

2) You're right about Solomon's class being a fact rather than an issue in itself, but I wonder about the larger politics of choosing Solomon as the subject in the first place, and subsequently putting so much emphasis on his individual trajectory. What I tried to express in my piece is that I think this narrative choice ignores those for whom slavery was not just a temporary nightmare. It has a lot to do with my studies of American films on the Vietnam War late in college. So many of those films sidestep the most important questions on the subject and do a disservice to it as a result. Even something as fervently anti-war as Hearts and Minds comes across more as an exercise in American moral rehabilitation than an exposé of the tragedies inflicted on the oppressed.

Anyway, getting sidetracked. The point, which I hope I'm sorta hitting, is that Solomon's narrative is one of education and ; it's less about looking at the incomprehensible chaos of the slavery institution as an ugly fact that nothing good came of. Maybe I'm just a cynic, but I wish the film struck more of a fatalist tone. I wish it left me with more of a queasy feeling of irresolution.

But at the same time, I want to stress that these are observations about the overall structure of the film and its lasting resonance (for me). I completely agree with you that the ideological tangle occurring throughout the bulk of the film is its greatest virtue. What I found so disturbing was the focus on how desensitization to savagery can lead both to the warped moral status quo of Fassbender's wife and the slaves' own obliviousness to one another.

I guess I'll leave it at that. Should probably get back to work.

Alex said...

Very well-argued piece, and one with which I agree quite a bit. But I don't see either a return to normalcy or an attempt at ambiguity in the final scene. For me, what that scene does so well is (literally) bringing home the psychological toll of Solomon's being enslaved - that his first impulse upon being reunited with his family is to apologize on behalf of the system that took him from them says it all. The medium shot of the family together is a statement of fact (an establishing of a new reality instead of a return to normalcy) rather than a reassuring gesture, and those title cards at the end supply the ambiguity.

Carson Lund said...

Thanks for the comment, Alex! I am curious though what you agree with if you take issue with my impression of the ending. Not sure what you mean by the final shot being "a statement of fact rather than a reassuring gesture"...can't it be both?

I see what you mean by bringing home the psychological toll. All very dramatic and emotionally tragic, yes, but perhaps my problem is that McQueen is fishing for the goldfish rather than the bass (completely lame metaphor). In focusing on Solomon, there are bigger tragedies the film is pushing aside.

Peter Labuza said...

I guess I think one question, as posed by your responses and Alex's comments, is what type of film do we read 12 YEARS A SLAVE as? After all, this is a film made for $20 million (small compared to THOR 2, but infinite compared to say to I USED TO BE DARKER) starring a bunch of Hollywood's most notable thespians and produced by a major studio (Fox - the Searchlight is irrelevant).

The reason I bring this up is that do we have to forgive some bit of convention in order to get to scenes and sequences that truly challenge the status quo? Is McQueen reinforcing the Hollywood ending or making it ambiguous? Should McQueen make something again like HUNGER that can play in 30 theaters, or something he can get into 2000? Your points are taken well and agree, and I think some of the response as you've noted has been almost overwhelming that it ignores some of these issues that stand not just with the work but the larger sense of the nation's grappling with it. I'm a bit more sympathetic to McQueen for at least providing these nuggets of fascination and points of discussion than focusing on the trappings of the environment he made the film.

Carson Lund said...

Definitely worth noting. It's entirely true that it might be utterly impossible in the American film industry to make 12 Years a Slave with an ending that's downbeat to the core. I realize this. But then again I'm not totally interested in paying lip service to those realities. It's always a question of: how much do we just look at what's onscreen and what it's telling us and hold it accountable? Not to mention, as we all know, there are plenty of thoroughly, wholly subversive films made within the commercial machine.

But yes, I'm grateful for 12 Years a Slave's strengths. They're not small feats.