(Warning: story details and plot twists explicitly discussed)
You hear it everywhere: Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave--his adaptation of Solomon Northup's autobiographical story--is the frontrunning contender for next year's horse race; is easily the best film of the year; and is the most powerful film ever made on the subject of slavery.
It's powerful, I'll give it that--there's no underestimating the impact of McQueen's direction, or Sean Bobbitt's gorgeous cinematography (McQueen said he looked at Goya's work; you see a similarly earthy palette, a direct connection to horror). Whatever terrible thing happens to Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and his fellow slaves the camera never seems to underscore or overreact; it simply records, with an unblinking gaze.
Being a frontrunner questions are asked, of course; standard practice nowadays, to test the veracity of a 'based-on-a-true-story' Oscar contender. McQueen and his writer John Ridley did add to Northup's narrative--a sexual encounter between Northup and an anonymous fellow captive; cotton plantation owner Edwin Epp (Michael Fassbender) and his slave Patsey's (Lupita Nyong'o) explicitly sexual relationship (only suggested in the book); Patsey's later plea for Northup to kill her (which might actually be a misunderstanding of the source text)--among others. Even Northup's story has undergone close examination: the book was actually written by one David Wilson from Northup's dictation, and follows "certain clear expectations" demanded of most slave narratives (stories of humiliation and torture, an insistence on the righteousness of Abolitionism).
It's an endless quest, historical realism, and to these inexpert eyes a quixotic one; Shakespeare for one probably knew better but couldn't care less when he made Richard III a hunchback, and slandered his character mercilessly.*
* The cautionary corollary being if you invoke The Shakespeare Defense (who cares if it's true so long as it plays?) it's best to be Shakespeare--or so close to The Bard's skill range the audience is willing to split the difference.
12 Years is well-done; not perfect (a good thing I'd say--perfection in a genre suggests a dead end, with nothing more to be said), and far from the best of its kind. Its problems may be inextricable from its achievements: the intensity in McQueen's film, for one, seems like near-myopia--in choosing Northup's book (setting aside issues of authenticity), McQueen chooses the rare case of an African-American kidnapped and sold into captivity who (rarer still) manages to escape. He chooses the story of a strong intelligent black man blessed with family and freedom who, when fettered, is determined to escape--this as opposed to one raised in slavery, is starved and overworked all his life, and has probably never even entertained the possibility of freedom. As Kubrick put it about another human tragedy: "The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. Schindler’s List is about 600 who don't."
McQueen's privilege, of course: what he did was not necessarily wrong or right, just a choice with concomitant opportunities and limitations.
More serious consequences follow from his decision to focus on an individual--in McQueen's previous film Shame It's All About Brandon (again, Fassbender) All the Time; the other characters were basically foils against which to play off his sexual addiction. Here the attention is on Northup; the slavers are vividly portrayed--most vividly by Fassbender as Epps--but sadly underwritten. Epps you quickly learn is a sadist, but as to why he's attracted to black women, why Patsey in particular, and why to such an obsessive degree we never really find out. I actually prefer Benedict Cumberbatch's Ford, whose decent nature is in direct conflict with his duties as slaveowner--but McQueen seems to be in too much of a hurry to deliver Northup from Ford's disturbingly civilized company to Epps' garish sadism.
Tempting to call McQueen's style 'impassive' but that's not entirely true; McQueen affects a serene front but betrays a subtle predilection to linger over some of the more grotesque images, usually involving the hapless Patsey: on her back with Epps on top, forcing his way in; or tied to a post with first Northup and later Epps laying the whip heavily into her, as Northup (through Wilson) puts it: "without exaggeration, literally flayed." The rare moment McQueen plays coy it's almost cute: Epps declares that anyone who harvests less than the average weight of cotton a day (around two hundred pounds) will be penalized the difference; McQueen cuts to a beautiful shot of the camera gliding sideways while far in the background, just slightly out of focus, is Northup being whipped for that difference.
I'll say this about the film compared to one recent attempt at portraying slavery (Tarantino's Django Unchained): McQueen in my book makes a good-faith attempt at sticking to the available facts. He doesn't have pre-Civil War Superfly riding into the Twilight Zone to save the world for all black people; he doesn't teleport characters from other movies (in this case Jules from Pulp Fiction) into his period drama with little modification or apology; and he does show more than sufficient visual talent to be justly called a 'filmmaker,' and not 'photocopier of other people's bravura action sequences.'
Is this the greatest film ever made about slavery though? I reply with three titles:
The mini-series Roots, from the novel by Alex Haley shares few of the virtues of 12 Years a Slave: its veracity is even more questionable, and it's broadcast TV--the scoring and camerawork melodramatic and flat, the horrors more suggested (clumsily) than shown. Yet Roots does something 12 Years strangely fails to achieve: it shows the passage of time across generations; it shows the ravages of age, the emotional cost of years (12 Years to be frank felt more like twelve months, and Ejiofor looks remarkably well-preserved for someone who's been abused for over a decade).
Richard Fleischer's Mandingo is I submit an even more subversive work: where McQueen dresses up his horrors in tony art-house gloss Fleischer presents them steamy, as if freshly plucked from boiling water; where McQueen's camera assumes a cool disdainful pose (carefully angled to present you the choicest view), Fleischer's takes the frank middle distance, neither shying-away-without-really-shying-away (i.e. that cute gliding shot) nor rubbing our nose in it (i.e. Epp's violation of Patsey). Fleischer's tone is of lurid melodrama, but hidden under the cheap exploitation is a real filmmaker's eye, a real regard for people that allows us to understand how and why the onscreen characters--slave and slavers alike--think and feel and love and hate, make choices, die.
Then there's Charles Burnett's Nightjohn, produced for The Hallmark Channel and consequently light on blood and mutilations--despite which Burnett (in my book one of America's finest living filmmakers) manages to turn dross into gold and suggest a fairy tale: a faintly magical story told through a child's hungrily imaginative eyes. If the violence is glancingly depicted, why, that may be because the child has looked away; but while a child can be terrorized into flinching she is still basically honest--the cruelty is there, only it happens to conform to the screening guidelines of the Hallmark Channel (and, incidentally, those of most American high school classrooms).
The sadism may not be as openly vicious but I submit the slavers are as if not more disturbing because we understand them more; Burnett--arguably one of the most empathetic filmmakers this side of Jean Renoir--has us look through their eyes too. As Beau Bridges plays him, Old Man Waller is monstrous partly because he's proud of his heritage (he believes he's a better member of society because he's a slaveowner), partly because his straitened circumstances (he's constantly playing catch-up with his more business-savvy younger brother) drives him to desperation (along the way the film manages the neat trick of sketching the financial and economic dynamics of a slave-driven cotton plantation).
Burnett evokes a sense of community, of family among slaves; McQueen's Northup for all his intelligence or perhaps because of it stays aloof from his fellow captives. Patsey is an exception but her relationship with Northup lacks detail, they feel more like mistrustful acquaintances than any one willing to sacrifice for the other (compare them to Nightjohn and Sarny, who share a great affection)--it feels more like the kind of fellowship found between a pair of car-accident victims, not lovers much less friends.
Burnett evokes not just suffering but love in the face of suffering, and this adds amplitude to the pain, gives us a high point against which we can measure the depths below. McQueen does give us Northup's family but safely cocooned away in his memories; they don't share his pain and danger, and we know little about them beyond idealized flashbacks. When Northup is reunited with his family the scene is moving but it's after the fact; the experience of slavery is his burden alone to remember. When in Nightjohn the love is eventually sundered--the family broken up, sold piecemeal down the river--then you might feel you've witnessed a tragedy.
Am I unfairly beating up a film using others as example? I suppose, but my larger point is this: no one title can cover much less represent such a huge subject matter, just as no one title can cover much less represent something as vast and horrific as the Holocaust; each effort will have something of value to add to the overall narrative, including this one. 12 Years a Slave is well done, and I concede one of the best (if not the best) of the year, but let's not aspire to more than that--a sense of proportion, please.