Monday, November 18, 2013

Blunt: Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave

During an interview with American composer Randy Newman on the National Public Radio show Morning Edition in the fall of 2003, host Bob Edwards questioned Newman's motivation for composing "Sail Away," a sweeping and majestic track about the slave trade told from the point of view of the slave trader. In the song, Newman not only steps inside the skin of this flesh merchant, he introduces his African captives to an idea of freedom which turns out to hold the fruits of every horror they will later face as black Americans. But the orchestral arrangement is so majestic, it arouses an eagerness to jump on board in spite of the words you're hearing. Shocked that Newman could write such a beautiful song about such a shocking subject, Edwards pressed on. "What am I supposed to say," Newman replied, "'Slavery is bad?' It's like falling out of an airplane and hitting the ground. It's just too easy. And it has no effect."

Newman could just as easily be describing Steve McQueen's new and highly acclaimed film 12 Years a Slave. If McQueen's first picture, Hunger (2008), boiled a complex situation down to a blunt portrait of one man starving himself to death out of political principle; and his second, Shame (2011), reduced a character's sexual obsession to a prurient judgment of his pathology, 12 Years a Slave, a true story about a free Northern black man, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) sold into slavery, repeatedly tells us  with the impact of a blunt instrument  that 'slavery is bad.' This approach may be too easy, but (judging by the enthusiastic reviews and huge box office) it has apparently been highly effective. McQueen achieves this acclaim by opting for endless scenes of pictorial abasement to whip up the audience's outrage rather than dramatically engaging us in Northup's fate. McQueen's glacial temperament and his freeze-dried painterly style (literally, with its nods here to Goya) treats melodrama as a formal exercise.

Set in 1841, the story begins with Northrup (who lives in Saratoga, New York, with his wife and two children and makes his living as a skilled carpenter and violin player) lured into a lucrative touring gig by a pair of men who actually plan to drug him and sell him into slavery. For the rest of the movie, we watch as he endures the horrors of bondage for over a decade until he's helped to freedom by a Canadian labourer (Brad Pitt) who is hired to work on a plantation that's holding Northup. All though the picture, we can see that Northrup has to hide his identity as an educated man in order to survive the white slavers who believe that blacks are inferior. But McQueen doesn't show us what Northup has to hide before he's sold into bondage which means that Ejiofor is reduced to giving a pantomime performance. He either becomes the victim of callous brutality, or a passive witness to it. He's given no dramatic shadings to provide hints of awareness as to how much his fate is changing him. When there is an opportunity for dramatic insight into his character, as in one moment during a flashback when we see a black slave follow Northup and his family into a Saratoga store because he's obviously curious about how this black man moves about so freely, McQueen lets the scene go limp. (If he had surer dramatic instincts, McQueen would have shown in that moment that Northup's Northern status had cocooned him from the knowledge that slavery is as much about class as it is about race. Instead, the characters are left staring ironically into each other's eyes pointlessly until the significance of the scene is lost.)

Michael Fassbender and Chiwetel Ejiofor
If Ejiofor is given no more to play than noble dignity, the plantation owners (with the exception of Benedict Cumberbatch as a conflicted slaver who gives his scenes a core of ambiguity) are right out of the worst exploitation films. Once again Michael Fassbender is forced, as he was in Shame, to play an affliction rather than a character. As Edwin Epps, a violently racist and abusive planter, he seems to be channelling Perry King's overheated sexual psychopath from the lurid Mandingo. Not only does he mistreat his workers, he has an obsessive hunger for a young slave girl, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), whom he rapes at will. Of course, his sexually starved and jealous wife, played with a dutiful earnestness by Sarah Paulson, spends the film taunting her tortured husband and abusing Patsey. (McQueen isn't content either showing us Patsey getting brutally beaten once by the wronged wife, but has her attacked yet again, and later mercilessly whipped by Epps. Does the director share his characters' depravities?) While you can't help but feel for Nyong'o's Patsey, her victimization gets treated so artfully that it has the effect of aestheticizing the violence so that the audience can feel nothing but revulsion. As the slaver's right hand man, Paul Dano is a Confederate cartoon. He chews up scenery with the same zealous enthusiasm he displayed gobbling up the surroundings in There Will Be Blood. Dano is contrasted with Brad Pitt's sainted liberal, a man who has no passing acquaintance with an id. Since John Ridley's screenplay hasn't given dramatic shape to the characters, the actors end up playing types rather than people.

Sometimes a film's subject (like slavery) makes it harder for a dissenting critic to reach an audience  especially one that's already likely to accept the picture's dramatic perspective. After all, audiences affirm, the movie is certainly on the right side of the issue; it even shows how unsparingly brutal the slave trade was. So who cares how it's done? (It's this kind of attitude that prevented Bob Edwards from perceiving the sly intelligence of Randy Newman's take on the subject in "Sail Away.") But 12 Years a Slave wears you down because it does nothing more than exploit our collective guilt towards what Randy Newman called "America's most insoluble crime." Where Newman's "Sail Away" transcends its own irony as a disturbingly unresolvable work, 12 Years a Slave, with its solemn and cold detachment, never rises above its polemical rhetoric.

- Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams, 33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. On Monday evenings from 7pm-9pm at the Miles Nadel JCC, Kevin Courrier lectures on Robert Altman.

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