Brendan’s Log: 12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013)

October 29, 2013 § 2 Comments

Time barely exists in 12 Years a Slave. It concerns itself with nothing less than the mechanics of evil, mechanics which might be jammed or circumvented in contemporary America, but which operate according to principles that are eternal. The slaves encountered by Solomon Northup during his enslavement repeatedly insist that judgment will come for their tormentors. In fact, we know that it will; the viewer has the privilege of history, the same remove from which director Steve McQueen crafts his typically calculating tableaux. But McQueen has no interest in punishment, redemption, or any such narrative payoff. The encounter that brings about the resolution of Northup’s ordeal occurs by happenstance, and requires not pluck or courage on his behalf, but defeat and desperation.

This desperation is captured most vividly in one of the few scenes that feel climactic, as if something has been turning and shifting beneath Northup’s battered flesh all along. It is a long closeup of his face (the actor Chiwetel Ejiofor) as he stands at the edge of his fellow slaves, clustered together, clapping and singing a spiritual. Northup, so long committed to the idea of imprisonment as temporary, seems to give in completely as he joins in the song, a shuddering release and one of the film’s few truly transcendent moments of acting.

For McQueen’s sensibilities lend themselves necessarily to a film which percolates in the mind after viewing. His images stand alone as images, not as scenes or even montages, and resonate with their own distinct power when divorced from the context of a continuous viewing. Consider a scene like the first major setpiece of suffering, in which Northup stands on tip-toe, hanging from a noose all day while his benevolent master is brought news of his rebelliousness. McQueen holds a long shot of Northup in near-silence, as slaves slowly emerge from their shacks to wander about in the background, ignoring his pain for fear of bringing similar punishment on themselves.

It’s typical of McQueen’s approach, though not entirely representative. That scene, and other long shots like it present the perpetuation of evil as a simple tradeoff: that a great many go on in moderate pain so as not to incur worse violence. The threat isn’t death, as the shot visualizes, but the awful in-between, the possibility of being brought to the very edge of life and still being revived to go on suffering. As the climax (insofar as the film has them) of Northup’s time on the Ford estate which roughly comprises a first act, it’s fitting, dominated as scenes on the plantation are by rather basic (if elegantly presented) ironies.

Ford (played with impotent sympathy by Benedict Cumberbatch) gets a few scenes in which to animate these binary concerns. He is shown reading Scripture to his slaves regularly, in one scene laid over with a sing-song threat by his overseers, to which Northup and the others are made to clap along. Later, he struggles to be heard over the weeping of a woman separated from her children at auction. Somehow, McQueen thinks it necessary to show Northup’s next master, Edwin Epps, reading from the Bible to reinforce the slave-master dynamic as a divine order. These are basically two versions of the same scene, the second of which exposes the hypocrisy of Ford’s actions by outwardly stating that religion can be used not simply as a salve, but as a brand. Nestled within the film’s images, which contain startling beauty among its depictions of nature and handmade objects (Northup is a violinist and McQueen displays a recurring interest in the arts here that almost inevitably results in a scene of a young black child making a doll while the grown slaves are beaten in the background), these ideas seem more challenging and revelatory than they really are.

I’m already looking forward to seeing 12 Years a Slave again, to see if there’s more to unpack here, as so many seem to have found. I didn’t weep during this movie as so many did, but I don’t think it’s worth inquiring as to why. Dissecting that sort of reaction is the Kael school of criticism. But I am interested in trying to nail down some of my conflicted thoughts on the movie, which has me wondering whether I can dislike it while agreeing that its existence might be necessary or even valuable, and whether it’s possible to respect a film’s artistry without calling it good cinema.  – Brendan

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