McQueen's Gambit: Defending the Brutality of '12 Years a Slave'

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There are two separate but closely related charges skeptics levy against "12 Years A Slave": that literal imagery inherently trivializes the history being reconstructed regardless of the caliber of execution, and that the execution in this specific case is unnecessarily showy, drawing attention away from the subject at hand to director Steve McQueen’s slick prowess. These are contentions worth grappling with, and the excerpts quoted below are some of the most cogent manifestations of more broadly expressed sentiments.

The estimable Adam Nayman objects to a sequence of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) left to hang from a tree by plantation foreman John Tibeats (Paul Dano), his neck precariously, repeatedly saved from snapping by his toes constantly re-establishing their footing. Solomon’s the compositional center of shots from many different distances and angles, unavoidably the first thing our eyes are forcibly, repeatedly drawn to even as he’s conspicuously ignored by those around him. “McQueen may intend the sight of a dangling black man as the centerpiece of his grim historical drama, but it’s actually a symbol of his artistic exhibitionism,” Nayman charges. “Powerful as this image is, it conflates the agony of the character with the bravery of the man unflinching enough to put it onscreen.” I’d argue that the shot forces viewers to contrast their riveted gaze with the self-preservingly averted eyes of the slaves around Solomon. It’s arguable that the sequence is too literal-minded, but I don’t think it’s meant to congratulate implicitly either director or viewer for attentive endurance.

The other study in prolonged pain is the flaying of slave Patsy (Lupita Nyong’o), begun by Solomon and ended by his second master Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). The camera starts behind Solomon, travels the length of the repeatedly brought-down rope, then pivots around for a tight close-up of Patsy’s face. Until this point, pain is only suggested through sound and facial expression, but a cut makes her back the sole object of close-up contemplation. Even if you’re sufficiently disengaged from the film to consciously remember that you’re looking at some extremely impressive make-up rather than pieces of actual skin being flayed, physical brutality’s now the only thing to observe. If the tracking shot connecting Solomon and Patsy seems too showily smooth (a judgment call, and one I’d disagree with), the scene can’t be accused of ultimately pulling its punches: it seems to promise to spare viewers, then forces you to register the corporeal impact of what’s happening.

But what’s the point of showing a start-to-finish lashing at all? That’s what Melissa Anderson seems to be getting at when she wonders “whether it is even conceivable to graphically represent the unimaginable without further cheapening the lives one sets out to honor or diminishing the horrors of a monstrous epoch (a query that Claude Lanzmann answers directly, of course, by not including archival footage of concentration camps and other atrocities of the Holocaust in 1985’s ‘Shoah’).” Lanzmann famously avoided using archival footage of the concentration camps, partly because he believed repeated viewing of an extremely limited selection of shots had robbed them of any impact. This is a sad truth: there are only so many times even an image as horrific as a tractor picking up and dumping emaciated corpses into a mass ditch can harrow you (or at least me).

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It’s kind of telling to me that Anderson’s quasi-counter-example of how to confront historical horror on film isn’t another work about slavery. I’m surely not the only person whose primary image reference for Patsy getting lashed was Kunta Kinte undergoing the same treatment on “Roots,” i.e. an out-of-context fragment from a 30+-year-old miniseries I’ve never seen in its entirety. It’s also germane that most reviewers have been reduced to invoking “Django Unchained” for compare/contrast reference, not just because it’s recent but simply because it exists. There have obviously been more than a couple of movies and one miniseries about slavery (although it’s again telling that the other movie most likely to be referenced is the 16-year-old “Amistad”), but transcending vulgar literalism is a high task when the very atrocity being depicted hasn’t been banalized through repetition yet.

For subject matter alone, McQueen’s guaranteed reflexive superlatives from timid middlebrow reviewers and prudent skepticism from the highbrow-minded — understandable, since most “powerful” films on historical genocides and other atrocities are unimaginative travesties, relying on rote images of pain and weeping strings. Though his financiers and distributors may have awards season glory primarily in mind, that’s not McQueen’s fault: he’s made a fluid, well-composed movie, and the very proficiency of his accomplishment seems suspicious. Worse, it’s in keeping with his past films Hunger and Shame, which Robert Koehler summarizes as “treatises on the body in various states of pain.” If the charge is that McQueen has made history serve his own peculiar fixation, defanging it into an art project, that seems unfair: engagement with the specific subject at hand isn’t precluded by internal consistency.

I’m left to finally wonder whether McQueen’s crime wasn’t simply to keep his visual cool; the only viable alternative, it seems, would be to make a film that looks conspicuously terrible or to not make it at all. As I suggested in my initial review, I’m skeptical as to whether “12 Years a Slave” successfully connects the historical past to the political present or accomplishes much besides being very compelling, but it’s not the work of an arty sadist or a formalist more interested in getting off on his proficiency than delving into his subject matter. Representation in itself is, in this case, a totally understandable corrective priority.