Sunday, 12 January 2014

The Non-Revenger's Tragedy

Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave is first and foremost a Hollywood film, and therefore constructed out of a series of compromises. McQueen's achievement is in preserving a unity of vision despite the distractions of the music (too emotionally peremptory at times), Brad Pitt as a Canadian Jesus (producer, carpenter, redeemer, beard-wearer), and the happy ending (subtly undermined by a postscript that tells us Solomon Northup then disappeared into obscurity). At times, you are reminded of Roots (the TV series) and Steven Spielberg. At others, of Terrence Malick. I suspect it was McQueen's admiration for the latter that prompted the choice of Hans Zimmer as composer (he provided the score for The Thin Red Line). Some of the atonal and electronic snippets work well, but the full orchestral numbers, while majestic, are like being buttonholed by a florid aunt (fine for Gladiator, but less appropriate here).

McQueen's now well-known trope of the occasional long take, pushed far beyond expectations, works well precisely because of the framework of Hollywood conventions. The most notable is the scene where Solomon is almost hung to death, ending up on tiptoes to avoid strangulation. His would-be hangers have been chased off by the overseer, keen to preserve his employer's property. This melodrama (Tibeats, the ring-leader, "turns tail" in a way that can only be described as classic) is followed by an extended take as the rest of the slaves eventually reappear from hiding to go about their business around the struggling Solomon. The overseer does not cut him down and seems determined that no one else should either. This can be read as makeshift punishment for the slave's part in the fight that led to the attempted lynching, or an insistence that the master's property will not be touched. One other slave surreptitiously provides Solomon with a drink of water, but this feels like Hollywood intruding. The whole point of the scene is that he is a dehumanised object, and treated as such by the blacks as much as the whites.

The other signature long take occurs late in the film, at a point when Solomon has largely accepted his lot and before fate takes a positive turn. We see him in close-up staring off to our left. Gradually he turns his head until he is staring directly into the camera. You can see the mix of emotions - despair, contempt, sorrow - flit across his face (Chiwetel Ejiofor must largely act from the neck up as his body is literally not his own). After a while, he turns his head to our right and the interrogation ends. It reminded me of Elem Klimov's great film about the horrors of war, Come and See, which used the same technique. The title of that film was a reference to the Book of Revelation: "Come and see! And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death". Coincidentally, Klimov's film was released in the same year (1985) as Clint Eastwood's Pale Rider, whose title was similarly inspired.

Death is constantly lurking, but this is another concession to Hollywood. Plantations were not death camps. While physical punishment was routine, excessive force that maimed or killed was avoided because it damaged property. The casual (and fictional) murder of a slave on the ship transporting Solomon and others from Washington to New Orleans jars because it represents the wanton destruction of capital - someone, somewhere would have been mightily pissed off, given that the going rate for a healthy young male was $1,000. We know this detail because of the scenes involving Paul Giammatti as the slave trader, Theophilus Freeman. Giammatti turns in a compelling cameo as a man whose human sympathy extends "no further than a coin". This is the closest the film comes to the brio of Django Unchained, and it has a particular irony because of the actor's previous role in the TV mini-series John Adams, where he played the anti-slavery Founding Father and second US President.

What is well handled by McQueen and the scriptwriter, John Ridley, is the centrality of property and the extensive use of slaves as debt collateral. The appeal to the rights of property-holders is a constant refrain of the "bad" owner, Epps, while the "good" owner Ford talks more of the obligations that property entails. Both are hypocrites, regularly spouting biblical tosh to defend the indefensible, and both are also clearly incompetent as businessmen. Ford's generosity (a fiddle, not freedom), in response to Solomon's ideas for improving the estate, is as reflective of intellectual barrenness as Epps's belief that a bad crop must be a biblical curse, brought on by the evil ways of his slaves. What is less convincing is the violence, in the sense of its motivation rather than its depiction. This is shown as the product of cowardice (Tibeats), bipolar disorder (Epps's mood swings), and sexual jealousy (Mistress Epps), rather than the inexorable logic of a dehumanising system.

The strength of the film, as in McQueen's previous work, is not just the visceral acting but the counterpoint of visual flair to the bodily suffering. The entr'actes are skyscapes and shots of sunlit trees that owe a lot to Malick's influence. The hanging Spanish Moss lends a languid air while echoing the strange fruit of lynchings. Within scenes, McQueen regularly employs shots fragmented through lines that echo prison bars, such as sugar cane, the spokes of a wheel, and the paddles of a steamer. This hints at a wider system of restraint than shackles, and becomes stronger on the plantations where there always seems to be an unfinished timber frame in the offing and much of the action takes place on or in front of verandas with serried columns. The implication is that everyone, black and white, is imprisoned within the system, which is a very Hollywood cop-out. Nobody appears to be a beneficiary, let alone having a good time.

Brad Pitt's paean to liberty and universal rights boils down to labour mobility: "I can walk out of here tomorrow" (which had me flippantly thinking of Pitt and Angelina Jolie descending on the surprised denizens of some ravaged corner of the globe to dole out aid and sympathy). The question is: could McQueen (like Malick) walk out of Hollywood tomorrow? 12 Years a Slave is an excellent film, with many fine moments to enjoy in between the gruelling beatings, but I suspect that I will be more likely to re-watch Django Unchained, if only because a revenger's farce is more entertaining than a non-revenger's tragedy.


  1. lots to admire in this film but like you I am unlikely to re-watch, whereas I would re-watch Django, which many have sneered at in comparison to this seemingly more noble and realistic work. I had an issue thinking about it afterwards with the dehumanisation of the other black male slaves - do any black men apart from Solomon even get a line of dialogue post-auction? it felt like Solomon's fate was seen as 'worse', and he is more capable of suffering, because he had previously been a free man. apart from the two female slaves he has something of an emotional relationship with - whose characters nonetheless are basically unhinged grieving mother and unhinged sexual victim - and the female ex-slave who has married a plantation owner - a non-unhinged sexual victim - the other slaves seem fairly dehumanised cotton-picking, negro spiritual crooning cardboard cutouts. maybe a problem deriving from the source - maybe Solomon did see himself a cut above and suffering more. But I was left feeling more politically uncomfortable with 12 Years than with Django, which was basically what it said on the tin - a blow em up revenge fantasy - but which at least had black male slaves such as the Samuel L Jackson character with real depth of characterisation rather than nobly suffering machines. and while I would like my kids to see 12 Years, they have no intention of doing so as it sounds boring and worthy - whereas my son at least saw Django and loved it. but the film is worth the price of admission for Michael Fassbender's performance alone, and has motivated me to try and seek out McQueen/Fassbender's first collaboration, Hunger, which I missed first time round.

  2. You're quite right that the treatment of the characters is problematic, and I think this is the central compromise with Hollywood. The real-life Solomon Northup was clearly not half as heroic (in a nobly suffering way) as depicted, and certainly not the petit-bourgeois suggested by the early scenes (he was variously a navvy, a chippy and a seasonal fiddle-player).

    I suspect McQueen was more interested in the Epps/Patsey dynamic, and thus uses Solomon as a witness (his eyes certainly do overtime). This role as "us", the human camera recording the horror, requires that the character be drawn sympathetically, hence the picture-perfect home life (we should be thankful Bill Cosby was too old for the part).

    One cliche is that the white working class is portrayed as cowardly and venal, notably Armsby, who is reduced to fieldwork but spared the lash, and Tibeats. This is true to Northup's memoir, but it reinforces the impression that his real tragedy was to become déclassé.