12 Years a Slave uses sadistic art to patronize history
Brutality, violence and misery get confused with history in 12 Years a Slave, British director Steve McQueen’s adaptation of the 1853 American slave narrative by Solomon Northup, who claims that in 1841, away from his home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., he was kidnapped and taken South where he was sold into hellish servitude and dehumanizing cruelty.
For McQueen, cruelty is the juicy-arty part; it continues the filmmaker’s interest in sado-masochistic display, highlighted in his previous features Hunger and Shame. Brutality is McQueen’s forte. As with his fine-arts background, McQueen’s films resemble museum installations: the stories are always abstracted into a series of shocking, unsettling events. With Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), McQueen chronicles the conscious sufferance of unrelenting physical and psychological pain. A methodically measured narrative slowly advances through Northup’s years of captivity, showcasing various injustices that drive home the terrors Black Africans experienced in the U.S. during what’s been called “the peculiar institution.”
Depicting slavery as a horror show, McQueen has made the most unpleasant American movie since William Friedkin’s1973 The Exorcist. That’s right, 12 Years a Slave belongs to the torture porn genre with Hostel, The Human Centipede and the Saw franchise but it is being sold (and mistaken) as part of the recent spate of movies that pretend “a conversation about race.” The only conversation this film inspires would contain howls of discomfort.
For commercial distributor Fox Searchlight, 12 Years a Slave appears at an opportune moment when film culture–five years into the Obama administration–indulges stories about Black victimization such as Precious, The Help, The Butler, Fruitvale Station and Blue Caprice. (What promoter Harvey Weinstein has called “The Obama Effect.”) This is not part of social or historical enlightenment–the too-knowing race-hustlers behind 12 Years a Slave, screenwriter John Ridley and historical advisor Henry Louis Gates, are not above profiting from the misfortunes of African-American history as part of their own career advancement.
But McQueen is a different, apolitical, art-minded animal. The sociological aspects of 12 Years a Slave have as little significance for him as the political issues behind IRA prisoner Bobby Sands’ hunger strike amidst prison brutality visualized in Hunger, or the pervy tour of urban “sexual addiction” in Shame. McQueen takes on the slave system’s depravity as proof of human depravity. This is less a drama than an inhumane analysis–like the cross-sectional cut-up of a horse in Damien Hirst’s infamous 1996 museum installation “Some Comfort Gained From the Acceptance of the Inherent Lies in Everything.”
Because 12 Years of Slave is such a repugnant experience, a sensible viewer might be reasonably suspicious about many of the atrocities shown–or at least scoff at the one-sided masochism: Northup talks about survival but he has no spiritual resource or political drive–the means typically revealed when slave narratives are usually recounted. From Mandingo and Roots to Sankofa, Amistad, Nightjohn and Beloved, the capacity for spiritual sustenance, inherited from the legacy of slavery and survival, was essential (as with Baby Sugg’s sermon-in-the-woods in Beloved and John Quincy Adams and Cinque’s reference to ancestors in Amistad) in order to verify and make bearable the otherwise dehumanizing tales.
It proves the ahistorical ignorance of this era that 12 Years a Slave’s constant misery is excused as an acceptable version of the slave experience. McQueen, Ridley and Gates’ cast of existential victims won’t do. Northup-renamed-Platt and especially the weeping mother Liza (Adepero Oduye) and multiply-abused Patsey (Lupita Nyong‘o), are human whipping posts–beaten, humiliated, raped for our delectation just like Hirst’s cut-up equine. Hirst knew his culture: Some will no doubt take comfort from McQueen’s inherently warped, dishonest, insensitive fiction.
These tortures might satisfy the resentment some Black people feel about slave stories (“It makes me angry”), further aggravating their sense of helplessness, grievance–and martyrdom. It’s the flipside of the aberrant warmth some Blacks claim in response to the superficial uplift of The Help and The Butler. And the perversion continues among those whites and non-Blacks who need a shock fest like 12 Years a Slave to rouse them from complacency with American racism and American history. But, as with The Exorcist, there is no victory in filmmaking this merciless. The fact that McQueen’s harshness was trending among Festivalgoers (in Toronto, Telluride and New York) suggests that denial still obscures the history of slavery: Northup’s travail merely makes it possible for some viewers to feel good about feeling bad (as wags complained about Spielberg’s Schindler’s List as an “official” Holocaust movie–which very few people wanted to see twice). McQueen’s fraudulence further accustoms moviegoers to violence and brutality.
The very artsiness of 12 Years a Slave is part of its offense. The clear, classical imagery embarrasses Quentin Tarantino’s attempt at visual poetry in Django Unchained yet this “clarity” (like Hans Zimmer’s effective percussion score) is ultimately depressing. McQueen uses that art staple “duration” to prolong North’s lynching on tiptoe and later, in endless, tearful anticipation; emphasis on a hot furnace and roiling waves adds nature’s discomfort; an ugly close-up of a cotton worm symbolizes drudgery; a slave chant (“Run, Nigger, Run,”) contrasts ineffectual Bible-reading; and a shot of North’s handwritten plea burns to embers. But good art doesn’t work this way. Art elates and edifies–one might even prefer Q.T.’s jokey ridiculousness in Django Unchained, a different kind of sadism.
McQueen’s art-world background recalls Peter Greenaway’s high-mindedness; he’s incapable of Q.T.’s stupid showmanship. (He may simply be blind to American ambivalence about the slave era and might do better focusing on the crimes of British imperialism.) Instead, every character here drags us into assorted sick melancholies–as Northup/Platt, Ejiofor’s sensitive manner makes a lousy protagonist; the benevolent intelligence that worked so well for him as the translator in Amistad is too passive here; he succumbs to fate, anguish and torment according to McQueen’s pre-ordained pessimism. Michael Fassbender’s Edwin Epps, a twisted slaveholder (“a nigger-breaker”) isn’t a sexy selfish lover as Lee Daniels flirtatiously showed in The Butler; Epps perverts love in his nasty miscegenation with Patsey (whose name should be Pathos).
And Alfre Woodard as a self-aware Black plantation mistress rapidly sinks into unrescuable psychosis. Ironically, Woodard’s performance is weird comic relief–a neurotic tribute to Butterfly McQueen’s frivolous Hollywood inanity but from a no-fun perspective. By denying Woodard a second appearance, director McQueen proves his insensitivity. He avoids any hopefulness, preferring to emphasize scenes devoted to annihilating Nyong’o’s body and soul. Patsey’s completely unfathomable longing for death is just art-world cynicism. McQueen’s “sympathy” lacks appropriate disgust and outrage but basks in repulsion and pity–including close-up wounds and oblivion. Patsey’s pathetic corner-of-the-screen farewell faint is a nihilistic trope. Nothing in The Exorcist was more flagrantly sadistic.
Some of the most racist people I know are bowled over by this movie. They may have forgotten Roots, never seen Sankofa or Nightjohn, disliked Amistad, dismissed Beloved and even decried the violence in The Passion of the Christ, yet 12 Years a Slave lets them congratulate themselves for “being aghast at slavery.” This film has become a new, easy reproof to Holocaust deniers. But remember how in Public Enemy’s “Can’t Truss It,” pop culture’s most magnificent account of the Middle Passage, Chuck D warned against the appropriation of historical catastrophe for self-aggrandizement: “The Holocaust /I’m talkin’ ‘bout the one still goin’ on!”
The egregious inhumanity of 12 Years a Slave (featuring the most mawkish and meaningless fade-out in recent Hollywood history) only serves to perpetuate Hollywood’s disenfranchisement of Black people’s humanity. Brad Pitt, one of the film’s producers, appears in a small role as a helpful pacifist—as if to save face with his real-life multicultural adopted family. But Pitt’s good intentions (his character promises “There will be a reckoning”) contradict McQueen, Ridley and Gates’ self-serving motives. The finite numeral in the title of 12 Years a Slave compliments the fallacy that we look back from a post-racial age, that all is in ascent. But 12 Years a Slave is ultimate proof that Hollywood’s respect for Black humanity is in absurd, patronizing, Oscar-winning decline.
Steve McQueen’s post-racial art games and taste for cruelty play into cultural chaos. The story in 12 Years a Slave didn’t need to be filmed this way and I wish I never saw it.
Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair
Top: Fassbender, Nyong’o and Ejiofor in 12 Years
Middle: Damien Hirst’s “Some Comfort Gained…”
Bottom: Ejiofor in Amistad