If I linger on aspects of 12 Years a Slave that I feel do not work, it is because a very moving film might have been – in my humble opinion – an even better film.
I shall take it as read that overall I praise the movie in this blog (because it has things worthy of praise, things that will get mentioned), but the things that grated with this film are three in number: the casting, the use of music and, on a slightly different note, the film’s credits.
With regard to the casting, I can understand that any film can and will use big stars in order to become more commercially appealing. And I can also understand that, when there is a film in production about an historically important topic such as slavery, lots of actors will want to work on that project because it boosts the amount of prestige that they have as actors.
Nonetheless, having avoided reading much about the film before watching it (increasingly my preferred way to see films – as ‘blind’ to pre-hype as possible), to see a procession of fine anglophone acting talent work its way through the film in larger and smaller roles – Scoot McNairy, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt – in fact detracts from the narrative.
For, my experience of the film was along these lines: I am enjoying this film, but now I am faced with Brad Pitt, giving a decent performance as usual (because I think him a good actor), but since he is Brad Pitt (and since his character gets to speechify about the iniquities of slavery) I cannot but think that the he and the film are pushing the ‘worthy’ button a little bit too much.
To be clear: slavery as an historical – and, it cannot be emphasised enough, a contemporary – evil are undoubtedly topics worthy of filmmaking, because filmmaking can and does do all manner of things to raise awareness of slavery, as this film festival in part testifies. As such, the film being ‘worthy’ is not the problem (though a film might want to avoid being too moralising or sentimental in its depiction of slavery – but that is a different issue).
The problem is that one keeps on thinking ‘isn’t Brad Pitt very worthy?’, such that one thinks less about 12 Years a Slave, and more about how morally righteous those people are who made it. Again, this does not make Brad Pitt or anyone a bad person (of course it does not; although the way in which white actors accrue prestige for playing ‘difficult’ and, specifically, racist roles is slightly problematic for me: the white actor’s difficulty in playing a racist potentially occults/keeps out of view both the victims of real slavery and the (again, potential) assumption that black actors playing slaves is somehow ‘easier’).
In conclusion, then, the film can be as worthy as it wants, but the more I am thinking about the making of the film and its actors, the less I am thinking about the film. And slavery should be a topic that is important enough that the film could have no stars in it, and I’d still want to watch it because it should, in effect, speak for itself. The stars stop the film, to my mind, from speaking for itself.
(Furthermore, if the white stars also function to sell the film, then this points to the ongoing issues of race in relation to Hollywood casting. Chiwetel Ejiofor – who gives a fine performance – is relatively famous, but obviously the filmmakers did not want to give this role to Will Smith or various other, more famous black actors because… because he may be too famous for the ‘issue’ of slavery with which the film deals. But it’s fine for Brad Pitt to crop up towards the film’s end, because… I am not sure why (aside from his involvement as a producer in the film). Are these not double standards? And is using white stars to ‘sell’ slavery in cinematic form not also problematic – as if the topic did not speak for itself as important, but instead is only worth thinking long and hard about because a bunch of white actors are involved in the project. In effect, if business comes ahead of morality – stars will bring in the audience, and this is more important than the ‘issue’ that the film portrays – then the film surely is open to criticism.)
My second beef with the film is its use of music. This is not just moments where Hans Zimmer’s score lays down industrial gong sounds to convey the fact that SOMETHING BAD IS HAPPENING. Rather, it is that Hans Zimmer recycles a piece of music in 12 Years a Slave that he used for the magnificent Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, USA, 1998) fifteen years ago.
Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mar the film somewhat. The piece of music the (forgive my lack of knowledge regarding musical terminology) chord progression of which is largely repeated in 12 Years a Slave from The Thin Red Line is called ‘Journey to the Line’ – and it is a beautiful, epic piece of music. However, knowing that McQueen’s film is borrowing from Malick’s film in this way is also slightly jarring.
I could believe that McQueen, being a ‘clever’ artist and all, is pointing to the impossibility to depicting slavery without the use of cliché (with cliché here meaning saying things through terms that other people have used, i.e. repeating someone else’s words or, in this case, music).
Nonetheless, what the Zimmer score does is to give the impression that McQueen aspires to make a Malick film. To do for slavery what Malick does for war in The Thin Red Line, namely to offer a metaphysical treatise on the nature thereof.
But where Malick uses James Jones’ novel to discuss war on a relatively abstract level, McQueen is using a true story potentially to do the same. And true stories do not lend themselves to the abstract in quite the same way: what is slavery? How do some men seemingly desire to be masters and others slaves? (What is this war in the heart of nature? being Malick’s seeming guiding question with The Thin Red Line.) So, again for me, this does not quite work.
Don’t get me wrong; there are moments in 12 Years a Slave when we wonder that Solomon Northup (Ejiofor), a free man cast into slavery by a pair of scheming entertainers, could escape, especially early on when he and the other captives outnumber their captors (although they have all taken a significant beating by this time). And so the film treads that fine line in asking whether men in part desire the conditions that they face, but this is not the same as offering a piece of Malickiana.
The aspirations to Malick perhaps also explain the procession of stars that appear in the film. But, again, one ends up thinking: but Terrence Malick is Terrence Malick and Steve McQueen is Steve McQueen, so why does McQueen piggy-back on Malick? One cannot ‘do’ Terrence Malick (not without comic results). One can only be Terrence Malick. And the Malickiana here – signalled especially through Zimmer’s score – again seem slightly to undermine the film.
Again to be clear: McQueen’s film does have moments that McQueen is famous for, namely scenes that linger and are long in duration, including a powerful moment when Northup is left hanging by the neck from a tree branch, his toes touching the ground and keeping him alive. This protracted sequence – akin in part to the epic confrontation between Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) and a Priest (Rory Mullen) in Hunger (UK/Ireland, 2008) – is very powerful, as is a whipping administered on a slave in part by Northup and in part by Epps. But where McQueen and his desire to linger on certain moments is very strong, this strength is hindered at moments when it feels like the director wants to step into someone else’s shoes.
Finally, it is for me a mistake in the final credits of the film to put the name of Lupita Nyong’o a long way down the credit list – and after many of the white stars who have significantly smaller, and certainly less important, roles than she does.
For, Nyong’o plays Patsey, a slave on the estate of Edwin Epps (Fassbender), who is a legendary cotton picker and who also becomes the target of Epps’ amorous advances.
And Patsey is, to my mind, the beating heart of this film. It is she who is whipped by Northup and it is she who, importantly, makes clear that what for Northup is a temporary experience, for others is a lifelong experience.
Don’t get me wrong: 12 years as a slave is a massive amount of time and it is not that anyone should go through a single instant of slavery in their lives. But since we are watching a film called 12 Years a Slave, the clue is in the title that there will be a ‘happy ending’ (forgive the inadequacy of these film terms) for the main protagonist.
And while there is a ‘happy ending’ for American slavery – in that in principle it was abolished in 1865 – this does not make up for c250 years of slavery on what is now known as the North American continent. That is, and no disrespect to Northup, but 12 years pales in comparison to the enormity of North American slavery. And so it is important that the film conveys as best it can how Northup’s experiences are temporary in relation to those of innumerable others.
And this is done through Patsey, in particular the moment when Northup is rescued (*spoiler*?), for she must of course stay behind (the law does not allow her to leave). The moment is deeply moving, and Nyong’o’s performance here, as throughout the film, is remarkable. And so, given the centrality of her part, in that she stands in for that which it is impossible to depict (the size and scale of slavery in the USA in its entirety), it is disappointing that her name disappears at the end until after all of the white stars.
All this in mind, 12 Years a Slave is nonetheless a powerful film, with great performances, as mentioned, from Ejiofor and Nyong’o, and with some excellent McQueenian touches (scenes that linger for longer than most other directors would have them). It is no mean task to try to depict something that is perhaps beyond the bounds of cinema and which can only be suggested rather than shown. On the whole McQueen does an excellent job, but one wonders that a film with fewer stars, less Malickiana, and a desire to recognise upfront the performers involved, might have raised its bar even higher.