Film response: 12 Years a Slave

Steve McQueen's masochistic tendencies and arty impulses don't well serve Solomon Northup's book. Watch Nightjohn instead.

12 Years a Slave
Directed by Steve McQueen
134 mins, USA, 2013

Originally published on Letterboxd with no likes.

Now that I’ve seen The Butler, Django Unchained (twice) and this, Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Solomon Northup’s slave-narrative novel of the same name, I still think Tarantino’s film has the greater power and greater intelligence.

In its climax it pits two black men — two representations of black men; two black male movie stars — against each other within a dead plantation owner’s house. It also employs modern and modernist techniques of pastiche; satirical, self-reflexive comedy; and the clashing of various genre tropes and anachronisms to wrench the audience into the present in a way that neither of the other two films do.


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As a result, Django managed to provoke more debate than the other two, not only about the history of slavery in the United States, and how that history is put to use, but on the uses of language and even film form and history. All that from a supposedly “adolescent” movie.

I’m going to continue to disagree on that.

The Butler fails because of its Forrest-Gump-like sentimentalizing of history (I particularly hated the assassination of Malcolm X becoming an isolated news blurb) and its curious lack of passion. 12 Years A Slave fails in part, in a less spectacular way, by its strict adherence to its source material.

This reverence results in some stilted and awkward line readings by supporting actors that are not quite up to the material. It gives the tone of the film an antique, literary gloss that the art-film framings work against. The book is powerful not for its styles, after all, but for its witness. I’m not sure its dialogue should have been lifted wholesale.

McQueen can’t seem to decide how his main character should behave in his slave environment, either. I’m talking mostly about his performance during close-ups. This lack of focus results in a distancing effect, for me anyway, that was made even more obvious during the scene in which Solomon begins to contemplate hope of getting out of his situation.

In a long take that should have been powerful, McQueen instead chooses to have Chiwetel Ejiofor look directly into the camera for a few seconds, and at us, in a preachy, arty, film-school move that’s more simplistic than anything Tarantino does in Django Unchained, a film that works on a loop of looking back at us and looking at itself. Ejiofor’s gaze is a radical break that forced me to consider the performance itself out of context, and to what end?

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McQueen’s camera also seems fascinated with the scarred, bloody, stripped-of-skin backs and bodies of the slaves. Most of these are horribly beautiful shots and again, to what end? All of McQueen’s films have a masochistic streak anyway, and in this movie it fits rather too well with the white-people-to-the-rescue narrative arc.

In contrast, the thorough and consistent eroticization of Jamie Foxx’s black body in Django, not only as an abused slave that other slaves want to emulate but as the subject and producer of his own personal style and swagger as a freed one (in tandem with our own ineluctable, admiring gazes), struck me as a more honest and liberating (and funnier and subversive) process than the subjugation and rescue of Northup by white people in 12 Years A Slave.

The scene in which Solomon is finally liberated is unconvincingly dramatized. Not incidentally, the sexual victimization of Patsey is only suggested in Northrup’s book. In McQueen’s movie it becomes a major subplot and occasion for more artful exposure of the extreme vulnerability of black women.

Although not without its moments of power, I’d suggest reading the book instead, or watching Charles Burnett’s folktale masterpiece Nightjohn.

Hell, Roots is better than this, as is Mandingo, a movie that Roger Ebert was terribly wrong about. The Oscars and the Guardian are wrong about 12 Years a Slave, too.



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