While showered with acclaim and awards, “12 Years a Slave” (2 nights ago it won 2 Bafta Awards-ed) has been criticised on a couple of counts. Film critic Armond White called it “torture porn” and accused McQueen of turning slavery into a “horror show”, and of confusing history with brutality, violence and misery. Another critic lamented the absence of heroes and resistance. Feminist scholar and cultural critic bell hooks accused McQueen of sentimentality and going for weeping instead of constructive outrage. Some feminist critics have objected to the violence inflicted on Patsie’s body, while others have celebrated McQueen for dealing with the complex relationship between black and white women, and the double oppression suffered by women of colour. Yet others have accused him of sugarcoating slavery by having a happy ending–and with white intervention–as well as for painting a too idyllic picture of the North. Judging from the criticism – some arguments harder to dismiss than others – Steve McQueen was damned if he made a realistic and violent film and damned if he didn’t.
To respond to criticism of the film, as some have, that Steve McQueen’s film is an adaptation of a true account is not a sufficient response. Filmmakers adapting existing stories make choices about what to include and ignore, what to emphasize and what to downplay. They make decisions about point of view and populate the world of their creation with whomever they want. In short, though Solomon Northup lived and wrote his story, Steve McQueen is the author of the film.
That black people all over the world are tired of representations of blackness lacking in nuance and finesse is not a secret. With few exceptions we are portrayed in mainstream cinema as victims or villains and rarely people of agency and innovation. Time and time again, we end up as extras or props in narratives that aren’t about us, even when they pretend to be. Django Unchained, The Help (2011), The Intouchables (2011), Black Venus (2010), The Constant Gardener (2005), Cry Freedom (1987), Imitation of Life (1959) -the list is endless. The criticism is valid and should be repeated until the end of time, or until the stories and the circumstances shaping them change – whichever comes first.
While the concern about our constant misrepresentation is valid, denying that McQueen provided beautifully nuanced and sensitive portraits of black people, interpreted by a brilliant cast, is quite unfair. To suggest that being portrayed as ordinary people (in extraordinary circumstances), who are weak at times and stronger at others, is less dignifying than being portrayed as fantastical super-heroes, reflect the unfair expectation that McQueen use Northup’s account to appease our 21st century angst.
It is rare, in most films about slavery, to be confronted with black men, women and children with something to lose apart from their miserable lives. The flashbacks of Solomon at home in Saratoga with his family, and of Eliza entering the Washington slave-pen clad in a beautiful dress and in the company of her beloved children, function as crucial establishing shots. These images remind us that Solomon, Eliza and her children had everything to lose. That they bathed in the mornings, had supper in the evenings and went about their chores in between, until the day they were captured. Knowing what they were and what they had, and sharing their grief when all was lost makes it easier to identify with Solomon and Eliza. It also helps us remember what Patsey and the other slaves born into bondage, could have had and been had it not been for slavery. No one captures it like the abolitionist and author Frederick Douglass (himself a former slave), quoted in historian Ira Ira Berlin’s introduction to the latest version of Northup’s book:
Think of it. For thirty years a man with all a man’s hopes, fears and aspirations – with a wife and children to call him by endearing names of husband and father – with a home, humble it may be, but still a home… then for twelve years a thing, a chattel personal, classed with mules and horses…. It chills the blood.
By eliminating the violence from 12 Years a Slave McQueen would have eliminated the foundation on which slavery and the wealth of America was built. To avoid using violence for entertainment and shock-value is one thing. Shielding the audience from the violence inflicted on Solomon, Patsy and the others however, would make it more difficult to understand why they endured their suffering and consequently to identify with them. As for Armond White’s objection that history is turned into violence, we know that our past is violence in the form of colonialism, slavery and misogyny, and that today’s world is a product of this violence.
Steve McQueen and John Ridley’s representation of black women’s vulnerability is both important and problematic. On a couple of occasions the film deviates from the original story in ways that transfers the control of the female black body from white slavers to the hands of black men. In the film Eliza is about to be raped by a sailor on the boat to the South when Robert (Michael K. Williams), a mail detainee, attempts to protect her and gets killed in the process. In Northup’s memoir Robert dies from smallpox. Patsey never asks Solomon to kill her or allows him to flog her in the memoir. What is more, the scene where a light-skinned woman mounts Solomon for a silent and joyless sexual act is not in the book either. There is Celeste (who according to the film’s cast list is played by Ruth Negga) though–a light-skinned woman on the run, with whom Northup, shares his supper.
It is troubling that McQueen and Ridley include a fictitious sexualised woman while excluding a temporarily free black woman on the run, that they use fictional elements to emphasize the vulnerability of the already exposed Patsy, and that they use Eliza’s body to grant Robert a more dignified death. The weight of the double oppression of black women cannot be emphasised enough. The suspicion that we are being sexualised or made to suffer a tad more in order to boost the self-esteem of emasculated black men, however, sits uncomfortably with anyone who contests the hierarchy that puts black men at the bottom, and under them black women.
One of the most admirable qualities is the humility and courage to ask questions, another one the ability to separate values that are absolute and non-negotiable from topics that can be debated. Visionary and frightened souls can argue until the cows come home about how many immigrants a nation can afford or whether a state should provide free health care or not. Whether gender, ethnicity, colour of skin, sexual orientation or religion should determine our human rights is not a subject for debate however, only for struggle. (Brad Pitt’s Bass puts it best in dialogue with Epps: “Laws change, but universal truths are constant, and it is a plain and simple fact that what is true and right, is true and right for all.”)
Steve McQueen, whose previous films are characterised by his trademark gentle, humble, and non-judgmental explorative approach, has made his first overtly political feature. It is a struggle-film of the best kind, made in the same spirit as the previous two (save for the non-judgmental approach). One that isn’t a pamphlet, but extends an invitation to cinemagoers to at least try to fathom the horrors of slavery and the injury it caused millions of men, women and children.
Steve McQueen’s aim was to tell a story about slavery in a way that would make his audience connect with the topic on a personal level. The idea of using a free man as a protagonist came before the decision to adapt 12 Years a Slave - a book he had never heard of before.
McQueen, who compares Solomon Northup’s epic to Anne Frank’s famous diary (published 96 years later, translated into 70 languages, sold in more than 30 million copies and adapted into numerous films, TV-series and stage plays), also made it his mission to make Northup’s memoir known to the entire world. (Though obscure in comparison, 12 Years a Slave haven’t been forgotten since its rediscovery in the 1960s. It is being read at schools and universities. In 1984 Gordon Park directed the TV-film Solomon Northup’s Odessey (a.k.a. Half Slave, Half Free) and the Solomon Northup-day has been celebrated in Saratoga City since 1999.)
In the editor’s essay, which precedes the 2013 edition of Northup’s memoir, Henry Louis Gates Jr. (who served as a historical consultant on the film) defines African American classics as texts that “reveal the human universal through the African American particular”. He continues “…[T]his is what ‘art’ is, a revelation of that which makes each of us sublimely human, rendered in the minute details of the actions and thoughts and feelings of a compelling character embedded in a time and place.”
Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s words describes Steve McQueen’s film perfectly. Once again he has succeeded in bringing out the universally human in his characters and, through Solomon, Eliza and Patsie, he is reminding us of the humanity of the millions of faceless and nameless victims of the transatlantic slave trade. In a non-sensationalist manner, without super-heroes and special effects, he has allowed us to not just be horrified, but to empathise too.
* This an edited extract from a longer post that first on Hedren’s own blog, here.