I like watching movie trailers. They are basically mini-movies, delivering all the punch lines while zipping through the lead-up. You can enjoy the good bits without the dredge that makes up most of the running time of a film. Recently, YouTube did me a favor and clustered together a few trailers of particular interest: Mr. Pip, in which Hugh Laurie is a teacher in Papua New Guinea when civil conflict erupts; Captain Phillips (previewed here before), in which Tom Hanks is pitted against Somali pirates; and 12 Years A Slave (you must live under a rock if you haven’t heard about it; and watch out for a longer piece on its significance here). So here we go.
I’m thinking this film combines the inspirational-teacher-with-something-to-learn angle of Dangerous Minds with Johnny Mad Dog’s heart-string-tugging depictions of children in war, infused with literature-frees-you-and-gets-you-in-trouble theme of Dead Poets Society. If the trailer is accurate, this all adds up to a highly unoriginal white saviour story. Hugh Laurie saves somewhere in Africa (turns out it’s Papua New Guinea) from the Bad Warlord and Poverty with Hope. Hope is derived from a book written by another British bloke and the Bad Warlord just doesn’t get it. There’s a Poor Black Girl who really gets what the Hope is all about. Also, Imagination.
The biggest hint that Mr. Pip may not be completely reducible to these tropes is that they credit the lead actress, Xzannjah, in the trailer itself, alongside Hugh Laurie. It’s hard to tell if it’s just tokenism; ditto with the fact that the actress is from the country portrayed. Naming the young woman, however, does go a long way towards distinguishing the actress from her character, highlighting the fictitious, creative and representational nature of film. It acknowledges that not all young women from Papua New Guinea are victims of poverty and violence, but that young women from Papua New Guinea have the agency and artistry to portray one.
If this film is worth a damn, the trailer exaggerates the centrality of Laurie’s character in order to pull in an audience. If it’s good, it will follow through on the trailer’s hints of a post-colonial reading of Great Expectations. I have no hope that the civil conflict angle won’t turn this into a shallow tear-jerker.
Maybe one YouTube commenter had the best idea of where this could go:
House high as fu*** teaches children about Dickens and shi*
Circumstances under which I would see it: If someone else insisted.
If you haven’t already heard why the trailer’s title card “Based on a True Story” accepts a loose definition of the word “true,” read here.
As for the trailer, it would seem that the film is more concerned with conforming to its genre – pseudo-political action-thriller (the director is also responsible for two of the Bourne movies) – than it is with telling us about what happened in the real-life version of these events. This is not always a bad thing. Though always problematic, imaginative interpretations of true events can be done well enough that the fictional version takes on a life of its own; it accomplishes that expansion of mind that comes from good storytelling. If the trailer is any indication, Captain Phillips does the opposite: it rigidly works within a heroic masculinist framework, tries to pass off prejudices as characters and relies on ingrained geo-racial stereotypes to make sense of what happened. Because the film does make claims to being a “true story”, and in doing so asks its audience to view the film as an accurate depiction of reality, Captain Phillips might be as irresponsible as the title character was in real life.
A few years ago, Vanity Fair published an article about contemporary piracy that described the pirates’ language as gibberish. I would not be surprised if, watching this film with subtitles, any time the pirates talk to each other, the subtitles read [GIBBERISH]. The trailer sells it as that kind of movie.
Circumstances under which I would see it: If I was an undergrad and needed a really easy target for a paper about issues of representation. I would give it a proper academic title that would loosely translate to Why Is This Kind Of Bullshit Still On Screen?!
12 Years a Slave
One of the issues I take with scholarship on slavery has been its inability to explain how any human being could survive it. In an effort to convey the scale of horror experienced by slaves, slaves have become an inhuman mass, reiterating the slave trade’s original basis of dehumanization. Saidiya Hartman, in her otherwise deeply problematic book Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, works in the opposite direction by sensitively describing the torture of one individual woman aboard a slave ship. In doing so, Hartman puts that torture on a human scale. She humanizes the suffering.
The trailer for 12 Years A Slave conveys a similar project by portraying the story of one man who had the education and perspective to tell his own story over 150 years ago in a memoir by the same name. The trailer made me wary of the film: Would Solomon be the only character credited with a past? What would scenes of brutality look like (it’s sometimes a thin line between “taking an unflinching look” and torture porn)? Will it glorify the American North as a bastion of freedom and equality? How will slavery as an institution be understood in the context of an individual’s story? Will slavery be reduced to a battle of Good Guys vs. Bad Guys?
Based on a handful of reviews, 12 Years A Slave seems worth watching because, whatever answers it gives, the film allows those questions to be asked.
Circumstances under which I would see it: ASAP.