The Danger of Idealizing ‘12 Years a Slave’

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Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is getting the kind of critical reception most films dream of. Pretty much every review has been a rave. The throughline, that 12 Years a Slave is a good movie, even one of those films “everyone should see,” is one I agree with. But the grounds on which it has received that praise have been less solid than the film itself, couched in claims to authenticity that seem, well, self-congratulatory on the part of critics. And not in a good way.

Might as well start with the worst: Uniquely bad in this regard is Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers, who declares that, “Proving himself a world-class director, McQueen basically makes slaves of us all.” That’s quite the empty statement, if you ask me. Travers can’t mean it literally. Even on a metaphorical level, he seems to mean that we are now all slaves to McQueen’s vision, as though that were a positive state of being. It’s either that, or he means that in watching we’ve become one with the slaves in some sort of historical mind-meld.

Threaded through other (smarter) reviews is a related but more intelligent idea that 12 Years a Slave gives us a kind of access to the experience of slavery that we had previously lacked. See, for example, David Denby in the New Yorker, who remarks that “‘12 Years a Slave’ is easily the greatest feature film ever made about American slavery,” a claim you’ll see pretty much everywhere. What usually goes unmentioned here is that the bar for films “about” slavery is pretty low. When you’re reaching out, as many critics have been, to films like Mandingo (really, guys?) and Gone With the Wind for realism and historical fidelity, there’s something already sour in your milk.

It’s certainly true that most films about slavery have been more remarkable for their lavish depictions of plantation life than for their realistic depictions of a slave’s daily existence. And as Aisha Harris pointed out at Slate the other day, if on no other grounds, 12 Years a Slave is remarkable because it is the only film to date that is based on a slave’s own account of his experience. Solomon Northup did have a co-author, but most of the incidents of his narrative have been independently verified by scholars. All historical documentation is subject to claims of bias and selective detail, but as slave narratives go, Northup’s is considered among the most reliable. And so to the extent that the movie sticks to the points of the book, then yes, it gets to make greater claims to realism than Django Unchained or, I don’t know, Amistad.

But what is strange about this authenticity argument is the way it seems to obscure that this is, actually, a movie, not a documentary film, and even an actual documentary of slavery could not escape a point of view which depicts the honesty of an experience through the prism of the director’s individual vision. Of all the reviews I read it was only Stephanie Zacharek’s, at the Village Voice, which seemed to understand this. 12 Years a Slave, she wrote, is

… a picture that stays more than a few safe steps away from anything so dangerous as raw feeling. Even when it depicts inhuman cruelty, as it often does, it never compromises its aesthetic purity. In one scene, Fassbender’s creepy plantation owner forces Ejiofor’s Solomon to whip a female slave who has sneaked away to a neighboring plantation for a bar of soap. The camera moves slowly, in a partial arc the shape of a comma: It takes the measure of the grisly brutality of the scene, and of Solomon’s anguish, without really breathing it in. The moment is terrible, yet it comes off as weirdly antiseptic, history made safe through art.

I admit this was closer to my own experience of the film, which I found emotionally distant even as it purveyed its unrelenting brutalities, than seems to have been the case for other critics. That said, I understood what Zacharek called the antiseptic character of it all to be McQueen signaling that he was going for authenticity, that he wanted us to feel that he wasn’t there, in the middle, between the audience’s experience and Solomon’s, even as he clearly was. That people have swallowed the message so wholly suggests a triumph for McQueen, of course. But what does it mean for the rest of us?

People will say that it elicits sympathy for the plight of the slaves. But speaking only for myself, in the aftermath of the film, my sympathy felt aimless, directionless. It reminded me of what Susan Sontag once wrote in a work on war photography:

The imaginary proximity to the suffering inflicted on others that is granted by images suggests a link between the faraway sufferers — seen close up on the televisions screen — and the privileged viewer that is simply untrue, that is yet one more mystification of our real relations to power. So far as we feel sympathy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence.

The distance between the audience and McQueen’s vision of slavery is, of course, a matter of time rather than geography. And time, unlike geography, isn’t something we can cross; no one expects anyone to go back and “undo” slavery. There’s nothing to do; the hopelessness of it resides in the fact that it’s already done. And I could insert some kind of recommendation here that you support reparations or otherwise seek to combat the structural inequality of slavery, but it would come off as insincere, because in some sense it would be.

America, like Northup himself, was marked in an indelible way by slavery. And it’s a way that any and all of the extensions of artistic sympathy to those ancestors can’t possibly fix. There’s nothing wrong, in fact there’s even something good, in being enriched from the experience of watching 12 Years a Slave. But let’s make sure, as the shine of Oscars becomes visible on the horizon, that we don’t allow the film’s artistry to displace the seriousness of the experience it depicts. It just wouldn’t do to make a film about slavery an emotionally cathartic experience for the rest of us.