Chiwetel Ejiofor. Man oh man.
Trying to parse why I – and so many people, it seems – feel or felt left at arm’s length by this film. So many people say they admire it more than anything, that for all the world they can appreciate its beauty but it just doesn’t connect.
And I begin to realise that, well, that’s kind of the point. The first time I saw this it seemed as though the aloofness of McQueen’s approach the material was a bug, but really it’s a feature. There’s an extent to which I think we all want to watch a film like this and come away with a greater sense of understanding, a better comprehension of exactly how a story like this comes to be made truth. Every time McQueen severs the audience’s connection, or prolongs a scene to the point of it snapping like a string on a violin, it’s a deliberate affront. We – and I use the royal we with specificity and in self-reference to my exceeding whiteness – can’t comprehend this.
I can connect to Solomon Northup’s loss on a basic, human level. I can connect to the tribulations of Patsey, left watching the hope of a carriage drift away like a soul finally escaping purgatory, in the sense that many of the horrors she experiences are visceral, sensory ones. I can flinch at those, I can feel the dread rising in my gut.
But I can’t connect to their captivity. I can’t connect to Patsey’s assault, or the way she exists to Epps in some despicable place between lover and fetish object. I can’t connect to knowing that level of subjugation based solely on my race. I can pour as much empathy out of my being, and simplistically and groundlessly compare it to my own experiences of prejudice based on my sexuality, which will obviously never be of the magnitude of the injustices faced by anyone who was, or is, subjected to slavery of any kind (how easy it is to pretend that it has ended anywhere).
But I can understand. The myriad people who bemoan their inability to connect to this material can invariably, I should hope, process it. The way it can sometimes feel textbookish belies its intellectual complexity; textbooks seek to teach facts and instruct processes, where 12 Years a Slave seeks to elaborate on context and vagaries, and deepen understanding. It’s fascinating to see it become part of curricula in America because of this.
This in turn makes it incredibly difficult to contemporise. Some people spend so much time trying to convince themselves that race is archaic, that a film like this is some kind of untouchable reliquary, studied by few and inaccessible to many. But sheer hatred perpetuates itself. When a man walks away from murdering a black teenager on the street or in a parking lot, that’s slavery. And there’ll always be someone standing on the sidelines telling a mother that with some food and some rest, she’ll forget all about her children.
Solomon sees his grandson in the film’s final, heart-rending scene, and this pain lives in his eyes. He knows, looking at his family and at his infant descendant, that history repeats itself. That anguish exudes from him when he faces the sunlight and turns his eyes onto the camera.
It really is an impeccably directed film, one that succeeds in being nothing and everything at once. It doesn’t try to be “about slavery” but it is intelligent enough to teach us about it anyway. The ultimate lesson, really, is this: do not pervert nature. From the cutting of cane to clearing the edges of canals to whips in cotton fields to a man hanging by his neck under the sympathetic shade of trees, McQueen’s favourite motif is the contrast between the deliberateness of historical evil and the mournful protests of the landscape. Trees hang over the plantation mansions like they’re trying to bear down on and suffocate them. It is as though Mistress Shaw says to Solomon, that god has something in store for the plantation class, and perhaps the plague-like rebellion of nature is the only way. After Armsby, who could trust another man to do anything?
It’s two extremes which I wish were different. Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam are so poorly cast that the tone of their scenes simply does not fit with anything around it, their literally clownish machinations seemingly belonging to a different film entirely. And Brad Pitt, oh dear Brad, sleepily getting to play saviour in a way which feels crucially unnatural. When butting up against Ejiofor, who is so brilliant he almost seems possessed by Northup himself, it’s simply not enough. It’s a shame for a masterpiece to be tarnished by some poor casting, but their performances, while bad, aren’t disastrously so.
12 Years a Slave doesn’t exist for ‘us’, and that is its power. We cannot enmesh with it; we are incompatible. Implicitly, we are the villains, some 150 years notwithstanding. We are the people who gasp at it, the people who talk through it, the people who fidget through it, ultimately moved but fundamentally in stasis. If there’s one thing we are terrific at, it’s abstraction to the point of distraction, and settling on a lack of connection to the material is a palpable example of that. This is a film where emotionality is only found through intellectual understanding. It’s once you realise you remain part of the problem that you begin to see how you can connect.