Will at Lawrence, KS' The Merc, not afraid to let his freak fowl flag fly. Happy Thanksgiving, y'all!
Sometimes I like to play a thought game with friends: what is the furthest point back in time that you feel some connection with? Not a "they dressed so cool back then" kind of connection, but an actual lived, personal connection. For me, that's the 1860s-ish; the U.S. Civil War era. There's probably a deeper psychic connection for me, as the rending of the "North" from the "South" prefigures and reflects my Southern parents' permanent migration North in the 1950s. And from a very young age I was interested in the notion of "race," obviously a key contestation in the Civil War. But very concretely, I met my great grandmother when I was a child (she lived to be over 100). She was a well-loved matriarch on my father's side of the family. Only when I was much older did I discover she was the daughter of a lieutenant in the confederate army, a founder of a small Georgia town chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. And while she was born just after the war, her father was very likely a slave owner, as public records show his father had owned 10 or so enslaved Africans when he died.
That knowledge always feels like a particularly strange return of the repressed, for I was interested in African-American literature and culture long before I knew about my own concrete involvement in the brutal and forced migration of Africans to the disunited States. My backstories on it are thin, but my family lineage keeps me linked to the past that, as Faulkner famously said, isn't really past.
So it was with great anticipation that I finally saw Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave" yesterday. The film is based on a classic slave narrative written by Solomon Northrup, a free man who was kidnapped and forced into bondage before being returned to his family in the North. While the film's release has prompted some commentary that it is simply another in a long line of cinematic documents of our horrific slaveholding past, in fact such observations are short-sighted. Yes, last year we had Quentin Tarantino's brilliant revenge fantasy, "Django Unchained" and Spielberg's predictably turgid "Lincoln" (with it's offensively marginalized African-American characters), and Lee Daniels' "The Butler" is out, but in reality, there have been very few significant films made about the seemingly Hollywood textbook-ready stories of drama and suffering at the core of the uniting of these states of America. (And films like Spielberg's "Amistad," with its obsessive focus on the white male savior figure, shouldn't count.)
What is so extraordinary about "12 Years a Slave" is its placing of the truly epic horrors of slaveholding plantations within a quotidian, ever human context. We've seen McQueen's non-narrative, art filmmaking skills translate beautifully before into more mainstream films, like "Shame" for example. Beyond his gorgeous sense of frame composition, his techniques are relatively simple: the long take, the cut from human misery to beautiful nature. These essentially poetic techniques (evocative of Terrence Malick's "Days of Heaven") are so effective that one wonders why we don't see them more often, even in the commercial Hollywood context.
McQueen is not afraid to make the southland itself look beautiful: the stately mystery of Spanish moss covered trees, gorgeous sunsets, opaque swamps. And the little human textures he keeps coming back to--blackberry juice swimming on a dinner plate, the crisp promise of a roll of foolscap paper--keep the horrors of slavery firmly grounded in embodied experience. Paradoxically, it is these rare moments of banal beauty that bind our consciousness to the film, our conscience having long ago signed on to its morals. The overall pace or perspective of the film is one of a kind of Buddhistic presence, which works a fascinating tension with the claustrophobic panic in the violent scenes.
McQueen's keen eye for banal observation brings extraordinary power to the scenes of violence and torture visited upon Northrup and his fellow slaves. In one excruciatingly long take, Northrup stands on tip toe in the mud for the better part of a day, shifting ever so slightly to keep the noose around his neck from hanging him from the low-hanging tree limb above. While this plays out, slaves walk in and out of the frame, methodically going about their plantation labors, not so much ignoring but simply surviving Northrup's torture in order to survive their own. Torture in the foreground, life continuing in the background. The scene of violence is not a break in the narrative, is not an exceptional moment, is not ancillary to life; it coexists and even founds human experience, at once cries out for and forbids a human response.
Some have suggested that the 21st century is too late a date for films about such centuries-old oppression. It's true that we need significantly more films about contemporary non-white characters and experiences. But scenes like this one from "12 Years a Slave" do much to visualize, and "viceralize," the seemingly incommensurable level of trauma that marked African-American life for centuries. To think that that "past" is ever past is simplistic. The film is ultimately about the terrifying abjection and dehumanization power can visit on the body, mind, and thus the spirit--a topic that is sadly still quite relevant.