A big point of contention with historical films on slavery (or The Black Experience, as it’s sometimes naively called) is the way Hollywood films miss the mark on communicating that experience to a mainstream global audience. These movies usually revolve around African or African Diaspora characters and their history between the start of the slave trade in the 16th century to the present day. In bringing these stories to film, Hollywood mostly employs white filmmakers that struggle to find the voice of the black characters in their film. These characters are usually passive, waiting for a White saviour, as in Amistad (Steven Spielberg, 1997), to change their situation, or are clichéd evildoers (e.g. Captain Phillips) whose motivations are barely put into proper context or are downright immoral.
In light of all this, 12 Years a Slave accomplishes several feats, striving to portray, in earnest, the society in which its protagonist lives, making us experience this historical setting from his perspective. 12 Years a Slave recalls the true story of Solomon Northup, based on his book, a free slave of the state of New York who was sold down the river and lived as a Louisiana slave for 12 years before being liberated. The first innovation of the film is instantly noticeable: both the director (Steve McQueen) and its writer (John Ridley) are of African descent, the former emanating from England, the latter from the US.
John Ridley is a well-known writer in Hollywood. His novel Stray Dogs was turned into the dark film U-turn (1997), directed by Oliver Stone and starring Sean Penn, Jennifer Lopez and Nick Nolte. He wrote the story for David O. Russell’s moral war comedy Three Kings (1999) with George Clooney. He’s also a playwright and has published seven novels. Ridley’s screenplay for 12 Years a Slave is arguably one of the best screenplays of the year. Its dialogues, rich and tempered, feel more inspired by the theatre than films and this only adds to the film’s enjoyment.
The film’s director, Steve McQueen, has burst unto the international scene with the critically acclaimed film Hunger (2008), which also lead to the discovery of Michael Fassbinder. McQueen’s style, subdued and visually masterful, was honed through years of short film productions and art installations. Admittedly, for the director, his brand of filmmaking is dark, but it helps in moodily depicting the world of 12 Years a Slave.
With such a talented creative team behind it, 12 Years a Slave has the makings of an instant classic film. However, looking historically at how Hollywood portrays non-whites, I had a lot of apprehension that the film would still follow Hollywood formulas and portray Caucasians disparagingly in lieu of the Black characters. The film itself is a mixed bag. Although Ridley’s screenplay is an extraordinary achievement, and that the film’s elevated by the presence of artful actors like Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Sarah Paulson, it suffers from some of the same afflictions as other Hollywood films in the same category.
One of the negative aspects of the film is its Black hero. It’s pathological the way Hollywood films portray black heroes as passive, often begging for help from White characters to defend them. For example, in Amistad and A Time to Kill, Matthew MacConaughey is the last bastion for hope and justice, defending blacks against the system which has wronged them. Djimon Hounsou also takes part in an abhorrent film on the Black condition, Blood Diamond, where the Black character wants to flee Africa at all costs for the perfect lands of Europe, while the White character is the one that loves Africa, his native continent, and sacrifices himself for that love. In contrast, Sweet Sweetback’s Badassss Song uncompromisingly opposes its principal Black character to the established power structure oppressing men like him. Its ending is a middle finger to the broader power structure and Hollywood in particular. Even in Black films outside of the mainstream, for example, Ousmane Sembene’s Guelwaar, the characters reject the imperative that their lives revolve around the Western world as well as most ideas on Africa and its forced expats: Hollywood reinforces the domination of the West with its constructed myths; personal films from black filmmakers seek to retrieve identity and culture through the mainstream’s smokescreen. In that regard, 12 Years a Slave doesn’t try to bite the hands who feed it, narratively choosing to set Northup as a character with a neutral impact, keeping his head down until his big break out, while a constellation of interesting White characters revolve around him, whether carrying positive or negative impact.
The highlight of 12 Years a Slave, the aspect which is the most interesting, is Steve McQueen’s direction. The arresting scenes of the film are the moments of sheer beauty: the candle-lit scenes; the languishing shots on cotton; the Black slaves subliming their pain and despair through song and community. It’s in those scenes, away from the trappings of history that we feel the art and the artist, the man that creates a transcendent piece, beyond the cruelty, beyond the preconceptions, beyond the politics
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