Sadness Porn with a Historical Twist
12 Years a Slave is an excruciating, uncomfortable, upsetting watch, a long slog through two hours of Spanish moss and torture, of unrelenting cruelty framed in interminably long shots, often set to the shrieking, non-diagetic strings of a Hans Zimmer score. About it being hard to watch, most viewers seem to agree. The question becomes: is that a good thing? Is a movie justified in being excruciating to watch if it depicts an excruciating subject? Does it help us to understand the suffering of the enslaved simply by forcing ourselves to sit through an insufferable movie about slavery?
The basic story is this: After opening with a non-sequitir, never-again-referenced wordless sex scene that I interpreted as a leftover from director Steve McQueen’s last film, Shame, we meet Solomon Northupp (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living with his wife and children in Saratoga, New York, in 1841, who makes his living playing the violin. He’s lured into a lucrative touring gig by a pair of delightfully foppish dandy boys he meets in the park, played by Scoot McNairy and SNL’s Taran Killam, who seem like lovable scamps until the day, after a night out with the Dandies, Northup wakes up from a roofie-induced stupor to find himself chained to the floor, his first step on the stealth trip south to his cotton-covered twelve-year nightmare. The Dandy Boys’ motives and even their involvement in the crime remain a mystery, while Northup spends the next ninety or so minutes suffering and witnessing all manner of dehumanizing misery, first with a slave master who sort of likes him (Benedict Cumberbatch) and later with a sadist’s sadist and gleeful rapist played by Michael Fassbender (with a wildly over-the-top redneck Paul Dano thrown in there somewhere for Oscary measure).
At one point, Northup’s bitter slave driver and his pals try to lynch Northup for his uppity back talk, before the overseer shows up to run them off. The overseer takes the rope they’d looped over a tree branch to hoist up Northup by the noose around his neck and he lowers it just enough so that Northup can hover on his tippy toes and avoid strangulation. The overseer ties it to a tree and rides off to find the owner, and there Northup stays, gingerly hopping from toe to toe to open the smallest path through his windpipe. And there the camera stays, filming Northup almost choking while the rest of the plantation goes about their day, for a full minute or two of screen time that feels like an hour.
A shorter version of the scene might’ve been intense. By leaving the camera there for a ludicrously long time, all McQueen does is suck the the tension out of it and turn it tedious, drawing attention to himself, to the form rather than the story. Instead of the horrors of slavery, you get “You see? I am showing you the horrors of slavery.”
There’s a difference between an “unflinching” look at something and an unflinching look at a person desperately trying to project “unflinching.” 12 Years a Slave is often upsetting for all the wrong reasons. It relegates atrocities to the level of camera tricks.
There’s a mean-spiritedness to the whole endeavor, and not in a gleeful, punky sort of way. I reject the idea that because slavery was cruel, that making a movie about it should be an act of unrelenting cruelty. Because it’s about a serious subject I should hate watching it? That makes it less effective. Art isn’t owed an audience.
Earlier this year, I saw a film called Act of Killing, which depicts equally horrific subject matter (the Indonesian genocide) but does it in such a way that it’s by turns horrifying, fascinating, and even hilarious – and that was in a documentary. Act of Killing will stay with you for years. It goes inside the minds of the perpetrators in a way that’s compelling and nauseating, forcing you to grapple with the idea that you and people who commit torture and murder share the same basic DNA. It’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. Largely because it forces you to understand that monstrous acts are a choice, and not the product of some pure evil “other.”
To me there’s a big difference between exploring the causes and psychological underpinnings of a murder and just filming a murdered guy’s exploded guts for ten minutes, to “unflinchingly” drive home the “reality” of it. Which is a lot of what McQueen does in 12 Years a Slave, with endless wailing, beating, open gashes, rapes, crying, screaming, whipping, and drooling, all treated with the same loving cinematography as the babbling brooks and Spanish moss. Rubbing the audience’s nose in something terrible isn’t particularly valuable if you’re not offering insight. McQueen seems to think he’s offering insight simply by making you want to turn away. Mostly he reminded me of the the singing scene in Shame.
Also, by depicting the slavers as these cartoonish monsters, it reinforces the idea of evil as “other,” where you can easily create a psychological barrier between them and yourself, as if you’re different beings. It goes back to the idea of timshel (here, the lackthereof), where the humans involved are always trapped and have no choices, and thus the onus for being good or bad is left to some higher power, and everyone’s trapped in this oppressive, inescapable romantic melancholy. The slavers and the enslaved in 12 Years a Slave are all equally trapped in this awful institution until a deus ex Canadian drops out of the sky and makes everything okay. That’s the turning point? Really? If no one has agency, what’s the point?
Asked why his film is so brutal, McQueen said:
“It’s the truth,” McQueen said. “But it’s not like you’re seeing a horror film. This is about the truth and it should be respected as such because this is how I’m able speak to you; part of my family had to go through that and over 25 million African Americans had to go through that, too. So to turn one’s back on it is to turn your back on how people came to exist in America. We don’t turn our backs on Holocaust survivors and it would be indecent to do so. This is about the truth, that’s all. Plain and simple.”
The thing is, it’s not the truth, and we turn our backs on Holocaust movies all the time if they aren’t very good. Remember when Uwe Boll made one? 12 Years a Slave is a work of fiction*. Lines like “I don’t want. To survive. I want to live!”, uninterrupted shots of cruelty, and a screeching dirge of a score all clearly bear the mark of the creator (and by that I mean the filmmaker, not God). You want people to understand the truth? Explore it. Don’t make it feel like a trip to the dentist’s office. There’s more to a hard truth than “hard to watch.”
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*Yes, I realize it’s based on a memoir. The film is still fictionalized.