In the case of 12 Years a Slave
, I foolishly did the one thing that always sabotages a movie for me: I read the book shortly before I saw it. I naturally tend to adapt the screenplay in my head whenever I read a book, and the actual movie inevitably frustrates me because they didn’t make the choices I would have made.
As I said yesterday, I feel that this movie has to be seen in the context of McQueen’s previous two features, which seem to show that he’s far more interested in suffering than in struggle. Of course, in many ways, the result was exactly what we needed this movie to be, for two reasons:
- Both because every other movie featuring slavery has failed to capture the depth of that suffering, and...
- Because it’s true to the experience of the vast majority of slaves, who never got to choose between suffering and struggle, because the first was so mandatory and second seemed utterly impossible.
So this movie was trapped by its historical role: since no one else had yet risen to the task, it had to be the
movie about slavery, and it wasn’t allowed to be a
movie about slavery...but I wish it could have been, because many amazing and painful peculiarities of Solomon Northrop’s struggle were frustratingly left out in the interest of telling a more universal story.
Despite being an avid reader of slave narratives, when I first heard about this movie, I had never encountered Northrop’s story. I was not only happy to discover this existence of this amazing story, but I was instantly impressed by what a perfect choice it was for adaptation, because the story has inherent qualities that made it so much more valuable that other slave stories.
The most obvious reason, of course, is that it has an ostensibly happy ending, making the whole thing much more bearable for an audience, but it goes much deeper than that.
It’s hard to write a slave story with irony. There’s no chagrin
in being a slave, there’s no self-recrimination
…What is happening to you is so totally outside your control that you can’t possible reproach yourself about any part of it, and it’s so totally evil that you can’t have any conflicted feelings about it. But strong fictional characters usually benefit from having doubt, guilt and recriminations. We want characters to be proven wrong so they can correct their false statements of philosophy and false goals….but slaves are just way too unambiguously in the right
But as soon as I heard about this
story, I thought “Ah-ha! That’s
how you do a story about slavery!” For this one
slave, the condition would
be ironic, because he would be unable to keep from saying, “I
don’t belong here, I’m not a real
slave, I’m not like these others!”, but every time he thought that he would feel horribly guilty: After all, did anyone
belong here? Are the others “real slaves” any more than he?
The arc of such a movie instantly presented itself to me: Finally, after eleven years or so, he comes to accept the truth that he is no better than these people and he is truly one of them, and only then is he torn away from them and told by lawyers that he is
better after all, which now seems like an obscene notion to him. What a harrowing emotional journey! What brilliant irony!
Shortly after hearing about the movie, I tracked down and read Mr. Northrup’s amazing book, and I discovered that this sort of irony is not a big element there, but of course it wouldn’t be, since, like all pre-war slave narratives, it’s primarily a work of advocacy, and including a big psychological component would not serve that advocacy. I still felt that it would be perfectly logical and inevitable to include that element in any adaptation.
The other potential problem for adaptation that the book presented to me what that Northrop made so few attempts to escape, and I wondered how sympathetic that would be onscreen, but I simply assumed that the adaptation would play up the steps he did
take (For one, during the original journey to New Orleans, he did successfully send a letter to his wife telling her of his situation, but she was unable to locate him, and for another, he fled into the swamps more than once, only to be brought back), and show that, in his mind, he was always in the middle of some (quixotic) long-term strategy to free himself…
…But when I saw the movie, I was shocked to discover that the movie went the other way…
- Rather than foreground his few attempt to be free, it eliminated most of them. Crucially, though it left in the second two attempts at a letter, many years later, it eliminated the first letter on which he hung his hopes for the first ten years.
- Even more baffling, most of that painful irony that seemed to be generated so naturally by this story was ignored by the filmmakers. There’s never any real sense of Solomon feeling any guilt-wracked superiority to his fellow slaves.
And so we arrive my main concern: we finally
get a movie about slavery with a black writer, a black director and a black star…but it still
denies its hero agency
, which has always been a major criticism directed towards movies about blacks that have been made by whites
This is largely a movie about watching Solomon suffer in stunned silence. As I said, that’s probably the more honest choice, but it’s a frustrating choice for a moviegoer who’s hoping to bond with the internal
dilemmas faced by a character. The movie denies itself some clear opportunities to connect its audience to Mr. Northrop’s ironic internal state in favor of examining his suffering in a very external way, freezing us out instead of sucking us in.
Wouldn’t we have felt that suffering more deeply and painfully if we had been aware of how it contrasted with the pitiful hopes for freedom that he cherished because of that first letter? Wouldn’t we have felt more agony if we had been made to share Northrop’s inevitable guilt-wracked feelings of superiority to the other slaves?
Of course, I’m aware of how ridiculous it is to raise these concerns: We finally have a movie about slavery made by black men, and along comes a white guy (born and raised in Georgia no less, whose grandfather’s grandfather was a confederate soldier) telling them that they did it wrong! The sheer cinematic power and historical import of this movie combine to make it a great masterpiece and exactly what we need, and the fact that guys like me didn’t get to stick our noses in for once is a wonderful thing. But I can’t help feeling a little frustrated by some of the choices.