Tuesday, January 28, 2014

12 Years a Slave

12 Years A Slave (2013)
Dir. Steve McQueen
Written by John Ridley
Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Lupita Nyong’o

12 YEARS A SLAVE is a movie about this guy Solomon Northup, who has to be a slave for 12 years, which in the movie’s opinion is way too long. But it gets even worse, because he’s not legitimately a slave! He did not come by his slavery honestly. He’s a free man in the idyllic paradise of Saratoga Springs, NY, who gets kidnapped and sold into slavery, which is definitely adding insult to injury. You can tell all the other slaves who are legitimately slaves and come by it honestly (most of them for a bit more than 12 years) really feel for the poor guy.

So yes, this is a thorny issues movie that I had some pretty serious problems with, but I should start out by also saying there’s a ton of stuff in here to like and respect. It’s a really brilliantly directed film (by Steve “not Bullitt” McQueen, who did HUNGER and SHAME a few years back) which magnificently balances lyrical visual poetry with harsh, gritty reality, creating an experience which boldly refuses to shy away from the visceral horrors of slavery, but also cultivates a real sense of timeless artistry. That is not an easy thing to do, and the ease with which McQueen seems to to pull it off is pretty stunning. It’s also an uncommonly well-written movie; the dialogue is full of big showy speeches and verbal fireworks, but it also finds time for smaller moments, which it depicts with equal power and import. Just like McQueen’s direction, the dialogue seems to balance perfectly on the line between thematic stylization and honest depiction of life. It’s a rare movie which manages such honest, human moments but also dares to speak more mythically and broadly for a whole era.

And of course, McQueen and writer John Ridley are assisted enormously by a pretty amazing cast, who give great performances across the board. Fassbender is great, as he always is, as an odious slaveholding asshole and the movie’s biggest villain. And you also got a sleazy slave-dealing Paul Giamatti (“my sentimentality extends the length of a coin” he sneers), Paul Dano once again as an unstable bastard with too much power, Benedict Cumberbatch as a real noble, nice guy slaveholder, and Brad Pitt and Michael K. Williams in small but important cameos. And then of course, you’ve got Chiwetel Ejiofor. Holy shit, this guy has been amazing forever, --appearing in everything from CHILDREN OF MEN to MELINDA MELINDA to KINKY BOOTS to Roland Emmerich’s 2012-- but here it is, he’s finally got his Oscar role. He’s fantastic, a particular challenge since once Northup’s bondage begins, his horror and pain have no outlet and he must simply internalize everything and try to survive.

You know the worst thing about being a slave? They make you work but they don't pay you or let you go.

And that’s kind of where my problems with this movie begin. Because in a lot of ways even more than DJANGO, the narrative elements here mean that although this is a movie about slavery, it ends up being yet another movie about white people. Look up at that cast of great actors. Other than Ejiofor, you see any black people? Just Michael K. Williams, who probably has less than a minute of screen time. Being a slave sucks, and one of the reasons it sucks is that it’s the ultimate disempowering experience. You can’t fight it, you just have to try and survive it, which is what the real Solomon Northup did (at least according to his memoirs) and what Ejiofor does here. It’s true to life, but unfortunately in a movie it makes him a pretty passive protagonist -- he doesn’t have any choice but to just kind of put his head down and survive, while the more active white antagonists get the big showy roles. You learn way more about the slave owners than you ever do the slaves: Fassbender gets a big, meaty role which, even though he’s an asshole, on screen reads as charismatic and active. Even though you hate him, you can’t take your eyes off him and he dominates every scene both narratively and with the simple power of his presence. In movies, active roles are always gonna have more impact than inactive ones, it’s the nature of cinema. And since nearly every villainous white guy is played by a famous, attention-commanding actor, written with John Ridley’s characteristic wit, and uniquely involved in pushing the narrative forward, it’s unquestionably the villains that end up defining the movie. It takes an actor as powerful of Ejiofor to even register against the numerous white antagonists, and he’s the only black actor who really gets more than a superficial look.

Don’t get me wrong, there are a few other black actors who get decent-sized roles here (although they are fewer and their parts are smaller than the white actors, on average): In particular, Lupita Nyong’o (a Mexican-born Kenyan making her debut with this film, holy shit) is pretty mesmerizing as Patsey, a slave who catches the lustful eye of the plantation owner, much to her chagrin. She’s great in the role, but unfortunately we never really learn anything about Patsey, she’s just another victim who gets victimized, and that’s all her part amounts to. At best, she’s just an archetype, a stand-in for a certain category of suffering. There’s no indication of what she would be like if she wasn’t a slave, nor even any interest paid to what she’s like as a slave when she’s not being explicitly victimized. I’m sorry to say it, but it’s really sort of dehumanizing. And while Nyong’o’s performance is good enough to at least add some depth beyond the script, the only other major slave character (Adepero Odyue) is even more one-note, spending most of her performance sobbing hysterically for her lost children until even Solomon tells her to shut the fuck up.

I mean, I get it, it’s beyond sad, it’s beyond horrifying, in real life this is the only imaginable reasonable reaction. But this is a movie, and no one likes weepy, passive downers. It’s a visual and auditory medium, and actions simply speak a lot louder than internal feelings. The film doesn’t tell us anything of substance about this character, and hence it doesn’t communicate her story in a way which makes us empathize with her. We’re left to merely sympathize on basic principle, a much less affecting emotional state. The audience I saw it with “boo’ed” resoundingly at the self-serving insensitivity of the white plantation matron who tries to console her that she’ll “soon forget” about her children. But they didn’t get corresponding teary-eyed at her sobbing. Ultimately, the character who can get a reaction out of the audience ends up the winner -- and once again, it’s the white characters who control the emotional high points.

You could cut the sexual tension with a string bean.

In a film which was more interested in exploring the inner lives of its characters, things might be different; if we actually knew anything about this woman and her children we’d probably be more concerned with her drama. But that simply isn’t the case here; for whatever reason, the film seems deliberately to avoid overt characterization in favor of an eventful narrative. And that means the characters are defined by their impact on the plot, where the white people have an obvious advantage. In fact, Nyong’o and Odyue are the only other black characters who have any significant dialogue. We never see Solomon interacting with other slaves, never see what their lives are like, what they joke about, how they relate and create their own parallel society. We never see them angry, or wistful, or plotting to escape, or internalizing the system, or fighting amongst themselves, or having raunchy PORKY’S-style shenanigans, or doing anything other than being victimized and silently suffering. Jesus, Solomon unquestionably spends more time with the slaves than he does with the whites. Why the fuck don’t I even know the names of these men he’s working with day in and day out for 12 years? Why does it seem like the only important relationships in the film are between victims and victimizers?

My buddy Dan P responds to this by saying no shit, of course it seems like the most important relationships are between victims and victimizers, that’s the point of the movie. This particular movie is not about relationships between slaves, but rather the uneasy and problematic relationship between two groups of humans, slaves and slavemasters. It'd about these two groups, which interact everyday together as humans, but one group for practical reasons cannot recognize (or admit, anyway) the humanity of the other group (I’m not going to spoil the movie by telling you which group is which, you’ll just have to watch it and find out for yourself). So you get a very strange dynamic, where in order for the system to continue everyone has to lie a heck of a lot in order to avoid the obvious evil of the situation. Fassbender scoffs at the idea that blacks are equal to whites, yet he’s carrying on a sexual relationship with one of them which is clearly consuming much more time and emotional energy than he devotes to his white wife. Sorry you fucko, you can’t have both --by acknowledging that you relate to this woman enough to carry on this (admittedly one-sided) relationship, you’re implicitly acknowledging her inherent equality and humanity. Unless you’re also out there banging the cattle, your logic is bullshit, and if I may say so, I think on some level he knows it and it explains a lot about why he’s such an asshole.

Likewise, you have Benedict Cumberbatch’s character, who immediately recognizes that Northup is a man of considerable intelligence, and obviously much more on his level than his fuckup white workers. But even though he acknowledges that he’s aware of this, he still keeps him as a slave! Early on, he implores the slave dealer not to separate a mother and her children. But when the guy won’t budge, he gives up and just buys the mom anyway. Sorry, I tried, but doing the right thing is a little inconvenient for me right now. Cumberbatch’s character is way nicer to his slaves than Fassbender, but in a way that makes him even worse, because he’s obviously more sensitive to the evils being done in the slave system but keeps using it anyway.

Sorry about the whole enslaving you thing. Here, have this violin.

Boy, it really makes you wonder what movies a couple hundred years from now will think about us, don’t it? Maybe we’ll look better than Fassbender does, but how many of us will look like Cumberbatch, well-meaning people who could see the obvious evil in living in a world of starving people and bountiful food, who just wrung our hands a little and got on with our lives? You think just because you ended slavery it’s OK that you stepped over a half-dozen homeless people on the way to the theater, like I did to see this one? I knew it was wrong, I know this whole fucking system is inhuman and cruel, every day I see obvious, unmistakable and unmissable signs of it. And what do I do, I go to my job, get dinner, go see a movie, maybe give a homeless guy a dollar if I happen to have one. I wring my hands and write about it on a blog. Hell, at least Cumberbatch’s character has to live with an interact with the people he’s oppressing. My society has been rather carefully cultivated to simply ignore them, to deny their humanity de facto rather than outright, saving us the uncomfortable inconvenience of having to think about it.

All these ideas are certainly present in the movie, and they’re all very interesting. But you know, they don’t really alter my main point, which is that they’re all conflicts addressed to white people. Northup knows all that stuff, he doesn’t have to learn it, but he also can’t say it, he just has to grind his teeth, keep his mouth shut and try to look like he doesn’t want to murder these hypocrite bastards. It IS a movie about the relationship between slaves and slavemasters, but it’s only the white characters who have dramatic conflict, all the slaves can do is pretend they’re not mad and not bring this stuff up so they won’t get murdered. The slaves have the thankless girlfriend role in the romantic comedy, they have to stand around judging while the boyfriend gets into trouble, learns important lessons and eventually comes around.

You know what else stinks about being a slave? The hours.

When I say all this, I probably conjure images of well-intentioned Lefty academic filmmaker types, handwringing over the horrors of slavery but kind of unintentionally making a piece of art that speaks more directly to the people they’re more familiar with in their own day-to-day lives: wealthy white people. But I purposely haven’t mentioned yet that both McQueen and Ridley are black. Makes it a little harder to accuse them of being racist, although to be fair, McQueen is a Brit and probably doesn’t have a lot of experience with American-style racism. No, if I am going to accuse someone of skewing this towards a white audience, it’s actually going to have to be Northup himself. After all, this isn’t his diary*, this is something he wrote for the express purpose of publishing as part of his abolitionist efforts in his later, not-a-slave-anymore years (spoiler). I’m not trying to call him a liar or anything, I’m just saying that with any primary source, it’s important to look at the context in which it was written and the intended audience it was written for. Although we do see a few other wealthy black families in the movie, I’m betting he didn’t write this memoir as a harrowing adventure story for them, he wrote it as a propaganda piece against slavery (as well he should have). And as a propaganda piece, it was written for a white audience who might have the power to do something about it, the text specifically tailored to address the sticky moral issues facing the whites and the daily horrors faced by the blacks. That was the selling point, I suspect, particularly from the point of view of Northup’s white co-author, David Wright. Northup’s memoir is still regarded as one of the most nuanced, least propagandistic slave narratives from the time, and I well believe that this is true. But still, if this particular slave narrative seems oddly white-centric, it probably has a lot to do with the time and place it was written.

So ultimately, 12 YEARS A SLAVE just seems a little too much like a movie about slavery which is intended for white people. All the interesting conflicts, most of the the complex characters, all the motivating action -- it all comes from the white cast. Heck, Northup’s whole character arc is contingent upon white people: he has no flaws, so he’s an innocent victim of white kidnappers, sold by a white guy to another white guy, almost lynched by one white guy and then saved by another, moved to another plantation by a white guy, pushed around by the new white guy, betrayed by one white guy, and then finally rescued by yet another, saintly white guy. His total involvement in his own liberation is that after 12 years, he finally finds one decent white guy who’s willing to write a letter for him so that more white guys can come down from the North and set him free. Shit, the movie should be called 12 YEARS OF HONKIE BASTARDS WAITING FOR ONE HALF DECENT WHITE GUY TO COME ALONG. Whitey defines every single narrative tick here; the slaves are almost entirely passive in their own story!

I think this pretty much says it all.

And here’s where things get a little sticky, because of course Solomon Northup was a real person, this screenplay appears to stick quite close to his real memoirs, so this stuff really happened. Do these filmmakers have to apologize for telling the truth? I mean, of course the truth looks like this, slaves had pretty much no agency, their lives really did move at the whim of whites, exactly the way the movie depicts. And Mr. Northup was no fool, he realized that his only chance for freedom was gonna be in simply biding his time until he finally found a means to send for help. It makes sense. Come on, Mr. Subtlety, if they made up a bunch of fictional bullshit about Northup organizing a slave revolt and beheading Alexander Stevens, you’d complain that it’s all a bunch of hogwash which unfairly makes it seem like slaves had the means to free themselves, which of course is a pretty blatant lie (well, until I make my Nat Turner biopic, anyway).

You’re right, imaginary person who is still trying to argue with me after 2500 words, I might. But I also might not. Because here’s the thing: movies are not real life. They’re not supposed to be; they’re meant to artistically represent real life, not present the actual experience. They're a specific artistic medium with their own particular internal biases in depiction. That’s not a bad thing, it just is part and parcel to this particular art form, as indeed it is to every medium. The way these characters and events read in a movie are different from the way they read in a book -nevermind real life- and treating them as the same just isn’t quite the easy moral choice that I think the filmmakers thought it was. By hewing too close to the historical record written in the book, you may inadvertently end up with something which is less honest about the experiential truth of the work. Even if all your facts are right, by choosing which ones to include and the dramatic tone of the ones you do, you still distort the experience, as all movies do. Recognizing this, intentionally manipulating things a little bit in the interest of a more full experience as a film actually seems like the most honest approach to me. Basically, you’re doing it anyway, so why not at least do it with some intent?

Ejiofor and Michael K. Williams react to learning that this slavery movie is all about white people.

Part of my issues with the movie derive from the specifics of the original story, but part of it is simply what happens when you take this kind of true story and put it on screen. Real life doesn’t usually have neat and tidy narrative lines, which is always one of the big problems with biopics. You’re stuck, right? You respect the subject, that’s why you made the film. But you’re telling the story of an actual life, with all the messy detail and contradictions and frustrations and digressions. Here’s a snippet from the wikipedia description of Northup’s liberation:  

Several letters were written, and one that was sent to Cephas Parker and William Perry, storekeepers in Saratoga, was referred to Henry B. Northup. He contacted New York Governor Washington Hunt, who took up the case, appointing Henry Northup, who was an attorney general, as his legal agent. In cooperation with U.S. Senator Pierre Soule and local authorities of Louisiana, Henry Northup located Solomon Northup.

The movie makes it a little simpler: Parker, who they establish as a friend of Northup at the beginning of the movie, comes down and frees him himself. So they basically kept the same events, they just cut out a lot of extraneous explanation, right? We could spend a whole movie talking about U.S. Senator Pierre Soule’s efforts with the legals system and local attorney Henry Northrup (no familial relation, although he was a family friend of the Solomon Northup family and it appears that his family once owned Solomon’s family as slaves and is probably the genesis of their last name, fuck, see how complicated real life is?). We won’t, though, because we’re trying to streamline this one narrative about this one guy. But once you start doing that, aren’t you already kind of acknowledging the limits of this form for that kind of attempted reporting? You’ve already admitted this is nothing like reality, why not just go the next step and reshape the whole thing to tell an emotional truth in a form better suited for this particular artistic medium. After all, even if you make absolutely certain that every single scene is a fastidious recreation of every single detail in the original narrative, you’re still manipulating the facts by choosing which scenes you depict and which you leave out. Life is mostly uneventful. But this movie is almost nonstop events. No matter how honestly you present a single scene, the whole is still a betrayal of objective reality. So why bother pretending?

This movie is clearly an honest effort to honor Northup’s life and story by faithfully depicting it in a movie. But I guess I just don’t really see the value in doing that, compared with the value of making a more introspective study of this period in history. If the movie lacks anything, it’s a motivating point of view. Northup knew what his point was in writing the book: slavery is fucking awful, and a system with legal slavery is patently insane, a horrifying farce that he lost a huge part of his life to. But what is McQueen and Ridely’s point? Just to tell his story? It’s certainly an immersive story, even a frequently gripping one thanks to their skill as craftsmen. At it’s best, it has the distinct feel of The Odyssey, a man gripped by the fickle hand of fate and battered with a long parade of colorful horrors. But Odysseus’ journey is a mythic one; Northup’s is cruel in its banality more than it’s exotic elements. I don’t care if I know who Odysseus is by the end, because he’s not a man, he’s an archetype. But I’d like Northup --particularly given Ejiofor’s sensitive, powerfully introverted performance-- to be a real human. And as such, I care less about what specifically happened to him and more how what happened affects him as a person. And alas, this movie version of his memoirs doesn’t occupy itself with that, either through disinterest or through a crippling reverence for the source and a fear of contaminating it through overinterpretation.

Boy, this raft trip got way better after I dumped that annoying redneck kid in the river. *

*is that racist? Or a clever literary allusion? I don't even know anymore.

Which brings us back to my preference for a fictionalized (or less complete) version of the book which focused a little more on the slaves and less on the white people**. It doesn’t have to end with a slave revolt or anything (although how cool would that be?) but at least we could focus the story and give poor Northup some kind of character arc, where he’s active --if not in his own liberation, then at least in learning something about himself. One way they might have even been able to do it without changing much of the story is by simply depicting Northup’s later years as an abolitionist advocate and speaker; that’s historically true (the movie even mentions it in the end credits) and seeing it might have helped restore his agency and dramatically demonstrated how his experience actually changed him. Or better yet, dump the idea of narrative and story arcs completely, and just focus on making it a character study about the slaves, their day to day lives, their interactions with each other. Forget trying to shape some kind of phony character arc, and just let us spend some time with these people and get a sense of their real experience. Let us learn who they are, not just the stuff that happens to them. Otherwise, you risk relegating the slaves to the exact same fate they originally had: fading into the background, where you don’t have to relate to them on a human level.***

I have a strong feeling this one is gonna win all the awards in the World [update: it won “best picture” at the Golden Globes] and that’s a good thing as far as I’m concerned. It’s a fiercely powerful artistic effort, and it examines a time and place which all too frequently goes undepicted in mainstream American media. As a movie experience, it’s an utterly engrossing and harrowing tale which finds rich detail and memorable sequences in its nearly unique scenario. But I can’t help but also feel that it’s hard to get around the fact that it’s also unambiguously an issues movie, and that in that one role, it falls a little short of what I’d really like to see given how rarely this period of history explored in film. Which is more important? Must it be both? It seems completely unfair to demand that 12 YEARS A SLAVE be the final word on slavery. But boy, the opportunity comes around so infrequently that it’s hard not to see what else it could have been. All is not lost, though: 12 YEARS is an unambiguously fantastic movie, and maybe that in itself is enough to inspire a new generation of filmmakers to take the idea and run with it in their own direction. There’s probably enough complexity and pain here to fuel artists for another hundred years, and if that were to be Solomon Northup’s legacy, I have to imagine he’d find that something to be genuinely proud of.

Still, I prefer the deleted original ending, as seen here.

*Although McQueen compares it to one: “I live in Amsterdam where Anne Frank is a national hero, and for me this book read like Anne Frank's diary but written 97 years before — a firsthand account of slavery. I basically made it my passion to make this book into a film.” But it’s not quite the same, is it? This was written specifically for publication, after the fact, essentially as a propaganda piece.

**And it’s possible that such a work exists: Northup’s book was already adapted into a PBS movie in 1984. Called SOLOMON NORTHUP’S ODYSSEY (interesting that they also picked up the whiff of Odysseus that I alluded to earlier), it was directed by SHAFT and LEADBELLY’s Gordon Parks and stars, as Northup, holy cow, none other than Avery “Baddest muthafuckin Starfleet Commander ever” Brooks. And John Saxon is in the Fassbender role. I gotta take a look at that.

***Controversial opinions time: I’m about to alienate all my Lefty friends, but you know who made a good film about an oppressed minority? Mel Gibson. No, not PASSION OF THE CHRIST, which actually as you can see from my review has a lot of problems in common with this movie. I’m talking about APOCALYPTO, that movie that everyone denounced as racist and insulting to all native American people, everywhere. They didn’t like it, I think, because it takes some liberties with the facts and in some cases presents the Mayans as the bad guys (although they’re also the good guys). Fair points, but you know what it also does? It presents the Mayans as humans. They’re humans first and foremost, normal characters you’d see in any movie. Some of them are smart, some dumb, some evil, some kind, some victims and some heroes. What they never are is symbols. APOCALYPTO is not a movie about the Mayan People, it’s a movie about a few particular Mayans who have a specific silly movie story about them. There’s no message there, there’s no political point being made about oppression, they’re just regular human beings having the normal drama humans have in movies. There are no white people in the picture at all, nor does it need them or want them. Maybe you say that doing this movie this way diminishes the suffering of the Mayan people at the hands of Europeans, that it fails to address the genocide of an entire continent, that it shamelessly refuses to take a stand on the issues. I say, I think the most sensitive way to portray anyone is to make them more than their issues, and more than their heritage. Every human is infinitely complex, and you reduce them when you try to make them represent some big abstract ideological or historical point. Humans are humans, archetypes are just shorthand. Stereotypes for people with good intentions.


  1. I disagree, I found this "being enslaved is dehumanizing in a way that makes you a weak, boring person, no matter how Omar or
    Redbelt you are" approach really refreshing. It just seems much more respectful to the victims, and true to life. The opposite of this, as seen in Schindler's List (awesome movie still ofc), seems to me just really tasteless and kind offensive.
    Anyways, your blog is fucking amazing, and you're a really really insightful person. Monetize this shit! I don't want to stop reading it!

  2. Maciej -- thanks for the kind words! I completely understand your perspective here. I'm not sure it came through in my 3000+ word rant, but it does seems to me that this is probably the most honest approach to the material -- yeah, being a slave was probably not just a dehumanizing experience, but a stultifying one, which didn't really offer any opportunities for empowerment of any kind. We just get so few movies about this topic that it's hard not to wish for a little empowerment of some kind -- even fictionalized. But it's also not fair to make that 12 YEARS A SLAVE's problem; it shouldn't have to be the final word on the subject, and it's a rather brilliant work exactly as it is.

    1. Yeah, there's an argument to be made - why a piece of art should have any obligations to take under account your sensibilities? Some stories work as badass cinema. Schindler's List was a kickass thriller. Nobody cares about your precious feelings, because art is forever and you're not.
      Either way, I had no problems with "12 Years a Slave" being its own thing, because I kinda dig this little genre of "human experience" movies, where characters are passive, unsure and infuriating and movie/narrative language gets sometimes ignored. You know, the Greengrass way.
      Thanks for a reply to a comment to a 2 year-old post.

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