Second Opinion: 12 Years a Slave
Slavery is one of those topics that fiction seems unwilling to tackle head on. Coming at it sideways – from the perspective of politicians trying to abolish it, freed slaves taking revenge on their former masters or even fighting alongside each other in the Civil War – seems to make one of the ugliest chapters in American history more dramatically palatable. By tacking on the familiar, comfortable tropes of a genre, filmmakers provide the audience with an at least occasional respite from the atrocities being committed on- or directly off-screen, and cement the victims’ tales of nearly unending tragedy with a hopeful or at least life-affirming finale.
12 Years a Slave is no exception to this rule; the genre it fuses to the issue is Torture Porn. But at least in applying the rules of Torture Porn horror movies it serves to make the audience more sympathetic to the hero’s terrible situation. 12 Years a Slave stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, a free black man in the 1840s who is kidnapped, stripped of his identity and dignity, and sold into the slavery in the American South. He was not born into this ungodly hardship: he was just like you, the audience, until his normal life was forcibly taken from him by ghouls who subjected him to manual labor, torture, and constant moral dilemmas over how far he’s willing to acquiesce to this nightmare situation without losing his soul.
Director Steve McQueen treats the first part of Northup’s journey like a straight-up horror flick, with normalcy giving way to industrial dehumanization and physical and emotional terror. It’s a blunt cinematic device, and perhaps even a little condescending. 12 Years a Slave suggests that you, the audience, couldn’t possibly sympathize with a person actually born into systematic degradation. You could only fully appreciate the plight of a slave if you yourself could be one too, a statement John Ridley’s script makes directly to a lecherous slave-owner Michael Fassbender. In case you’re missing the parallel: to 12 Years a Slave, you are that slave-owner, and without this story you could not have been appropriately sympathetic to the victims of slavery.
But perhaps alarmingly, the somewhat patronizing delivery of Northup’s story really is effective. Providing a stark contrast between “civilized” 19th Century America and the institutionalized hate and humiliation of slavery creates a persecution narrative that makes Ejiofor’s proud hero seem Christlike, at least when he’s not actively giving in to despair, or playing dumb just to avoid nearly constant physical abuse. He has our sympathy, clumsily won though it may have been, and genuine suspense comes as a byproduct of that emotional connection and the interminable horrors that surround him on all sides.
And yet this film certainly seems to do do a disservice to all the individuals around him who were actually born into slavery, and are repeatedly seen as complacent, albeit miserable in their lot. Suicide is presented as a viable option by one of Northup’s peers at the plantation, because unlike 12 Years a Slave’s protagonist she has no hope, not even a slim one, of rescue. Everyone’s looking for a way out, or a way to stay in without suffering too badly, and the only way to make that kind of oppressive misery palatable is – apparently – to view it from the perspective of an outsider forced to experience it for themselves after a lifetime of freedom.
Structurally, that’s not entirely unlike the dramatic problem you also find in films like Glory, which seem to think that the evils of prejudice would only be recognizable when viewed by a character introduced to these injustices for the first time. There’s a frustration in that storytelling device, but seeing as 12 Years a Slave is based on a true story, and dumps its hero so hopelessly into mental and physical degradation, the drama never entirely falls prey to what would normally feel like contrivance. The pain feels real, and the suffering certainly no less potent for starting in a place of comfort. Even the deus ex machina comes across like the only way Northup’s story could have an even remotely satisfactory ending, helpless as he is to do anything about his own oppressive tragedy. But “remotely satisfactory” is as close as we get, particularly when salvation comes at the hands of an almost implausibly saintly producer of 12 Years a Slave.
But the unyielding sense of tension, terror and strife leaves 12 Years a Slave feeling like a powerful horror film, focused as it is more on cementing a thick layer of doom than crafting a dramatically sound story foundation. These structural failings only contribute to that doom, its associate gloom, and the uncontrollable wincing reactions to all the evils on-screen, but they contradict what’s seemingly meant to be a profoundly moving or revelatory cinematic experience. It’s more visceral than thoughtful, more frightening than anything else. 12 Years a Slave is possibly the best horror film of the year, but it’s a disappointing drama.