- Its painful subject matter, obviously, but also…
- Our culture’s refusal to realistically portray slavery onscreen until now, and…
- The movie’s revolutionary status as a movie about slavery written by, starring, and directed by three black men.
And I wasn’t presuming that to be the case: I wasn’t a big fan of John Ridley’s previous produced screenplays or Steve McQueen’s previous films. This movie carried over some aspects I didn’t like from each man’s work, but in service of this subject matter, the thing I objected to about each (Ridley’s misanthropy and McQueen’s obsession with suffering) became selling points.
So let’s start by trying to talk about what’s so great about it…then tomorrow I’ll move on to the concerns I had. For the other “Best of” movies, I talked about qualities of the movie that reflect advice we’ve previously explored…but it’s hard to do that here. This movie’s role is so unique, and the job it had to do so important, that to talk of the demands of the audience seems obscene. So let’s just talk more generally:
Given the centuries of romanticization and fetishization that have piled up to obscure and pervert our perception of slavery, the most important thing this movie had to do was simply to show the facts in the rawest, most matter-of-fact way possible: Show the casual nature of mothers being sold away from their children. Show the constant rape. Show the quotidian whippings in a way that lets us feel every lash. Just show it and let it lie, with no contextualization, no commentary, no distancing effects. That’s the main task, and it did it with startling power.
The most brilliant thing about this movie, of course, was the choice of Mr. Northrop as its subject matter. Tomorrow, we’ll get into more specific ways that the movie interacted with the text, but for now let’s just acknowledge the genius of choosing this story in the first place. One big problem with slavery stories is that the horror is so omnipresent that it threatens to become invisible. We know how horrific it is, but it’s hard to believe that they feel it in the same say, because they’ve never known anything else. Choosing one of the thousands who were kidnapped into slavery as adults is such an elegant solution to that problem. This way, we know that he feels our same indignant revulsion a thousand-fold,
As a filmmaker, McQueen’s great strength has always come in the form of two gazes: the unblinking eye of his camera, and his ability to craft intense performances can withstand that withering gaze. The amazing performances he’s assembled here are a testament to the power of that method. In his previous two features, I found McQueen’s obsessive gaze to be annoying, because I felt that he was substituting voyeurism for insight, but now he’s found a topic of such bottomless horror that an unblinking eye is the only proper mode of seeing.
The hunger strikers of Hunger and the sex addict in Shame were people who chose to suffer, for reasons good or ill, and it struck me as creepy to wallow in their degradation at such an extreme close-up, denied any distance or perspective. But here, I welcomed the chance to simply gaze nose-to-nose at the suffering and ask “Oh dead god how can you stand it??” That’s the big unanswered question of American history: How did the horror that built this nation persist? How could human beings inflict it and how could human beings survive it? In the faces of Chiwetel Ejiofor, his fellow slaves and their masters, we get an unprecedented chance to search their eyes for answers.
Okay, tomorrow, I’ll get to my concerns…