12 Years a Slave – narcoleptic agitprop
ROBERT HENDERSON finds the much-hyped film simultaneously tendentious and plodding
12 Years a Slave (12YAS) is dull, very very dull. The plot trudges from one banally brutal or degrading episode to the next, as the kidnapped black freeman Solomon Northup undergoes his dozen years of illegal enslavement in the America of the 1840s. There is little sense of the story moving forward. Rather like pornography it becomes boring because repeating the same general thing over and over is tedious no matter what the subject. Indeed, the film could be regarded as pornography for white liberals. The fact that we know the eventual outcome – Northup’s re-obtaining of freedom – before the film begins deepens the dramatic void.
The film would have been much more dynamic as a drama if there had been subplots to vary the plantation scenes. This could have been readily done because Northup’s written story provided plenty of opportunity for diversification of the plot – the full text of 12YAS can be found here. (The page numbers in the review refer to this text.) For example, when he is being shipped for sale after being kidnapped Northup manages to send a letter to those he knows in New York (p73), but they cannot come after him because there is no clear indication of where he is or where he will be going. There is also an episode in the book (p136) where Northup goes on the run through a sub-tropical swampland which would have made a strong action sequence.
It is a little difficult to see why the director ignored such opportunities. He is certainly a competent filmmaker as his previous decidedly interesting film Shame showed. Being black himself, perhaps McQueen was simply too close to the subject and became obsessed with the abuse storyline to the extent of introducing fictitious abuse. For example, after Northup has been abducted, he is taken with other slaves downriver on a paddle-steamer. During the voyage there is an attempt by a white man to rape one of the black female slaves. Another slave attempts to prevent this and is knifed to death by the world-be rapist. It never happened. Or take the scene where Northup tells Ford he is a free man who has been kidnapped into slavery and Ford says he cannot listen. Northup actually says he never raised the subject of his true identity with Ford (p 91)
There is also a PC-driven absurdity in the film which occurs before Northup’s kidnapping and sale into slavery. He is shown not only as being decidedly prosperous (something not borne out by his own account of his pre-slave days), but as being greeted by virtually every white person he meets with that curious passive-aggressive fawning behaviour which white liberals often adopt when interacting with anyone who is black. Even allowing for the fact that Northup is a free man and the scenes are set in the non-slave states, it is somewhat difficult to imagine that he would have been such an object of unalloyed admiration in the 1840s.
To the one-dimensional plot can be added a general absence of character development. The problem starts with the leading man Chiwetel Ejiofor in the role of Northup. There is a curious passivity about this actor no matter what role he inhabits. Here he comes over as emotionally flat even when he is resisting abuse. There is also a problem with the physical look of the man. From the illustration which accompanied his book Northup had a darkish skin but distinctly European features. This is unsurprising because he describes himself as a mulatto (strictly of half white, half black ancestry, but more loosely of mixed white and black ancestry). Chiwetel Ejiofor is the child of two Nigerian parents. Was an actor who showed no signs of having white ancestry deliberately chosen because the film maker wanted to have no racial ambiguity in the film’s male lead?
Lupita Nyong’s character of Patsey is very slight if viewed unsentimentally, and exactly what she has done in the role to win the best supporting actress Oscar is mystifying in terms of performance. She does not spend that much time on screen or have a great deal to say, and her most notable scene is of being savagely flogged.
Michael Fassbender is always watchable but as the harsh slaveowner Edwin Epps he is little more than a cartoon villain whose acts of brutality lack credible motivation. His obsession with Patsey, lusting after her one minute, having her flogged the next, is unconvincing, not least because she is no great beauty. Sarah Paulson as Epps’ wife is good as far as her role goes, which is not far because she is primarily there to display jealousy of Patsey and urge Epps to beat the unfortunate slave at every opportunity.
Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as the “liberal” slave owner Ford is unconvincing on the level of basic acting because he struggles dreadfully with an American accent. But there is also a more major problem, that of Ford’s representation in the film being less than faithful to Northup’s remarkably glowing judgement of him, viz:
…there never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford….He was a model master, walking upright according to the light of his understanding and fortunate was the slave who came into his possession. Were all men such as he, slavery would be deprived of more than half its bitterness (p90)
In the film Ford appears as comparatively humane but weak, and a hypocrite who uses the Bible to justify slavery.
Then there is Brad Pitt as Samuel Bass, the man who sends a letter from Northup to those who know him in New York, a letter which brings about his release from slavery. Bass is an itinerant Canadian mechanic and general jack-of-all-artisan trades. Against stiff competition he is the most unconvincing character in the film, because his portrayal is painfully akin to the persona of a modern right-on Hollywood liberal. Bass is shown preaching at length to the slave-owning class, including Edwin Epps, about the evils of slavery and being met with remarkably little critical response. This is how Northup’s book portrays him, but it does seem to be wildly improbable if one takes seriously Northup’s description of Epps’ wildly erratic and violent behaviour.
Finally, there is the problem of a complete absence of context, namely, a failure to place the behaviour of slave owners and traders in the broader setting of the customs of the time generally and in particular of the way the free poor of the time lived and, to modern eyes, the gross cruelties to which they were often subjected. ( A charge often levelled against William Wilberforce was that he cared a great deal about slaves but nothing for the poor in England.)
Take corporal punishment, examples of which in the film have produced a great deal of anguish amongst reviewers. The flogging of slaves seems brutal to modern eyes but would have been much less likely to cause disgust amongst the general public in both the USA and Britain in the early Victorian period (the time of Northrup’s abduction). Heavy duty flogging was still commonplace in the British army and Royal Navy (and the press gang was lavishly used to man the Royal Navy until the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815) and was used widely as a judicial punishment. In addition, beating was routinely used in schools and in the home, both on children and wives.
There is also the problem of how generally truthful Northup’s reporting is. This matters because it is being used as a powerful instrument with which to beat white American society. After I saw the film I read the whole of the book. The general impression I was left with was that it has strong elements of implausibility because some things did just not ring true when set in the context of Northup’s time and place. For example, there is the way in which, despite trying to run away and several times assaulting a white man in authority over him, the carpenter-cum-overseer John Tibeats (played by Paul Dano), Northup remains alive and even escapes any particularly brutal punishment short of death. Northup’s account says that he not only fought with Tibeats twice (pps 109, 188) – only one incident is covered in the film – but also had a struggle with Epps (p288). If one takes Northup’s general tale of abuse by slave owners at face value this is astonishing.
The film awards season has been rather telling. 12YAS won only a single Golden Globe for best picture. The BAFTAs saw it collect the best film and best actor awards while the Oscars gained it three awards for best film, best supporting actress and best adapted screenplay. This was a poor return for a film which was the subject of a huge unofficial PR campaign by critics. The sparseness of the awards suggest tokenism.
Judged purely on the grounds of quality the film deserves little praise, official or otherwise, for it is a truly ordinary film judged as a drama and dishonest as an historical record.
ROBERT HENDERSON is the QR film critic