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Slavery and Popcorn: '12 Years A Slave'

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I saw this on the side of a bus the other morning: "One of the best films ever made." Oh hum. Film publicity hyperbole, don't you just love it? Anyway, this highly unimaginative bit of hype was bigging up the new blockbuster about slavery 12 Years a Slave, the British director Steve McQueen's biopic about Solomon Northup (Chiwitel Ejiofor), a man sold into slavery in 1841.

So it's about slavery and it features lynchings, floggings and rape - yet strangely enough 12 Years a Slave is more or less a feel-good movie. Or rather, it's a feel-bad-so-as-to-feel-good-later movie.

Or so I think. Because it's a film with little to seriously unsettle the viewer. Most 12 Years audiences will be expecting two-and-a-quarter hours of high-calibre spectacle on the subject of how slave-owners in USA's pre-Civil War southern states mercilessly mistreated their human "possessions". And this is precisely what they get. It's confirmational stuff. Slavery was very bad; slave owners were odious; the slaves were essentially good people; there were a few enlightened white people who wanted to change things. The film gives us characters nearly always neatly delineated as monsters or victims, and the plot casts its main protagonist into the hell of the cotton or sugar cane plantations while ensuring that the energy of a typical Hollywood 'drama' is maintained with regular incident and even a redemptive and happy(-ish) ending.

Or to put it another way, for an experimental Turner Prize-winning artist with a professed love of Andy Warhol's films and the nouvelle vague, McQueen has made a curiously un-arthouse film. Perhaps that's deliberate. To me - admittedly someone who now watches almost exclusively non-mainstream film - this felt positively Spielbergian in its aesthetic: lots of directional mood music, scenes of violence where the blows use very amplified contact thuds, lingering close-facial shots of the central character, and a regular succession of evenly-edited scenes with very few unusual camera angles or in any way "obscure" moments.

Okay, maybe that was McQueen's intention. To lob a biopic on the heavyweight subject of slavery straight into the mainstream. Perhaps he wanted to produce a bit of "event" cinema, much as Alex Haley's epic Roots series was event TV on the subject of African-US slavery for 1970s audiences. If so, fair enough. Because on this level, 12 Years works well enough.

Critics are calling it "harrowing" and a film that unpicks slavery's 'everyday horrors', and in a straightforward sense it is. The dramatic shock of seeing the previously prosperous 'free negro' Solomon Northup suddenly manacled in a dark cell and then viciously assaulted is weighty indeed. The creeping horror - for him and for us - that he's being sold into slavery in the US South despite being an apparently carefree and well-respected family man in New York State, is one of the film's best sequences. And for the next two hours we see Northup endure the humiliation of being sold in a New Orleans slave market, being victimised by a vengeful and insecure overseer, and then tormented by a maniacal, Bible-spouting cotton plantation owner (Edwin Epps, rather brilliantly played by McQueen regular Michael Fassbender). And one passage above all others worked for me in the film: a long-sustained scene where Northup has narrowly survived being lynched but remains suspended from a rope with his feet just touching the muddy ground, slipping in his attempts to retain a grip and going apparently unnoticed for long minutes or even hours by slave owner and fellow slave alike. Unlike everything else in the film, the scene goes on and on, an agony of suffering that I think begins to mirror the condition of slavery for the first time in the entire film. Strange Fruit indeed.

And yet, and yet. This was still a popcorn movie. (Two women sitting next to me at the screening did little else but munch and rustle their way through the entire film). The film avoided much in the way of moral depth or complexity. The first of Northup's 'owners' - the 'benevolent' William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) - is fairly swiftly replaced by the unambiguously sadistic Epps character, and so the film more or less skips the potentially fascinating exploration of the murky compromises that a supposedly 'kind-hearted' Southern slave-owner would have been required to make. Instead, the film takes the easy option of giving us a hate figure like Epps to boo and hiss. Similarly, the cruel overseer who persecutes Northup is more caricature than character (in the cinema the other night some audience members actually laughed and cheered when Northup fights back at one point, shouting "Go on" as he - fairly viciously - beats up the overseer). In fact, I think it's a measure of the veering-toward-caricature nature of the film's characterisations that critics have praised the "complexity" of characters like Epps' equally cruel wife and the female slave Patsey merely because ... well, they're a tiny bit enigmatic.

Of course, 12 Years is based on Northup's autobiography so one could argue that the film is just following his story, but films surely tell their own story as well - with their framing, their characterisations, and dozens of the other filmic devices. But maybe I shouldn't quibble like this anyway? Given that slavery in the USA was such an obvious abomination perhaps I should 'support' McQueen's film and turn a blind eye to its soapy techniques. Well, maybe... but, I'd still prefer something with more depth and more challenge. I think the ravages of the Atlantic slave trade and what happened to millions of human beings in the Americas is such a devastating topic that 12 Years barely scratches its surface. In fact, with its rather rosy picture of black families living free and easy lives in 1840s New York State, it surely lessens any sense of the historical reality of racism in the United States - ie that it was not just in the South and not just until Lincoln and the abolition of slavery in 1865. (As a - sort of - corrective see this largely unknown account of how hundreds of thousands of freed slaves rapidly died of disease and starvation in a few short years after Civil War emancipation).

As my companion at the 12 Years screening remarked, McQueen might have done better to have tackled slavery in an altogether tougher way - for example by looking at its contemporary incarnations. Authors like Kevin Bales have talked about the new slavery of debt bondage and contract slavery, and in the hyper-modern environs of Qatar Amnesty has recently exposed how migrant workers from Nepal and India are forced to labour over glitzy World Cup projects while being "treated like cattle".

I began this post by mentioning a bus, and that's how I'll end it. On the way home from the 12 Years screening I found myself witnessing a confrontation on the upper deck of my bus between a hostile man of Afro-Caribbean appearance and another man of (roughly) North African appearance. The first said to the other: "Get out of my way, you fucking Arab". The second (himself apparently drunk) said: "I am not an Arab. I am an Ethiopian. The original man!" This - just about - led to a defusing of the situation and even elicited cheers from some of the other passengers. Racism, the African continent, ethnic belonging, migration and common humanity: this little incident was strangely more meaningful than McQueen's much-fêted film. Still, go and see 12 Years a Slave anyway.

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