I have just been to see 12 Years A Slave and – because I am of the internet – I have an opinion or two about it. They are brief thoughts, but you are welcome to read them.
I won’t look at some of the questions I have about it, partially because they are for a much wider discussion, partially because I don’t feel well placed enough to make judgments – and I can only talk about it from position as a comfortable white man. I won’t discuss whether it’s correct to tell the story of slavery from the position of a privileged man (albeit within a marginalised context) and I won’t discuss McQueen falling into the classic trope of rape and abuse of women to demonstrate the depths and immorality of (a) man.
Here is what I will talk about: it is a document.
12 Years A Slave is an important, impeccable document of an horrific time/culture of Western civilisation. It is masterfully shot, directed, acted (Chiwetel Ejiofor is great, Fassbender is phenomenal). There are moments of absolute beauty, impressionistic images that blur and fade, to go along with the brutality. The constant, unflinching brutality. Only a few events are not shown graphically, which provides them with more power. It shows things the audience thinks they are aware of in a more grim and damning way than before.
It documents brilliantly the reduction of a man to a slave, from member of society to property, and the will that keeps the man from succumbing completely to devastated subordinance.
But, it is a document.
Only a document, and a document that chose exactly what to show.
The Realism of 12 Years A Slave serves only to move the (white) audience to sympathise; to express guilt and regret for historical complicity. If it makes them angry: great, but it doesn’t offer anything to do with that anger.
A document doesn’t give you anything to do. It doesn’t give you anything to advance or change. It shows what has happened. It barely touches on why it happened, how a culture of inhumanity is created or justified, or what can be done to avoid it being repeated. It shows what has happened, and puts a full stop at the end.
The footnotes that end the film – telling of Solomon’s failure to achieve justice against his slave master and kidnappers because of a racist, weighted system – point to what the film could have looked at instead. McQueen could have interrogated a system prejudiced against black people, a system that continues to stand within updated laws. McQueen could have investigated why it was still necessary for luck and white men to save his protagonist. McQueen could have drawn greater relationships between the plantations and contemporary slavery, of sweatshops and unfair trade.
12 Years A Slave is superb, but it doesn’t add anything.