12 Years a Slave uses sadistic art to patronize history
Brutality, violence and misery get confused with history in 12 Years a Slave, British director Steve McQueen's adaptation of the 1853 American slave narrative by Solomon Northup, who claims that in 1841, away from his home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., he was kidnapped and taken South where he was sold into hellish servitude and dehumanizing cruelty.
For McQueen, cruelty is the juicy-arty part; it continues the filmmaker's interest in sado-masochistic display, highlighted in his previous features Hunger and Shame. Brutality is McQueen's forte. As with his fine-arts background, McQueen's films resemble museum installations: the stories are always abstracted into a series of shocking, unsettling events. With Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), McQueen chronicles the conscious sufferance of unrelenting physical and psychological pain. A methodically measured narrative slowly advances through North's years of captivity, showcasing various injustices that drive home the terrors Black Africans experienced in the U.S. during what's been called "the peculiar institution."
Depicting slavery as a horror show, McQueen has made the most unpleasant American movie since William Friedkin's1973 The Exorcist. That's right, 12 Years a Slave belongs to the torture porn genre with Hostel, The Human Centipede and the Saw franchise but it is being sold (and mistaken) as part of the recent spate of movies that pretend "a conversation about race." The only conversation this film inspires would contain howls of discomfort.
For commercial distributor Fox Searchlight, 12 Years a Slave appears at an opportune moment when film culture--five years into the Obama administration--indulges stories about Black victimization such as Precious, The Help, The Butler, Fruitvale Station and Blue Caprice. (What promoter Harvey Weinstein has called "The Obama Effect.") This is not part of social or historical enlightenment--the too-knowing race-hustlers behind 12 Years a Slave, screenwriter John Ridley and historical advisor Henry Louis Gates, are not above profiting from the misfortunes of African-American history as part of their own career advancement.
But McQueen is a different, apolitical, art-minded animal. The sociological aspects of 12 Years a Slave have as little significance for him as the political issues behind IRA prisoner Bobby Sands' hunger strike amidst prison brutality visualized in Hunger, or the pervy tour of urban "sexual addiction" in Shame. McQueen takes on the slave system's depravity as proof of human depravity. This is less a drama than an inhumane analysis--like the cross-sectional cut-up of a horse in Damien Hirst's infamous 1996 museum installation "Some Comfort Gained From the Acceptance of the Inherent Lies in Everything,"
But, as with The Exorcist, there is no victory in filmmaking this merciless. The fact that McQueen's harshness was trending among Festivalgoers (in Toronto, Telluride and New York) suggests that denial still obscures the history of slavery: Northup's travail merely make it possible for some viewers to feel good about feeling bad (as wags complained about Spielberg's Schindler's List as an "official" Holocaust movie--which very few people went to see twice). McQueen's fraudulence further accustoms moviegoers to violence and brutality.
The very artsiness of 12 Years a Slave is part of its offense. But good art doesn't work this way. Art elates and edifies--one might even prefer Q.T.'s jokey ridiculousness in Django Unchained, a different kind of sadism.
McQueen's art-world background recalls Peter Greenaway's high-mindedness; he's incapable of Q.T.'s stupid showmanship. (He may simply be blind to American ambivalence about the slave era and might do better focusing on the crimes of British imperialism.) Instead, every character here drags us into assorted sick melancholies--as Northup/Platt, Ejiofor's sensitive manner makes a lousy protagonist; the benevolent intelligence that worked so well for him as the translator in Amistad is too passive here; he succumbs to fate, anguish and torment according to McQueen's pre-ordained pessimism. Michael Fassbender's Edwin Epps, a twisted slaveholder ("a nigger-breaker") isn't a sexy selfish lover Lee Daniels flirtatiously showed in The Butler; Epps perverts love in his nasty miscegenation with Patsey (whose name should be Pathos). Nothing in The Exorcist was more flagrantly sadistic.
Some of the most racist people I know are bowled over by this movie. But 12 Years a Slave is ultimate proof that Hollywood's respect for Black humanity is in absurd, patronizing, Oscar-winning decline.
Steve McQueen's post-racial art games and taste for cruelty play into cultural chaos. The story in 12 Years a Slave didn't need to be filmed this way and I wish I never saw it.
Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair
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