Of Human Bondage: How The Retrieval Succeeds Where 12 Years a Slave Failed

04/02/2014 10:00 AM |

the retrieval movie chris eska tishuan scott ashton sanders slavery

In an early scene of The Retrieval, an unusual movie about slavery that opens today at Film Forum, a white slavehunter is pushing and punching his latest catch just because he can when his white boss shoots him in the shoulder, noting that the “slave” (his word is more vile) is worth $600—and he ain’t. The story of American slavery is often told in movies, but rarely with the knottiness it is here. The unforgivable, inexcusable, unqualifiable evil is usually presented, as recently as 12 Years a Slave, with a focus on its abject abhorrence: the blacks as victims, beaten, raped, robbed of dignity; the whites, save a token savior, their loathsome oppressors.

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But the ethics aren’t so easily broken down by race in The Retrieval: an old white lady with a shotgun mans a stop on the Underground Railroad, and a bunch of white men take custody of the runaways she’s hiding; those black runaways are sold out by our black heroes, a pair of freemen (well, a freeman and a freeboy), who make a living helping to catch and turn in the escaped unfree. This isn’t to suggest that all peoples bore equal culpability for this dark period of shameful history, whose implications still reverberate in American culture, but that like anything in real life it was fraught with unexpected complexity—which is the basis of good storytelling. Within unimaginably horrid circumstances, they’re getting by the best they can; reprehensible as their actions may seem on their surface, they’re sympathetic. It’s about getting painted into a corner, and learning you can walk through the paint.

Writer-director Chris Eska, a white guy from a supersmall town in Texas, doesn’t dwell on the inherent violence the way 12 Years or Django Unchained did, trusting the audience instead to know and understand the stakes. That said, death and war hang over the film, its sounds echoing through evening forests, bodies floating by or lying still on stumbled-upon battlefields. Ashton Sanders plays a teenager under the care of his uncle, played by Keston John; the two go far from camp on the instructions of their employer to bring back a freeman played by Tishuan Scott, who has a pricey bounty on his head, using a phony story about his brother falling ill. What ensues is a preautomobile road movie through ironically picturesque backcountry (it was shot in rural Texas), where the nascent War Between the States might erupt without warning.

What makes this movie a triumph of its genre is that it’s not a movie about slavery so much as a movie about people, set against that historical period. (Tellingly, Steve McQueen first intended to make a movie about slavery and then discovered Solomon Northup’s extraordinary story; Eska worked backward from his themes. He even considered setting this movie in 1970s India, or on the present-day Texas-Mexico border.) The Retrieval is informed by the attitudes of the 1860s but only insofar as they define its characters and the choices they must make. No one preaches, characters or director; instead, character is established by action—it’s a human story. There’s the veritable orphan in search of a father; an alienated, isolated man in need of a companion; and their budding relationship, built on dishonesty, that foundational lie driving the drama and the tension. In its hard-hitting understatement, this film exposes the feel-better prestige-pic grandstanding of our most recent Best Picture winner, and what a humble, honest movie set within a similar milieu looks like in comparison. You don’t leave the film feeling any less awful about slavery in the United States—you just don’t feel as emotionally manipulated.

Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart

4 Comment

  • You might call it manipulation, but slavery in the u.s. was based on a manipulation. First of all, let’s talk about the fact that 12 years isn’t fiction and the director use the veracity of the story to create something approaching veritas. You might feel manipulated but the present, and thus your critique, is based on the false hope that actually it can’t be true that The Atlantic Slave trade was one of the worst things that ever existed in human history and it was perpetrated by your ancestors. Yes, complexity always defines our present, but that present is undoubtably shaped by the past. It runs in your blood.

  • Emotional Manipulation???? Wow….

    I paused for a second before adding a comment. It should be noted that I don’t usually do so. I hope this was a journalistic ploy to “stir the pot” and create discussion and not actually your perspective on the depiction of what “PEOPLE/HUMAN BEINGS” endured through slavery.

    Its not manipulation to acquiesce to the suffering of other people. That’s the foundation of humanity. The problem is that culturally since we landed on the shores of North America and started the colonies we have subjugated, oppressed, and exploited anyone who did not share our phenotypical design or cultural beliefs.

    Our atrocities have given way to the prevailing social conscience that some people are not deserving of our sympathies, an idea that is truly and utterly false.

    My heart bleeds for the suffering of all men, women and children regardless of race, culture, or spiritual designation. It is not necessary nor am I suggesting that you have to feel the same way I do. I would however suggest the proper respect be given to what the subject matter emotes.

    Anything otherwise is culturally insensitive.

  • I feel that your message either sounds just like it reads or perhaps you are doing a poor job of explaining your point. Why do you need to have a comparison? Why would one be different as far as presentation ability or a particular story? This is not a remake of Solomon Northup’s story. Perhaps you mean to say it is very compelling because the story is being told from the same time period from a different viewpoint that shows the reality of slavery from more than the perspective of the slave and his or her view of the master. I don’t mean to offend you, but why even bring up the race of the author/director? What difference does his race make in his ability to tell the story? You come off as a white man who’s tired of hearing how white men where responsible for such a tragedy, would like to hear it from his own view point and prove that his slavery movie is better. I think perhaps you feel this is a good piece because it shows how everyone played a part in the lifestyle of the time for the good and bad; and that included bad white people, good white people, good black people and the bad things they had to do to survive. I just think your article sucks at getting that message across.

  • Hi Janeé. I don’t think you *need* to have a comparison, but I was disappointed with 12 YEARS A SLAVE because I didn’t think it was a good work of art; I thought that this movie about a similar subject was, and that by contrasting them I could better explain what I think matters in strong storytelling. I mentioned the race of the director because both movies deal with race-related themes, and some readers would certainly be interested in where the perspectives are coming from; it was in the interest of transparency—trying not to obscure information I knew that some readers might find relevant. For me it’s not so much an issue: I’m not “tired” of hearing about white culpability for slavery, and I would never suggest (as I specifically note in the above article) that anyone else should share the burden of blame; I just think that compelling storytelling requires a little more complexity—for starters!—and I think THE RETRIEVAL is a good example of how you can have complex characters in complex situations without muddying the moral horror of the situation.

    @justpassingthrough 12 YEARS A SLAVE is a carefully constructed film with musical cues and edits and framed shots, all of which are used, I believe clumsily, to intensify your emotional response. It’s not the subject matter I object to; it’s the presentation. That is, the form, not the content. I’m not indifferent to the suffering of human beings, or to the legacy of our history. But I’m irked by what I see as bad storytelling because I believe that such aesthetics limit, even deaden, as a culture our emotional responses. A syrupy Hans Zimmer score doesn’t provoke genuine sympathy/empathy. Over time, it might even start to do the opposite.