In Defense of the Beauty of ’12 Years a Slave’

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The grievances against 12 Years a Slave betray a desperate fear of cinema itself. They attack a filmmaker for the audacity of wielding the full set of his aesthetic weaponry — and refusing to submit to the generic formulae that might ease the painful truth of a very real past. Steve McQueen firmly opposes the humbled hypocrisy of predictable cinema and instead sets to work with powerful visual authority, in an unmistakably serious tone that has clearly made many critics uncomfortable. He has given us a deeply beautiful work of art that beseeches the kind of thoughtful, emotional pondering that has unnerved not a few spectators.

Writing for The Village Voice, Stephanie Zacharek, in the company of Adam Nayman and others, complains of the artistic overshadowing of the subject matter, claiming that McQueen is too busy painting the picture to let its reality effectively seep through. His aesthetic precision results in “antiseptic, history made safe through art.” Yet I do not see what is “safe” about a film that makes engagingly attractive what is otherwise unbearably repulsive, all the while preserving its visceral horror. McQueen’s bold, confident approach is a breath of fresh air in a business dominated by self-censored mediocrity. Zacharek praises the performance of the lead Chiwetel Ejiofor to further argue against the stylization of the film and in favor of a more base, hands-off approach that would let the performance speak for itself. It does not surprise me that she pits the film against the sober The Butler, which I trust is filled with “Oscar-worthy” performances. There are more ways to create “raw” feeling than to merely let an actor do his job, and it is too bad that critics such as this one fail to appreciate the array of imaginative methods being employed by McQueen.

The stillness of his frames is not a sign of stoicism but of history understood as a palpable moment that transcends time – the potential of an image to be more than it shows. From the very first image of the film – of a still group of field slaves, frozen and looking into the camera – slavery as not merely the past but as an ongoing truth is thrust onto the screen as undeniably there, staring back. It recalls the sleek, deceptive passivity of Fassbinder’s frames: meticulously arranged, self-reflexive, and divine windows into small lives sown into history. The inadequacy of Zacharek’s perspective is revealed from the very first line of her review, where she makes the unfortunate assertion that 12 Years is the pseudo intellectual’s preferred version of the more mainstream The Butler. I have not seen The Butler, but from plot descriptions and Zacharek’s own words, it appears that the only viable connection is that they are both historical films with Black protagonists. What is more likely a defensive reaction to the discomfort of personally favoring a popular film over a more artistically challenging one, here manifests as a racist assumption that viewers must choose only one of these “kind” of films to support every year. Equally misguided is for her to limit the film’s scope to the “African American experience.” What the film puts into sharp focus is the collective experience of slavery – how it shaped the lives of Black and White alike, creating a toxicity of horror and inhumanity that infected every corner of existence.

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The inherit contradictions of the slave experience – as lived by society as a whole – is what McQueen marvelously captures. Robert Koehler’s review for Arts Meme, meanwhile, is almost too under-argued and riddled with ungrounded claims to demand any lengthy response. I wish I could say his contrarian perspective raises some interesting questions, but it sadly disastrously fails to discover real faults in a film he clearly experienced as unpalatable. The sole lesson to be learned from it is that a takedown should be better researched to have any relevance. He makes two particularly misguided claims. He writes that the film “wrongly perceived the psychological and emotional underpinnings that guided the southern slave trade.” What authority or evidence does he have to make such an accusation? The story and the words are taken from the first-hand account of a memoir written by a slave. Koehler clearly does not like the character of Edwin Epps, the cruel sadist, and rather prefers Calvin Candie, Tarantino’s cartoon plantation owner who grins and jests while never raising a hand to any of his slaves, preferring to leave that job to his lackeys. For Koehler, an untroubled, self-confident profile is more correct than Fassbender’s conflicted, alcoholic and emotionally disturbed slave owner. The power of the performance and its filming is precisely in its unpredictability. This is a multi-dimensional cruelty we are watching; all slave owners were not just businessmen making money the way they knew how. They were also flesh, reacting to the live people before them, reasoning to themselves how they could own another human being.

The second preposterous assertion Koehler forces onto readers to ease his own insecurities is that 12 Years is the product of a distinctly British – and thus muted – sensibility that “keeps a check on outrage.” The restraint of the film has, for me, the opposite effect of “keeping in check” the ill feelings against the monstrosity that is, actually, more easily trivialized by the slave-related films of Tarantino or Spielberg. There is no easy outlet, as in Tarantino’s final massacre of the slave owner and his minions. Nor is there historical (White-led) “progress” that saves the day, as in Spielberg’s. Koehler concludes by saying that McQueen has “filtered” slavery through the “aesthetics and politics of the body,” a claim that, though not completely true, is a praise rather than a slight, as intended. The “American” perspective he seeks would be one of stylized catharsis or sentimental self-seriousness, in either case taking the body for granted as a breathing, living thing that must get through the night as much as the long, smoldering day. As his filmography suggests, McQueen is very interested in the body as a site of both political oppression and resistance to that oppression. In Hunger, the body of Bobby Sands is beaten and made to rot in a dirty, close-quartered cell; but it is also an instrument of protest, repossessed by a man unwilling to be dominated. Shame too emphasizes not only bodily but psychological suffering as a very corporeal experience and subverts expectations of watching bodies engaging in sexual acts onscreen. Why should McQueen not choose an angle that both is of great ongoing interest to him and sheds light on a reality that must be represented in ever more revealing ways?

At least Zacharek raises the issue of how art “should” depict history. Her predictable turn to another “Black” film to make her case is, too, a symptom of an industry where Black is a genre in itself and to make a film where the protagonist is not White is to make a “racial” film (whereas to make a film with a White person is simply to make a film). Yet The Butler does present another way to tell history that might be preferable for some. While Zacharek lazily pits the films against each other, making the ridiculous claim that 12 Years is a prestige picture that is safe for good liberals to praise at social gatherings, she emphasizes film as having social consequences and shaping the way we react to and discuss our shared history.

Yet what is truly special about McQueen’s creation is that it does not reduce itself to history. Solomon is dangling by a rope, barely staying alive by balancing on his toes above the mud below him. The camera remains in a long shot framing a calm, almost unmoving landscape. Some slaves begin to stir, slowly moving about, seemingly indifferent to the man hanging from a rope just a few feet away. But the point is that such an occurrence was part of the regular regimen, and that slaves and masters were conditioned to go about their day accepting slavery as a given. Even the men up north – including Solomon prior to his enslavement – continued their daily activities knowing full well what was happening just miles away in their very same country. This refusal to confront the atrocities of a system in which we take part is a very current disease that the film acknowledges as not merely historical but also not easily dismissed as no longer true.

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