12 Years a Slave
I have finally watched 12 Years a Slave. I decided to watch it because I thought it might be a good subject for an essay on film-writing and stereotypes. How could I suspect this prior to viewing the film? I guess my position on most films on slavery is that probably not one commercial filmmaker knows enough about slavery to really create a good or at least adequate film on the horrific era of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Historical consultation does not I think suffice either. But the problem may go beyond a lack of knowledge and the commercial aspect, the need to make an appealing film on a difficult topic that people will actually pay to go watch.
Even with these reservations, however, I tried to sit down with 12 Years a Slave with an open mind--a near but not total impossibility for me. From the beginning, I was skeptical and critical of just how bright and shiny and clean the free Northrup family was, but maybe this doubt points to my own ignorance about the range of conditions that may have been true of Free People of Color living in the nineteenth century. I still must ask if a seeming material affluence of the Northrups--not necessarily in keeping with their professions (his wife was a free-lance cook, he a musician)--wasn't a narrative technique, the setting up of a stark contrast between the life of a free Northrup and that of the enslaved Northrup. Maybe this is a minor issue, yet the remainder of the film also was experienced by this viewer as unreality, not because I haven't directly experienced slavery but because the narrative structure seemed to me disjointed to an extreme and flat. For instance, the short scenes in which we learn that Northrup has been kidnapped felt much like a puzzle. Honestly, I wasn't entirely sure what was going on even when Northrup awoke in the jail cell. I had to put the pieces together, and some pieces seemed haphazardly, rather than thoughtfully, placed--like the sex scene with the mulatto-looking slave woman who we see only once again and who runs away crying after intercourse. What was the message there? This comes very early in the film; McQueen may be again trying to contrast slavery with freedom, but he offers this at a time when the viewer hasn't yet gotten that strong a sense of Northrup's relationship with his family. We only know that he is somehow wealthy, his wife has a good-paying gig, and either he spoils her or she spoils herself. Is this intimacy? Is this the fiber of a committed relationship? The scene that follows Northrup the slave's sex act is a bed scene with this wife. The idea it seems is that the sex act is just that while the bedroom scene between husband and wife is tender, loving, but, as I've said, for me anyway I have little sense of the depth of their relationship, so the contrast does not therefore work.
Not to rush to the end of the film, but this early problem of flatness and incoherence is in my opinion one of the reasons why this definitely was not a great movie. I didn't feel like I got to know Northrup really. There was one scene reminiscent of the scene from Lee Daniels's The Butler in which the main character is advised to steel himself. Northrup is told by another sold into slavery not to try to prove his intelligence or to otherwise make a case that he is not a slave. This may or may not be his strategy for staying alive--it would seem not since early on his range of talents are boldly on display for his slave owner and overseer--but it doesn't help McQueen's art to create a character or to tell the story of a man who must surely have shown a range of emotions and whose relationships most certainly must have had depth. The relationships in 12 Years seemed so flat to me that by the time Northrup is reunited with his family in New York I am not all that surprised that he and his wife don't run to each other, leap into each other's arms, with a puddle of tears forming at their feet. How believable was their degree of calm? Only Northrup showed emotion, and, quite frankly, this final scene was short of moving because the tears didn't seem very much in keeping with the character that had thus far been developed. The failure of this scene to create emotion within at least this viewer was not just due to flawed character development, but, as I suggested earlier, a lack of cohesiveness. Not one time after Northrup disappeared, over the course of twelve years!, did we ever get to see his family. They should have been going crazy. They should have been looking for him, and, given their supposed wealth, employing others to find him. Instead, nothing. Not once scene. Neither do we see Northrup himself reflecting on his free life; we see no visions of his wife's face, the birth of his children, etc. How can this be considered a full treatment of the kinds of loss suffered by slaves so often separated from loved ones?
Maybe it is worth mentioning that Lupita Nyong'o had a minor role. I mention this because she became part of the hype that sold this film to a receptive (read gullible) public. She is not in the film early on but, rather, when Northrup reaches the plantation of his second owner, who has a crazy obsession with the character played by Nyong'o--Patsy. I am in no denial about the reality of sexual relations between master and slave, their existence or their complexity, but we don't get to know Patsy either. We simply don't spend enough time with her. All that we do know is that she wants a fellow slave, whom she has not known very long (or maybe she has; it's hard to tell the passing of time in the film. Not much changes about Northrup. He doesn't get one grey hair, for instance) to help her commit suicide. Why should we be surprised when he refuses? The story suggests that he does so on moral grounds, but the truth is that there simply is not close enough of a relationship for him to help her in this way. She stays alive, then, is beaten mercilessly by both her master and by Northrup; this seems a cheap rhetorical move intended to insert cruelty for effect. It is too convenient. Again, while the director may want you to believe that the slave owner wants to hurt both slaves by making Northrup beat someone he cares about, the problem, again, is that there hasn't been enough of a relationship developed for the audience to believe he really cares. Shortly thereafter, he is finally freed, and his parting scene, saying goodbye to Patsy, falls flat for all of the reasons I have suggested already.
This is not how I wanted to experience this film. I really did want to appreciate it, but this is not the quality of film that America needs really to understand the crime against humanity that modern slavery was. If the message of this film was that slavery dehumanized, I would agree. If another message is that slavery turned people, as Frederick Douglass argued, into brutes, I would agree. Slavery overdeveloped certain negative human propensities because the institution had to be justified in order to perpetuate itself, but, even so, all involved in the sale and bondage of human beings were multi-dimensional. We have got to learn to tell more complicated, nuanced stories, and American audiences have got to start demanding more serious treatment. To continue to offer inadequately complex treatment is in my opinion worse than ignoring the subject altogether.