Â Geoffrey Jacques reviews
12 YEARS A SLAVE
Â Â© 2013 Geoffrey Jacques; reposted from his Facebook page with permission.
Just saw 12 Years a Slave, and have to say I thought well of director Steve McQueen’s effort. He allows us to imagine â more than many “slavery-themed” films we know â what it might have been like to live under that regime. The movie is beautifully shot and the actors and actions mostly convincing. Sherri [Sherri Barnes, the author's wife] was unconvinced by the language of many of the actors (“I felt I was watching a Shakespearean play,” she says), but this didnât bother me much, as Iâm willing to believe that many people in the Eastern US spoke with British-derived accents and language until well into the 19th century.
The idea that such movies must offer hope to have value is one way to go, and that this one eschews that option seems to be one of my friend Armond Whiteâs principal objections to this film. But in real life hope is often more a matter of faith than anything else, and it often requires that weâre able to connect with the world outside our reality. The histories, memoirs, and fictional narratives about slavery tell us that there was a certain self-contained, isolated quality to most of the experience of the enslaved peoples in the slave states. McQueen allows us to imagine what it must have been like to be inside that regime and utterly cut off from the outside world. He shows, with great clarity, just much the ignorance imposed on the enslaved was one of the slaversâ most effective weapons. Most slaves saw no future other than slavery. The slave regime was widely perceived â and not just by the enslaved â as all-powerful, and the portrayal of that consciousness is a driving force in this film.
(Remember, our civil war happened because the slave power, even though it was weakening by 1860, couldnât be effectively curbed by democratic means. It had long been the dominant power in our country, and during the period portrayed in this film (1840-1853) the slave powerâs view defined this countryâs reality.)
So, too, is it hard to imagine the depravity and violence of slavery. McQueen refuses to allow us the elation and edifying salve we get by taking refuge in the nobility or tragedy of the hero. Slavery was a regime defined by violence. Itâs hard to imagine a film about the subject that can be too violent. McQueenâs account can even be called prettified compared to, say, Hector St. Jean de Crevecoeurâs âLetter IXâ (from his Letters From an American Farmer, 1782), just to pick one from the hundreds of available examples. To be sure, Solomon Northrop (played here by Chiwetel Ejofor) was the hero of his story, but the story McQueen tells is one of slavery without heroes in the conventional sense. Some may think the debauchery portrayed here is gratuitous, too, but this is a question thatâs often treated far too gingerly in popular accounts of slavery. McQueenâs take-no-prisoners approach (in the stories of the characters played by Adepero Oduye [Eliza], Lupita Nyongâo [Patsy], Alfre Woodard [Mistress Shaw]) is an effective counterpoint to the âquadroon ballâ romance narratives we sometimes hear and tell about slavery.
Thereâs much more to say, but Iâll stop. For those who have not yet seen the film, let me recommend that you do so. For those who have seen it, Iâd be interested to hear your thoughts.
Geoffrey Jacques is a poet, essayist, critic, editor, and teacher. He has taught writing, American and African American literature, American Studies, Labor Studies, and courses in the humanities at several colleges, including University of California Santa Barbara, Pacifica Graduate Institute, New York University, York College of the City University of New York (CUNY), John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY, Lehman College, CUNY, and at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He writes and teaches on subjects ranging from literature and culture of the Harlem Renaissance, American culture and society in the 1960s, Studies in Race, Class and Gender, Modernist Poetry and Poetics, the poetry of W. B. Yeats and its criticism (a semester-long course in scholarly writing) to The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois and its contexts. He holds a Ph.D. in English from the Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY)