12 Years a Slave Steve McQueen (2013 USA) Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt
Viewed: 14 Jan 2014, Empire Cinema Newcastle; Ticket £3.95
As presented film, Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave is little more than a soap opera tricked out with predictable contemporary graphic violence. The big stars Brad and Michael do their movie gestural facial acting without ever breaking sweat. Ejiofor is a competent lead figurehead, but without a voice, who takes us down the overlong narrative from its beginning until it gets to its end. '!2 Years' is a typical product of that Hollywood production line that turns out noble but anodyne films.
But it is something more: it is also a betrayal of its source material.
Camera replaces voice.
Steve McQueen's movie '12 years a slave' is based on the book of the same title written by free black Northerner, Solomon Northup, about his experience as a slave. It is remarkable work, both as literature and as document.
Published in 1854 and written in the first person, it is a harrowing terrible account in which the author explains how he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South. An ordeal of brutal beatings and humiliation, a vicious existence as a non-being that lasted 12 years before somewhat fortuitously Salomon contrived his own rescue.
This classic work of American literature might have seemed a natural fit for black UK director McQueen. An opportunity to make a filmic statement out of a strong clear black voice harking from the shadows of the nineteenth century.
Significantly though McQueen chooses not to use Northup's voice as the dynamic form holding the story together. McQueen's camera replaces Northup's voice. Image replaces insight. The clarity and understanding of Northup is replaced by a mish-mash of camera angles that represent only McQueen's technical decisions. The camera replaces voice promoting uncertainty of origination; and McQueen's semi flashback structure which looks cobbled together in the edit, replaces Northup's straight time line.
McQueen renders the material from Northup's book in the same way cheap hamburger producers render meat. His film ends up like a pattie of cliche'd images palatable to the taste of the consumer. '12 Years' is not so much a film more a soap opera or TV mini series, whose scenario was designed to manipulate Northup's observations to pander to the prejudices of contemporary audiences and Oscar juries. For the director who made Hunger, '12 years' looks like a sell out to the usual suspects. '12 Years' is refusal to take on the contextualised material on its own terms.
'12 Years' is the voice of a man: Solomon Northup. A man of his time with perspectives informed and fashioned by his age. As a voice of a man, if you do not respect it but instead manipulate it for your own ends, then you are little more than a mountebank. A thief laying claim to a false legitimacy of ownership. Instead of writing his own script and filling it out with his own retrojected contemporary conceits McQueen goes through the process of dishonestly representing Northup's work as something that it is not.
Opportunistic fabrication characterises McQueen's film.
This is the voice of man. Solomon Northrup's account of his experiences in '12 years' retains its power and more because read today it surprises us at every level. The first thing you hear in this voice is a sensitised intelligence grounded in character and experience. Intelligence as a resource that is refined throughout Northup's suffering. The second thing that strikes the reader is that Solomon's 'intelligence' informs not only his intellect but also his emotions. This sort of intelligence is difficult to understand. The pain inflicted on him by the white race produced in Northup neither anger nor hate but compassionate insight in the hollowness of the white psyche; an understanding that a corrupt social system produces corrupted vicious individuals to represent it. Like both Primo Levy and Nelson Mandala he rises above the cesspit system of racially structured degradation and annihilation arriving at a state of mind in which he sees clearly the nature of evil. Finally Solomon Northup[ is sustained during his torture by his faith in the Lord. It is faith that carries him through. His ability to call on an externalised power (whether projected or real) endows him with the psychic stamina to sustain hope and finally take his chance. His faith in the Lord and the New Testament is strengthened even by the slave owners selective use of readings form the New Testament to their slaves. Northup sees at once that it is an abusive attempt to justify what is indefensible in Christian terms. These readings, judged by Solomon Northup to be a distorted self evident insult to intelligence, are by McQueen's script exploited as an opportunity for cheap theatrical parody.
And in choosing the option of theatrical effect and the spectacle over voice, McQueen's film is not true to the spirit of the book. The lie replaces the true.
But the betrayal of Northup's spirit extends into fabrications of the actual text that McQueen finds it necessary to introduce. When Solomon regaining his freedom, returns home after his 12 years, the film represents that his wife Anne has remarried and her new husband is with her when she greets Solomon. This is not in the book. In the book Northup writes that when she heard he had returned, his wife Anne ran home from work into his arms.
There are many ways of honouring truth: literalism is but one. It can be honoured in the word in the spirit in the practice in the structure. McQueen chooses none of these. He seems to have taken a road in the development of his scenario in which piece by piece what is true in Northup's book has been gradually discarded. All that remains is pastiche soap opera. In which case why lay claim to Northup's work? Instead like Tarantino, fashion your own Slave story script and do what you want with it ! Make it film that panders to whatever values of history, history of film and entertainment and indulge whatever anachronisms you want: have your escaped slave call home on a mobile.
In this scenario of '12 Years': the lie replaces the truth.