History Rechained: Tragedy, Tradition, and ’12 Years a Slave’
With eloquent performances from an A-list cast, gorgeous cinematographic compositions, and a stirring soundtrack, 12 Years a Slave is a handsomely constructed film. It’s also a horrific one, adopting the role of belated historical exposé as it navigates slave-era America with an unflinching bleakness. Some reviewers have seen these two aspects of the film, the beautiful and the horrific, as oppositional, and criticized director Steve McQueen for making a movie about slavery that is too aesthetically appealing. The film’s visuals immediately come to mind. Whether of sun-basked willows or sprawling cotton fields at dusk, the movie’s extensive, photo-perfect landscape shots often feel at odds with the ugly brutality on display. But it is precisely through this juxtaposition that the movie implicates slavery. Much discussion has historically centered on the Biblical justification of the practice, and here the film takes its stance, suggesting through its images that slavery is unnatural, inhumane, and separate from God’s creation. We want to enjoy the scenery, but for every splendid visual, we get a whip being cracked and a face contorted in unspeakable agony. We are meant to sense disconnect because, as the film suggests, slavery and beauty cannot coexist. In this way, the movie moves beyond prettified historical drama to become a work of art that makes a statement.
But McQueen’s critics do have a point. Though I hesitate to argue that 12 Years a Slave is “too beautiful,” it does derive its “beauty” from a conventional approach to cinematic craft, one that ironically prevents the film from fully tapping the emotional force of its subject matter. McQueen, a meticulous filmmaker, demonstrates a masterful control of cinematic technique, but at times it is precisely this formalism that detracts from the movie’s power. There is a scene early in the film where Northup is savagely flogged. Rather than showing us the lacerations, the movie artfully reveals to us his wounds through the tattered, bloodied remains of his shirt when he takes it off. We notice this detail and recognize it as an achievement in subtlety but then catch ourselves noticing. In this moment, artistic craft takes precedence over subject matter, and we become slightly removed from the story on account of our self-awareness. This phenomenon occurs in several other instances as well, most notably the film’s many static long takes that foreground mise-en-scéne over emotional immediacy.
In a film where subject matter is everything, this level of remove can become problematic. It suggests that the film is trying to contain the vast, collective suffering of an entire people within the conventional cinematic paradigm when emotions should be allowed to fly raw and free. I’m talking not about the characters’ emotions, which are as anguished and real as any there ever was, but our own. However masterfully it may be constructed, a straight-shot depiction of a real-life tragedy is doomed to inadequacy because the reality of its subject is so overwhelming that it transcends direct representation. 12 Years a Slave is such a film, and though it ranks among the most compelling portraits of slave-era America I’ve ever seen, its emotional effect is diminished because it takes a realist, traditionalist approach to filming something that is fundamentally unfilmable.
On this topic, I am reminded of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a novel which chronicles the rotation of a company of American soldiers in Vietnam through a series of vignettes. In the book, O’Brien makes a clear distinction between what he deems “happening truth” and “story truth.” The former refers to the firsthand experience of an event as it actually happens. The latter is all about retelling that event in a way that conveys the essence of the original experience to a secondhand audience, a process that often involves embellishing and bending the facts. The two types of “truth” are objectively different, but the effects they produce, in the initial experiencer and in his audience, are arguably more similar than if the experiencer had recounted the event exactly as it had occurred to him.
Transferring this notion to the representation of slavery, two works come to mind. One is Toni Morrison’s Beloved, a book that employs magical realism to convey the intergenerational, psychological scars of slavery and the strength of spirit it takes to overcome them. By subverting realism, Morrison undercuts any grounds for comparison on the factual level. Her novel operates purely in the realm of myth and memory, maintaining a deep connection to reality without playing by its rules. In the end, we are left not with a distilled version of history but rather a passionate channeling of it, one that feels profoundly genuine because it represents reality subjectively rather than objectively, personally rather than faithfully.
The other is Tarantino’s Django Unchained, which goes so far over the top that it achieves what can only be described as hyperrealism. This means depicting slave-era atrocities with more carnage, cruelty, and ethical absurdity than the real world will allow. Some may see it as exploitative, but Kartina Richardson, former blogger for rogerebert.com, offers a fascinating alternative. As she convincingly argues, Tarantino’s film takes the violence so far that it forces us to respond viscerally to the horrors of slavery it depicts, something a more traditionally-minded picture like 12 Years a Slave can’t achieve. It breaks pre-established structures – of narrative, taste, and historical representation – in order to hit us harder and make us confront our dark national past head-on without the comfort of familiarity and aesthetic detachment. Due to our inherent psychological remove as audience members, the film has to surpass reality in order to make that reality real to us.
Both these works heighten the literary/cinematic experience beyond realism so that we the secondhand audience can experience firsthand reality as closely as possible. I would argue that they strike a level of “truth” that 12 Years a Slave cannot reach. Make no mistake, McQueen’s film is a powerful experience, and an important one. Its limitations ultimately arise not from its craft but from within the particular mode of representation it chose, which seeks to capture the enormity of a real-life tragedy at face value. It’s an impossible task, and though neither Beloved nor Djangocan claim to sum up the experience of slavery, they succeed more with their individual visions because they don’t try to. As Emily Dickinson writes, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” While the intended meaning of the original poem differs somewhat from the discussion at hand, the line applies powerfully. Sometimes, a slanted perspective is what it takes for us to see straight.