The Most Beautiful Fraud: 12 Years A Slave

Slavery, it has been properly observed, is America’s original sin.  It is our first and foremost crime, the most adjacent cause of our civil war, and the source of the racial poison that continues to choke us today.  It is, if this can be said in a way that does not invite outrage and hyperbole, our Holocaust:  a mobile disaster that wreaks its havoc and taints the very souls of those it touched even now, a hundred and fifty years after it officially came to an end.   But in that comparison lies one of the most thorny problems with assessing 12 Years a Slave, both as an aesthetic object and as an attempt to portray the degrading reality of slavery.  In both form and function, it highly resembles what we have come to think of as “Holocaust movies” — which, for dismaying reasons, has come to mean not just a movie about the Holocaust, but a very specifically formulaic kind of movie that is, because of the very sanctity of its subject, guaranteed critic chow and Oscar bait.

It’s a problem that’s difficult to get around, because of its inherently contradictory nature:  simply by depicting the situation as it really was, such films can seem terribly manipulative.  This tendency can be minimized or exacerbated by the talent behind and in front of the camera, either consciously or unconsciously, but it is always present, and 12 Years A Slave is no exception.  Hans Zimmer’s score is not quite as oppressive has we might expect, but there are moments when it is absolutely unnecessary and overwrought, wringing emotional notes from the audience that ought to have been given up naturally; and, despite the fact that the film strives to keep the focus on the perspective of the slave and not the master, the presence of a Great White Savior is not avoided.   Brad Pitt’s appearance late in the film as the instrument of Solomon Northup’s deliverance was probably inevitable (and likely is what got the film made, given his position as head of the company that produced it), but it still smacks of a sop to middle-class white sensibilities.  Finally, the movie’s ending is perhaps the thorniest contradiction of all:  it’s flagrant emotional manipulation of the sort that justifies a bourgeois audience’s patience with the trials that have come before it, their payoff for being implicated in all that unpleasantness.  But it is also true and real; who can imagine himself reacting any other way under those circumstances?  We have seen these situations depicted in the same way so many times in service of falseness that we almost automatically abreact when we see it done in the service of truth.

And truth is a big part of the appeal of 12 Years A Slave.  The story of a free-born black American who is sold over to southern slavers, its narrative is compelling and damning at the same time:  it provides us with a rare outsider’s perspective on life as a slave, and it gives us that happy ending while still reminding us that such relief never came for millions of others.  And, most importantly, it is true — at least, most of it is, in the opinion of scholars who have looked into the matter.  This is important, because the historical truth of Solomon Northup’s story is what provides the more important factors of its emotional and political truth a platform upon which to stand.  But, again, this truth sometimes gets in its own way, for sometimes the truth is so much like an exaggerated fiction that we see it and we still don’t believe it.  In the early goings of the film, Solomon is sold into the service of Master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who seems a decent enough man under the circumstance — although it falls to another slave to remind Solomon what a grotesquerie that “under the circumstance” truly is.  But because of his own pride and sense of self, he cannot resist fighting a vicious foreman (Paul Dano), thus signing his own death warrant; the only way to save him, Cumberbatch reasons, is to sell him to another master, the brutal and abusive Michael Fassbender.  The earlier scenes are, to me, much more compelling — not because they excuse Cumberbatch, but because they lull us into sympathy with him, because they put us in the pace of the slave mind that truly believes he’s a good man when he grants a token of little worth for a service of great cost, because they show how everyone involved in slavery is destroyed because of it, irrespective of intention.  When Fassbender appears, his nearly cartoonish evil — regardless of its rightness or its historical truth — seems to jar us out of the lesson even as it teaches us a new one.

This tonal shift comes at some cost, but overall, 12 Years A Slave does a tremendous job of illustrating without sensationalism or exploitation the impossible, horrible dead-end qualities of slavery.  In nearly every scene, we are shown how no one escapes with an intact spirit, how everyone — black or white — is utterly ruined by their willing or unwilling participation in this madly unjust system.  Watching Solomon broken of his insistence that if only someone will listen to reason, he will be treated justly, is heartbreaking; seeing Paul Giamatti, as a practical-minded slaver, oversee the most inhumane and horrific of actions for a “fair price” is as vivid an illustration as one could want of Hannah Arendt’s perceptions of the quotidian qualities of evil reflected in a universally accepted system.  Another scene, where Solomon attempts to stop a woman from crying over the loss of her two children to strangers, is a perfect example of how no decision is a good one in such an awful situation, as is one where he makes a spontaneous decision to flee, only to realize that he has no idea where he is or where to go and everyone around him is hostile.  Cumberbatch provides a fine portrait of a man just aware enough of the brutality of his surroundings to feel guilt, but not aware enough to make a principled stand against it; and another scene, astonishing in its quiet power, sees Alfre Woodward play a house Negress, promoted to nearly the position of a white woman through her willingness to play along with her master’s predatorial ways, preaches the value of cooperation with the plantation owners as a way of easing one’s suffering — and then, just as calmly and quietly, foretells with some eagerness the day when those owners will be obliterated in a literal, Biblical Armageddon for their sins.  In every way, in every moment, we are reminded of the cost of America’s original sin, of the unmanageable debasement and dehumanization it left behind as the natural by-product of slavery as a fact.

Director Steve McQueen manages to play to his own strengths — a painterly visual sensibility that shows up in gorgeous screen compositions, beautiful color palettes of faded whites, muted blues, and smeared pink skies, and the ability to frame faces and bodies with a classical eye — while still stringing together a storytelling structure and pace that is coherent and rhythmic, while still staying vague enough (from Solomon’s perspective) to keep the viewer just a bit off balance.  It’s a truly beautiful film, with camerawork both expansive and intimate, and never more so than when the beauty is encroached on by horror; for it is then that we are reminded the most of Frederick Douglass’ lament that there is not an inch of the endless natural loveliness of the South that is not corrupted with the innocent blood of the slave.  (I’ve tried to refrain from discussing the reactions of other critics to 12 Years A Slave, here I must mention Stephanie Zacharek’s curious criticism that the movie undercuts its “raw feeling” with its exquisite visuals.  She complains that “Even when it depicts inhuman cruelty, as it often does, it never compromises its aesthetic purity”, a comment so bizarre it makes me wonder if she is familiar with the function of art; if McQueen is guilty of this, so too was Picasso in “Guernica”, Goya in the “Horrors of War” series, and practically every other visual artist who has attempted to illustrate monstrous behavior in a particular aesthetic mode of expression.)  The acting, too, is unimpeachable, from the tiniest bit parts (a number of familiar television faces, in particular, are surprising and gratifying to see) to the intense lead of Chiwetel Ejiofor.  Excellent throughout, even when McQueen makes the rare misstep of an unmotivated close-up, he has one scene in particular, as he reluctantly begins to sing along with a spiritual while burying an old field hand who dropped dead at his labors.  In many films, this scene would have been an artificially uplifting bit of bogus sentimentality; but Ejiofor, who never speaks a word but only sings, imbues it with such deeply lined, strongly felt, and utterly contradictory emotion, it takes the moment to a whole different level.  Rage, pity, sadness, exhaustion, grief, doubt, and a nearly infinitely remote desire for some kind of salvation play on his face for long seconds full of meaning.

12 Years A Slave encounters all the same problems that any such prestige film is bound to, from the need to appeal to the very audience you are attempting to indict to what we might term the artificiality of the truth.  But what spares it from being an overblown mediocrity, and makes it into something great, is its determination to meet those problems head-on and confront them.  It does not always succeed, but it also never shrinks from the task, and that is enough to commend it.  If it is not the indisputable great film about American slavery, it will hold until that film appears.

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