Rated R. I'm going to be talking about this as the crux of my blog, but Steve McQueen includes a lot of horror imagery in his slave narrative. This is one of those brutal movies that stresses the reality of a despicable era in American history. It's meant to upset you. As part of that, there's blood, violence, gore, sexuality, rape, and language. It is a brutal film that justifies its own brutality. R.
DIRECTOR: Steve McQueen
I can't believe that I've been watching Academy Award nominated movies for as long as I have been. I questioned whether I watched this movie in the past five years and then I saw that this movie came out in 2013, meaning that is the last time I saw this movie. It was one of those movies that I really rooted for (and it won Best Picture!), but thought that I never wanted to see again. Some of the greatest movies involving gore are so uncomfortable to watch that it makes me appreciate it from an artistic perspective, but abhors me to realize that there might be something toxic about getting comfortable with that imagery. It's kind of involves ensuring that I'll never get desensitized to that kind of violence. Traditional horror movies, sure. I like those. But there's something that moves you to your soul with films like 12 Years a Slave or The Passion of the Christ that you want to die a little bit. And there's something precious about wanting to hold onto that little death. I also acknowledge that there also is an element that says "This isn't about me and how dare I try to preserve that emotion." But you can't win all of them.
The first time I watched 12 Years a Slave, it knocked me on my butt. It should. It's an unbridled look at the horrors that Americans are capable of. But at the end of the day, I thought it was just a really good movie about slavery. McQueen showed off that he could make a visceral movie that looked absolutely gorgeous and that was my big takeaway. But then movies like Get Out came out and I realized that horror doesn't have to be one thing. Part of this is going to be hardcore white knighting, but I had been living a pre-anti-Racist philosophy. Now, I'm really trying to push myself out of my comfort zone. Why I bring myself into it is that my 2013 version of the movie was a form of voyeurism. I had distanced myself from Solomon Northup and subconsciously viewed him as "Other." He was not me. While I empathized, I never sympathized. I always distanced myself from him because I was not Black. This was the story of a traumatic time in American history. But to me, it was over. This happened to him and that was the story.
But McQueen wasn't making the movie for 2013 me. (Or maybe he was, but I wasn't ready to shift out of my comfort zone.) Instead, McQueen was making a horror movie that a lot of people viewed as a reality. Solomon Northup takes a job, gets drunk once, and finds himself a slave for twelve years. That slavery is not the slavery of the textbook, that might stress the concept of the happy slave or the noble slave master. Instead, McQueen made a movie that stresses the reality of the miseries and tortures of slavery of any kind. And Northup's tale both serves to be the ideal story to tell about slavery due to Northup's education and variety of slaveowners; but similarly becomes oddly typical of the slave experience. That's where the horror element comes in. When Solomon Northup doesn't act as the other, but as an avatar for the audience, there's something that hits a different level than what I was ready for.
Northup actually serves as an ideal avatar for the audience. He knows perfectly what is happening. There's a consciousness of the evils being forced upon him and those he cares about. He often is smarter and more emotionally mature than those who claim to be his superiors. While there is no formal narration, Northup's reactions and observance of the realities of day-to-day slave life is telling. Chiwetel Ejiofor has these perfect responses to each moment. Because he starts off the film as a freeman, he has this dignity that he's always hiding and desperate to preserve. When he loses his cool over things that are genuinely unjust, we --as the audience --cringe because we have an unfair understanding of history. But we also acknowledge that we might have defended ourselves long before that moment. It's heartbreaking because there is no right answer. And, like horror movies, the movie stresses the absence of hope. It's frustrating.
Everything in the movie is matter-of-fact. That's the traumatic element of it all. One of the most horrific visuals I've ever seen in a horror movie is one where there was nothing special done on screen. It's probably not even a special effect. I'm referring to the moment in the OG Texas Chainsaw Massacre where Leatherface kills someone with a sledgehammer to the head. The victim collapses and convulses and the camera doesn't move. That's the movie. There are all of these awful things that happen to the slaves that are degrading and sheer torture. But there is no special effect. There's no cutting away. These things just happen. If the music swelled to a crescendo, it would oddly be more comforting. There would be something artificial that we could grasp onto, reminding ourselves that it is just a movie. Instead, McQueen focuses his camera right on the action and refuses to cut away. Often, the only soundtrack to these sequences is the rise and fade of cicadas in the hot Georgian summer. That's way worse. The most famous shot in the movie is the long cut of Northup hanging surviving because he chooses to by the tips of his toes. But that's typical of the entire movie. The entire movie is that brutal long shot that reminds us that it takes only a second to understand that people died on the regular. All it took was a choice to accept death.
Northup's story is extremely compelling, but seeing slavery through Northup's eyes is probably the most viscerally upsetting thing. Northup's relationship to other slaves is torture. Early in his kidnapping, he befriends Eliza, who will not stop moaning about her children. We all relate to Northup in this moment. He needs her to stop, not only for the sake of his own sanity, but for the good of Eliza herself. But his condemnation of Eliza shows the instant caste system that happens when people are oppressed. He has completely compartmentalized his family and it is a criticism on him for being able to do so. There becomes this attack that also points back on himself. He questions his fidelity to his children and that's heartbreaking. But even more reflective of the dangers that Northup is in are the small moments. Eliza is a memorable character. But the most haunting moment of the film is when Northup tries to escape for a second. He runs in the woods a few feet before he realized how densely violent the South was during this period. He runs into slave trackers hanging two Black men. And they simply expect Northup to be used to something like that. The notion that death is casual is disturbing as get out and that's just the way it was.
Yeah, I'm going to go there. We're close to this era again. I mean, there are a few steps that need to happen for this to be legal, but movies like 12 Years a Slave remind us what life would be like if we didn't have laws forbidding these kinds of acts. There used to be a time where the majority of America would instantly think of slavery as abhorrent. I'm sure people would still say that they find slavery disgusting. But I'm also a lot more cynical about America than I was in 2013. If slavery became legal again, there would be a vocal minority who would embrace it. Then there would be all these people claiming that it would be those people's rights to have slaves. It wouldn't take as long as we would think for the world to return to this and it really really depresses me. I've seen more racism in the past four years than I thought imaginable and it depresses me.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.