As I write this, 12 Years A Slave is still gathering plaudits and contending for major awards. There is excellent commentary abounding on the lead performances and the cinematography, but where it’s getting the most traction as A Contender ™ is as the first “genuine” portrayal of slavery in the American South. To an extent, this means that any given critical effort must distract itself from the business of film to form an opinion on the history depicted. A cynic might argue that this is the essential strategy adopted by a whole echelon of Worthy ™ films about World War 2. If you want to argue that Schindler’s List is a terrible film, you must simultaneously grapple with Schindler’s good deeds and the horrors of the Final Solution. Even if you conclude, wrongly, that it is a terrible film, you can’t write it off as a waste of time, because of the embedded message. In terms of critical reception, I think it’s all too easy to get a nominal pass for any poorly-made film by making it about something with sufficient gravitas and in a sufficiently unflinching style. The worst offenders generally operate in the realm of terminal illness, but there are a number of World War 2 “classics” whose fame rests entirely upon the iniquity of the material.
I’ve got to admit up front that I am no expert on slavery in the American South. I’ve never conducted scholarly research, or been there. I’ve read some general histories, and I’ve encountered most of the great slavery fictions – Roots, Amistad, Gone With The Wind, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and, of course, Django Unchained. For me, the additional perspective brought by 12 Years A Slave wouldn’t fill a post-card. In fact, what struck me about the film that might have skated past my vision without its critical penumbra is how little it is about slavery as a system. There’s little discussion about why kidnapping free blacks makes economic sense, about the hereditary nature of slavery, about the systems of behavioural control that kept the slaves in line, about the strategies adopted by escapees. That’s not to say it isn’t Worthy ™ material, just that for me, I want more from a film about slavery than the details of how horrible it was to experience.
What the film reminded me of was a wrongful-imprisonment drama, and to that extent, it brought to mind The Shawshank Redemption far more than it brought to mind Uncle Tom’s Cabin. There were a few scenes where something more intriguing rippled across the screen, such as the final scene with Solomon’s first master before being sold to Epps. His master wishes to protect him from an overseer that has a vendetta against him, and to do so, sells him. The limitations of both power and human psychology look poised to make their way onscreen. We appear to be about to see beneath the mask, to force the white characters to confront the reality of their actions – but the matter is dropped. The master remains a semi-anonymous white devil slave-owner, the overseer this arbitrary monster.
It’s not so much that I felt the white characters were caricatures, so much that it made me realise what a small window we had into the inner world of Solomon Northrup. Ejiofor is able to convey an astonishing range of emotion very subtly with his expression, but the film allows us little more insight into Northrup’s character than stoicism. What drives him? How does he feel? Again, there are moments when it seems like a real human scenario is going to burst onto the screen. The emotional climax of the film for me was Solomon confronting a weeping mother, brutally telling her to shut her mouth, as her wailing is doing nobody any good. Her response is a stunning advocacy of emotion over perseverance, a speech about Solomon’s own stated goals – to Live rather than Survive. He brushes it off, and the moment passes without any further echoes. For me at least, Solomon remains a cypher and enigma from opening scene until closing credit. I’ve got no more idea who he is having watched the film than his plot function as the wrongful prisoner.
I suppose that this emotional stasis is a deliberate strategy by Steve McQueen. The numbness and deliberate obliviousness of all the characters must be a key coping strategy for everyone involved. To an extent, from Northrup to Epps, each character lives in their own internalised version of reality, because they would otherwise be unable to cope with the horror they witness and inflict. Even here, though, I think the film needs to show us more than these isolated and episodic glimpses of the characters’ inner lives. This is what made Dogville such a powerful story, one whose mere mention can still prompt a visceral gut reaction in me nearly a decade later. Dogville explores the inner lives of protagonist and antagonist, helping to understand how the terrible situations depicted come to pass, the insecurities, the systemic imbalances, the psychological damage caused by experiencing, inflicting and observing suffering.
12 Years A Slave is beautifully shot, with a strong script, and mesmerising performances from its leads (some of the minor characters give decidedly ropey performances), but it is a cold and flat experience.