not in our stars, but in ourselves
One of the peculiar features of film that has forever fascinated me is its ability to create a world, just as a dream creates a world, one that you as a spectator experience almost as your own. Plenty of film theorists and philosophers have explored every inch of this subject in depth, so I won’t attempt to do so myself, but I am amazed anew every time at film’s power to induce an experience of reality. Often, that “reality” is actually escapism of the highest degree. Sometimes, though, a film creates a reality that was really real, that really happened, and – by that particular experiential magic – forces the spectator to imagine and to feel what really, truly took place.
This is all a rather highfalutin way of saying that Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is an extraordinarily effective (and affective) piece of cinema.
It is based on the memoir of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was lured from his Saratoga Springs home to Washington, D.C., and then sold into slavery. For twelve years, he was a slave on various plantations, until he was finally rescued and restored to his family: his wife, and his by then grown children. He tried to bring justice against his kidnappers – but you can imagine how legal proceedings brought by a black man against white men would have gone in the 1850s. Or, indeed, how they would go now.
The film proceeds in a slightly less-than-linear fashion: we begin with Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) among a group of other slaves as they are instructed in how to cut sugar cane. Later that night, he attempts to use a sharpened stick and blackberry juice to write a letter. On the floor of the shack where the slaves sleep, the woman next to him attempts to initiate sex. Solomon recalls lying next to his wife in their bed. Then we see his life as it used to be: he was a prosperous, respected violin player. His family lived in a beautiful house. He and his wife loved each other, and loved their two children. In short, he was happy. He was living.
And then – from the American Dream to the nightmare. He is tricked into going to Washington, D.C., drugged and imprisoned, then sold into slavery. He is renamed Platt. He is forced to witness and to participate in acts that should be unimaginably cruel, but that were commonplace. His first master, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), is a Baptist preacher who treats his slaves relatively humanely – but who, of course, does nothing to bring them freedom or agency. His second master, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), is a drunk and a fiend. Epps forces his affections (and that’s not the right word, but for brevity’s sake, we’ll keep it there) on Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), a hardworking young woman who endures his abuse and jealousy as best as she can. What choice does she have, after all? Still, she begs Solomon to show her mercy, and to drown her in a nearby swamp. God, she reasons, is merciful, and will forgive such an act.
As you can imagine, it’s all pretty harrowing stuff. McQueen doesn’t shy away from the brutal inhumanity of slavery – whether physical, emotional, psychological, or (most often) all three. There were times I was watching when I began to feel the same way I would in a horror film: the rising dread, the knowledge that something gruesome was inevitably close. And it was. This was no gleeful slasher flick, though. This was reality, for millions of people.
Most of us (“us” being people like me: white, middle-class, American for many generations) are taught that Slavery Was Bad, and Racism Is Bad. We might understand – intellectually – that slavery was terribly cruel and unfair. We might quietly pat ourselves on the back for having done away with slavery, and with segregation. Look! We have a black president! See, we’re all colorblind now. Hats off to us.
But this is America’s legacy. This is what we should all be acutely aware of, as our history, as what we did to our fellow humans. McQueen shows us not only the backs torn apart by whiplashes, but also the agony of those being whipped. In fact, he shows the latter more often than the former – I suspect because it produces a far greater affect (I do mean affect and not effect – thank you, grammarians) for the viewer. Few of us – I hope – have been savagely whipped. Most of us, probably, have experienced excruciating pain, or at least know what it looks like when another human is experiencing excruciating pain.
There is another way that I think the film increases its affective power on “us” (the same “us” as defined above). Solomon is an educated, seemingly upper-middle class man. He has a stable family. He has known comfort and luxury and respect – and, in short, he is someone that more privileged audience members (read: white people) can relate to. Thus, when he is plunged into twelve years of Hell, it is perhaps even easier for us to understand and to feel his degradation, horror, and despair. Those feelings of Solomon’s are, obviously, the same that all his fellow slaves likely experienced. They are made more accessible and understandable to “us” – the “us” that conveniently forgets about the centuries of torment that millions of humans suffered at “our” hands – by Solomon’s characterization as someone not dissimilar to “us.” Was this intentional on McQueen’s part? I’m not sure. But it may work to draw certain viewers in deeper.
I have alluded slightly to the fact that none of this is as far back in history as we all might like to think it is. And there is a very small piece of casting that, I think, underscores this point: in a very small role on a riverboat headed to New Orleans, we have Michael K. Williams. Williams, for those of you who know great TV, played Omar on The Wire. The Wire is a show about the Baltimore drug trade, a nuanced and often infuriating look at the banality of evil, institutionalized racism, being born into an impossibly vicious cycle of use and abuse, authorities that are powerless to do anything but uphold the status quo, and a host of other unanswerable questions. I don’t know that McQueen meant to draw that faint line between his film and Williams’s former series – but for me, it underscored that all the points McQueen is making about the 1840s and 1850s are still horribly relevant now.