Re:View – ’12 Years A Slave’

The Arts

12 years a slave fassbender

I remember seeing a screening of ‘World Trade Center’, before which Oliver Stone brought onto the stage two of the firemen who are portrayed in the film. In the light of how bad the film turned out to be, I felt – possibly uncharitably – that he was proofing the movie against criticism by playing the Good VS Evil card, disarming critics from saying anything negative.

I feel somewhat the same way about ’12 Years A Slave’. Yes, it’s an absolutely essential corrective to a story that has shamefully only been told in exploitation films (although it has been covered from more oblique perspectives in tales like ‘Mississippi Burning’ and even the golden-hued ‘The Colour Purple’). I wasn’t a fan of McQueen’s ‘Shame’, because while I admired its severity it was so cold, sterile and one-note. Nobody could accuse ‘Slave’ of sterility. It’s visually stunning, with performances that burn in the brain, mostly that of  Soloman (Chiwetel Ejiofor), whom I have often seen on stage, and who captivates here with a silent physicality that subtly changes throughout the film, as he realises the only way to survive is by playing as dumb as his white owners prefer to think he is.

The problem for me is that I’m over-familiar with the story, which is simple to the level that it reduces Ejiofor into an entirely reactive stance. An educated black freeman is kidnapped and sold into slavery. Passed from a good owner to a bad one, beatings and horrors ensue until his release. There is nothing here that an educated child does not know, and that audience is screened out from the film  because of the emphasis on torture. It’s analogous to ‘Passion of the Christ’, which played out as a self-flagellating horror film. Showing fifty strokes of the lash does not make the point better than showing five. It’s inhuman, we get it. We want to know more, not simply watch the protracted cruelties.

What would have enlightened would have been to see less beautification of suffering and more of what was happening to others. Was Soloman the only one who learned how to survive?  Why is he not a more rounded character? When ‘Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner’ came out, the idea of a mixed-race marriage was shocking in America, so the black spouse was played by Sidney Poitier playing a doctor, the most perfect black man in the world. Here, Ejiofor is the perfect sufferer. What’s missing is the guts and grit and surprise of history, where the small details from true books can devastate readers. To be sure there are luridly shocking moments, like the naked slave auction, but as in McQueen’s previous films the tale is a tad too linear and simplistic. Shots of faces linger beyond the attention span, but then this is a story of personal suffering, not a historical overview, and that is McQueen’s decision.

So why the qualified response? Perhaps personal tragedy and nothing else is what this terrible history needs, and I am unusual in having read a lot about London’s complicity in the slave trade as a child. But in a way, the recent production of ‘The Scottsboro Boys’ (reviewed elsewhere here) inspires us to feel outrage and indignity in a less familiar context. In the same way, ‘Captain Phillips gained more attention over the drier but more fascinating ‘A Hijacking’ because it was personal, and we live in times when the power of the self holds sway over the wider view of society.

Having said all this, I hope everyone involved wins Oscars, because there’s no film more deserving this year. I just wish it had told me more.

6 comments on “Re:View – ’12 Years A Slave’”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    Haven’t seen it, but I suspected it would be as you describe.

  2. Vivienne says:

    I felt the same about this film. I have not been going to much new stuff of late, catching up on the likes of It Always Rains on Sunday, London Belongs to Me, and the Gothic offerings from BfI. But having read so much about 12 years, I thought I’d go. It’s really just a narrative, as you say, there is not much insight or character development. Also recently read the Frederick Douglass book, which covered similar ground: here again the protagonist was unusual although there could not really be any books called ‘My Whole Life as a Slave’ – in that way the happy ending seemed a betrayal. Have also just read The Railway Man, and might see that: also shows that those in charge of slaves/prisoners of war are more brutalised than the sufferers.

  3. admin says:

    Ah, yes, ‘The Railway Man’ – a promising opening scene on a train as trainspotting bore Firth meets his lively future wife, then two hours of very slow, very dull hand-wringing!

  4. Helen Martin says:

    “two hours of very slow, very dull hand-wringing”. Well, there’s a film into which I will not look further!
    I recently read Philippa Gregory’s A Respectable Trade, about the slave trade and Bristol. The chief slave character was a very upper class person, an ambassador of his king, and I always want to reject those tales because they seem so atypical, even though it means you can have a wider perspective of events. What was interesting was the fact that he was literate in Arabic and spoke Portuguese because they dealt with those traders all the time. He wasn’t opposed to slavery as such, since he owned one himself, but the attitude was different (naturally). The view is different than many but I wonder about his joining with his female owner. It would make an interesting film, although I can just imagine what it would likely be like.

  5. Vivienne says:

    Just back from the film – the book wins hands down,

  6. snowy says:

    I was going to write, well stuff about the film but I remembered it is not a documentary and should be allowed to stand entirely on it’s own merits.

    But I would contend that it shoul not be ‘critic-proof’, any more than the tale/film of a Thracian taken into slavery and forced to fight for the amusement of his captors.

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