Why 12 Years a Slave is more than a costume drama
There’s one scene in 12 Years a Slave that I just can’t get out of my head. And it doesn’t involve whipping.
As horrible as it may sound, we’re exposed to quite a lot of graphical violence in movies these days. Of course I find it troubling to see torture and blood and gore and whatnot, but I’ve dealt with that kind of images before and somehow I managed to get them out of my system, leaving them on the floor as I leave the cinema.
The scene that I keep returning to is the one where Solomon Northup, the previous free man who has been kidnapped and sold as a slave, is hung in a tree. In order to survive he has to tip toe around while waiting for the slave owner to arrive to release him. If he slips, he’ll die. I have no idea for how long this scene went on. Was it a minute? Fifteen? Thirty? I had no idea. Steve McQueen held me in a grip as strong as the rope and just wouldn’t release me no matter how I begged. And in the background: life going on as usual. The other slaves continuing their work, pretending as if they didn’t see the torture going on right in front of them. If they looked at him only for a moment they knew that they could end up in the same situation. The only way to survive was to put their dignity, their compassion, their humanity aside or rather bury it somewhere deep inside. Pretend that you don’t hear. Pretend that you don’t see. Pretend that you don’t understand, that you don’t object.
This was a strategy that worked during the era of slavery. This was a strategy that worked in the 1970’s Cambodia under the terror of Khmer Rouge. And god knows how many people who still, in 2014, have to use that strategy in order to survive. People who live in countries where warlords and dictators rule. Children whose mothers stand under deadly threat from an abusive man.
Why it’s still relevant
There’s very little dialogue in 12 Years a Slave and no voice-over to explain exactly what thoughts run through Solomon’s mind. Most of the time we’re left to make our own interpretations. We read his eyes, we read the landscape, the music and that’s all we need.
Compared to Steve McQueen’s last movie Shame, this is a far more accessible film, with a lot more emotion and scenes that invite you to emphasize with the people you see. You can recognize a bit of his cold, visual style but someone has sprinkled over a bit of Spielbergesque heart and soul into it, making it possible to embrace for a far wider audience.
But it’s still restrained enough to stand out from more conventional well-made costume drama about “important historical events”.
This is so much more than a monument over people’s suffering in the post, more than a history lesson about something that you “should know about”. It’s also a movie about the present, about the uglier features of the human nature. It points out mechanisms that are still in use if we open our eyes. And this is what makes it such a tough – and important – movie to watch, relevant not only to an American audience.
Not everyone’s cup of tea
In the name of honesty I should also add that it’s probably not everyone’s cup of tea. My husband didn’t like it at all. He thought it suffered from a phenomenon that sadly is pretty common among arthouse movies: a lack of drive, a lack of a motion forward, a lack of a narrative and plot. “It’s just a bunch of tableaus lined up one after each other. It’s dead. Nothing happens, especially since he’s alone all the time and hardly ever has anyone that he trusts enough to speak with. It was like watching a musical without the song numbers. Dull.”
Needless to say: I don’t agree with him at all. I was on board from the very start, deeply engaged in Salomon’s situation, intensely aware of whatever happened to him, devastated whenever his situation turned from bad to worse. The slowness didn’t trouble me at all and it didn’t occur to me once to check my watch. I just wanted to point out that for all the praise this movie has received, different opinions are available. As always.
12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013) My rating: 4,5/5