“I wasn’t even supposed to be here today,” the main character says repeatedly in Clerks, the line becoming his mantra as his workday gets progressively worse. Without trivializing the horror of its subject matter, this feels like the unspoken motto of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, unabashed Oscarbait masquerading as legitimate cinema—for proof, see the Hans Fucking Zimmer score!—as it wrings much pathos from the fact that its main character, real-life American slave Solomon Northup, isn’t even supposed to be a slave. Born a freeman, the adult Northup is kidnapped on a trip to our nation’s capital and sold into human bondage, spending a dozen twelvemonths passed around different owners of varying cruelty in the American South, which I guess makes him an easier sell to present-day audiences: neither were we born into slavery, so we can more easily empathize with his extraordinary plight.
But I’m put off by the film’s suggestion that Northup’s circumstance, likely suffered by thousands of others, was a greater evil than being born into slavery: slavery was (and is) inherently horrible, to put it lightly, for anyone forced to endure it. The end of the movie—the way Brad Pitt suddenly appears as deus ex machina—felt false to so many people, even the film’s fans, because the whole plot, really, feels false. Regardless of its true-story origins, Northup’s story works as a screenplay, as popular entertainment, not just because it offers us a way in but also a way out: imagine the horrors of slavery, then stop and imagine yourself back at home with your family. As Solomon is finally carried away in a cart back to freedom, another slave screams after him, but he literally won’t look back: he’s finally free, and he won’t take any chances that could put that in jeopardy. It’s painful to watch him have to do that, and it’s brave of the director and actor to include that unflattering scene, but it underscores one of the film’s biggest problems: the way Northup turns his back on the others in dire straits, so too do the filmmakers.
That’s a mistake. I couldn’t help feeling throughout the movie that the stories I wanted to hear, the ones that truly needed to be told, weren’t those of educated freemen caught up in a temporary nightmare but those left on the margins, those who were born into slavery and who would die in it, too. Particularly the women—McQueen touches on the sexual slavery to which females could become subject, the way their children could be torn from them—the compounded horrors of their thralldom—but they remain by the end merely peripheral, pushed aside.
I know, I’m supposed to critique the art the artist made, not just talk about the art I wish he or she had. And, also, what else should we expect? This is the man who brought us the laughable Shame. But, look, 12 Years a Slave is super emotionally manipulative, which I’m willing to forgive, except, why? To what end? To persuade us that slavery was, in fact, bad? Everyone but those who reside in the very worst comments sections knows that. It’s the same problem that often undoes so many WWII movies: a maudlin score doesn’t heighten our understanding, emotional or otherwise, of Nazi atrocities. The most stomach-churning movie I ever saw was silent documentary footage of the concentration camps just after liberation, no Hans Zimmer score required.
Solomon’s original memoir “is convincingly Northup’s tale and no one else’s because of its… unwillingness to reduce the complexity of Northup’s experience to a stark moral allegory,” scholar Sam Worley once wrote. This isn’t true of the film adaptation. What bothers me is that McQueen’s movie aspires, both by intention—as our Steve Macfarlane wrote, “McQueen claims he chose to make a film on slavery first, then began reading about Northrup”—and merely by its existence, to be not just one man’s extraordinary story but the definitive film about American slavery, to expose its cruelties with immediacy and sympathetic drama, and critics and audiences have been dubbing it such: the New York Film Critics Circle cited McQueen as the year’s Best Director (groan), the film tied for the most Golden Globes nominations of 2013, and it’s likely to pick up more critics and industry awards, not to mention Oscars. (This isn’t to detract from its extraordinary acting; any trophies it picks up for its performances are well-deserved.) 12 Years a Slave has its harrowing moments, such as when Northup is strung up and left to fight for survival on the tips of his toes, his fellow slaves going about their business in the background. But I’d argue the best slavery movie, at least recently, is still Django Unchained, which also highlighted the unfathomable barbarity of antebellum America while remaining hyperaware that it was, after all, just a movie.
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