Is 12 Years a Slave Too Depressing to Win an Audience?

12 Years a Slave (2013)
Directed by Steve McQueen
Fox Searchlight, 134 mins. Rated R (gruesome violence, nudity)
* * * *

Question: When is a historical film too accurate? Director Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave films Solomon Northrup’s autobiography with faithful attention to the original and  no punches pulled in depicting the horrors of American slavery. No one can walk out of this film and think, as the Texas State School Board would have you believe, that slaves were actually “servants.” But the hard question progressives must ask is how many people will choose to walk into this film. The problem is that this powerful film of two hours and fourteen minutes often evokes sympathy for those who lived through past tortures by making modern audiences experience them emotionally. McQueen’s film may be too stomach turning to educate those who most need enlightenment. Put another way, the film may be a great history lesson, but lousy entertainment. (Before you jump on me for the latter term, remind me why most people go to movies.)

 When Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1853, slaveholders assailed it as fanciful propaganda. The release of Solomon Northrup’s 12 Years a Slave that same year added poignant verisimilitude to Stowe’s novel. McQueen’s film, recounts how Northrup, a free black family man and skilled violinist, was lured from his home in Saratoga, New York, to Washington, DC, on the pretense of joining a musical show for several weeks. In truth, his erstwhile employers were slave traders who wined Northrup until he passed out. He awoke the next morning in chains and was sold into slavery as a runaway. For the next twelve years, he was called “Platt” and worked as a field hand on various cotton and sugar plantations in the Deep South. Only a happenstance encounter with an itinerant carpenter (Brad Pitt in the film) rescued Northrup from his nightmare.  

One of Stowe’s major theses was that slavery was so evil that even good people were dehumanized by it. In the film we see how Northrup (Chiwetel Elofar in what is likely to be an Oscar-winning performance) must learn to suppress his education, his eloquence, and his moral outrage, lest he end up hanging from a tree. His near hanging at the hands of brutal overseer Tibeats (Paul Dano) is among the film’s gut-wrenching segments. To survive, Northrup learns to walk a shaky tightrope between self-preservation and deeply held moral values; in short, he has to be a bit like Stowe’s Uncle Tom in both positive and negative ways.

We also see echoes of Stowe in Northrup’s masters, first Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), the prototype of the master whose good intentions are ultimately overwhelmed by his intemperate spending and personal habits, and later by Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who is even more brutal than Stowe’s Simon Legree. Epps whips slaves when their daily cotton pickings drop from the previous day, has his way with the exotic Patsey (Lupita Nyongo), and tells his wife (Sarah Paulson) he will gladly get rid of her before he ceases having sex with Patsey. His is a plantation based on fear, scarred backs, and–when he deems it necessary–black bodies abused and disposed of with less concern than a farmer butchering a hog. The beating of Patsey is more horrendous than scenes from any blood-soaked slasher film because we know it happened and we cannot retreat emotionally behind a screen of fantasy.

Academics will applaud McQueen’s boldness, his refusal to sugarcoat, and his awareness of historical scholarship. The latter includes often-ignored details such as the ways in which slavery placed Southern white women in a bind. They were supposed to be asexual moral guardians of their homes, yet they also knew that their morality held fat less sway with their husbands than the availability of lustful coerced sex with slave women–a scenario that further degraded white women’s social standing. McQueen got it right; Southern white women such as Mistress Epps often rivaled men in brutality.

But let us return to the modern dilemma. As a historian I’ve little but praise for McQueen’s film; as a film fan, though, I’d never see it again and, as a teacher, I couldn’t use it in the classroom. Ironically, the question at hand is analogous to that of slavery: What right do I possess to traumatize another human being? I certainly want people to be horrified by the very thought of slavery. On one level, I’d love to see every member of the Texas State School Board locked into a room and forced to watch this movie. But let me recount my experience in the theater. I’ve been to plenty of movies in which people cry, but very few in which they sob uncontrollably. That’s what happened at 12 Years a Slave–heaving sobs and howling wails in which viewers were left gasping for breath.

Before you conclude that’s a good thing, let me also point out that there were only about three-dozen people in the theater. The word on the street is that 12 Years a Slave is endlessly depressing and I’m afraid that’s true. I recall debates over the 1993 film Philadelphia in which Tom Hanks played a gay man with AIDS. Some people were very upset by Jonathan Demme’s PG-13 depiction of gay life and the physical horrors of AIDS; they wanted the movie to be more “realistic.” I agreed that it was saccharine, but because of the kid gloves it made over $200 million, which means lots of people saw it, including (one hopes) a lot of folks who would not have thought about gay life or the AIDS crisis in a more challenging film. As any teacher knows, education begins when you meet a student where he or she is, not where you think they should be. We shall see how McQueen’s film fares, but it’s been out for six weeks and has generated about 10% of what Philadelphia earned. My question remains: When is a film too accurate? I think 12 Years a Slave is a milestone, but does it matter if the audience is little more than the usual liberal suspects? --Rob Weir    

No comments: