Image Conscience

Melissa Anderson on Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave

Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave, 2013, 35 mm, color, sound, 133 minutes. Edwin Epps, Patsey, and Solomon Northup (Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, and Chiwetel Ejiofor). Photo: Francois Duhamel.

THE EMPHASIS ON BODIES IN EXTREMIS in Steve McQueen’s first two features, Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011), continues unchecked in his third, 12 Years a Slave. In a roundtable discussion recently published in the New York Times about the movie—which is based on the 1853 memoir by Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from Saratoga Springs, New York, who was lured to Washington, DC, under false pretenses and sold as human chattel in Louisiana—the director forthrightly discussed the impetus behind the project: “I made this film because I wanted to visualize a time in history that hadn’t been visualized that way. I wanted to see the lash on someone’s back. I wanted to see the aftermath of that, psychological and physical. I feel sometimes people take slavery very lightly, to be honest. I hope it could be a starting point for them to delve into the history and somehow reflect on the position where they are now.”

That McQueen, who began his career as a visual artist, winning the Turner Prize in 1999, has created searing images of barbarity in 12 Years a Slave is indisputable; these scenes certainly stand as a corrective to the sentimentalization of the “peculiar institution” found in films like Gone with the Wind (1939). But how laudable—or dubious—is this achievement? In other words, what does it mean to be a spectator to McQueen’s successful execution of this project? Do these depictions of cruelty really serve as a didactic tool, as Henry Louis Gates Jr., a consultant on the film, insists in a lengthy essay included in the press notes (complete with suggestions for further reading), extolling “this magnificent artistic achievement…by a Black British director”? Or does showing the bloody latticework of suppurating wounds on a young woman’s back after she’s been whipped by two different men, or a long take of Solomon, gasping for breath with a noose around his neck and excruciatingly balancing on tiptoes to avoid asphyxiation, simply lead to a kind of stupor? What kind of reparative, illuminating “reflection” could these impeccably staged, horrific tableaux possibly engender? (Apparently, assessments that include superlatives like this one from the New Yorker’s David Denby, words strung together with staggering dissonance: “ ‘12 Years a Slave’ is easily the greatest feature film ever made about American slavery.”)

To even praise the acting in the film feels a bit obscene: How does one single out, particularly among those who toil on the same plantation as Solomon (and, yes, Ejiofor is formidable), who does the best “job” of being despised, degraded, broken, or dead? Is it instructive if I compare and contrast the debauchery of the slaver played by Michael Fassbender, in his third film with McQueen, with that of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie in Quentin Tarantino’s cartoon antebellum revenger Django Unchained (2012) or with that of the crazed crackers in Richard Fleischer’s swampy miscegenation melodrama Mandingo (1975)?

If these rhetorical questions—my non-review of 12 Years a Slave, a film that I can neither recommend nor dismiss—serve any purpose, it is to ask whether it is even conceivable to graphically represent the unimaginable without further cheapening the lives one sets out to honor or diminishing the horrors of a monstrous epoch (a query that Claude Lanzmann answers directly, of course, by not including archival footage of concentration camps and other atrocities of the Holocaust in 1985’s Shoah). In a typically piercing essay written for the exhibition catalogue Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (2000), Hilton Als writes, “All of this is painful and American. Language makes it trite, somehow.” Sometimes films do, too.

12 Years a Slave opens in limited release October 18.