Tuesday, 7 January 2014

12 years a slave

6 January 2014

Trailer. From here

A mostly gruelling if conventional period biopic that still cannot convey the monstrosity of a slave society. 

This is a worthy, earnest film attempting to depict the unimaginable: life as merchandise, where that idea is taken literally. If the challenge is in the end too great, this is still an important film.

John Ridley's screenplay adapts the memoirs of a man kidnapped into slavery in 1841, which hopefully explains why many of the incidents in the film seem plausible.

The film makes us aware, as only a conventional biopic such as this can, of something of the actual experience of slavery, of what it might have felt like, at least in an external sense. The visceral, illusory quality of cinema is good for this.

But the approach leaves problems both aesthetic and historical. The historical shortcomings are perhaps easier to explain, and probably less serious. The filmakers are required to focus on an exceptional situation in order to connect to the experience of the audience. But this inevitably means a dilution of the full horror of slave life.

Given the nastiness of what we are shown, it's amazing to think that slave life was actually much worse, but the sense that this was a large community, oppressed and dehumanised within a vast economy, and principally for matters of economy... this can be captured only fleetingly by focussing on one individual, or even a few individuals.

The slave Patsy is the strongest case. Her plight is terrible, one of the greatest depictions of injustice I have seen, yet we only sometimes distinguish her from the many other brutalised women we have seen depicted in films, on TV, in novels.

We wonder why she cannot commit the suicide she so strongly desires, and in a broader sense wonder why these slaves are so passive. This very inertia further provokes the sadism of the whites. The film is aware of the problem, and provides some crude explanations (fear of being lynched, etc), but the really deep structural supports for a slave economy cannot be brought into focus.

Aesthetically, given this unbearable backdrop, we can still empathise with our hero, and experience its tragedy through him. But here too the film fails. We know he will finally be freed, in this case through the actions of a kindly white man, handily signposted by being played by one of the most famous actors alive.

Director Steve McQueen tries to shore up this ruinously sentimental and happy ending with some devastating images of Patsy being left behind to suffer, and by some poignant written comments on what happens to Solomon after his freedom. This can't dispel an unwarranted sense of optimism or hope, irrespective of the historical fact that this slave society was almost finished.

The film's strength lies elsewhere, in trying to show how monstrously inhumane we are, or can be. I write 'we' meaning people, but it might be better used to describe Europeans, the only culture to have developed full-on slave societies. Though I suspect we are all 'European' now, at least in terms of our inhumanity.