Thursday, February 20, 2014

Best of 2013 #2, Part 2: Concerns About 12 Years a Slave

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 and irony, 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.


James Kennedy said...

"The Guilty Meddler," episode 1?

j.s. said...

I haven't read the book. I've only seen the film once. And yet his internal struggle couldn't have been more clear to me.

I think you're seriously understating the extent to which the film subtly portrays Northup wrestling with his feelings of superiority and difference internally. I'd argue that it's the subtext of nearly every scene in the film and that the writer, director and actor consciously chose to build their film around this struggle, which is why scenes that might otherwise feel gratuitous or repetitive or play better in a book where we have direct access to the character's reflections manage to convey so much tension and emotion.

Fortunately, your claims are eminently testable. The film is still in theaters, about to come out on Blu-ray/DVD and already available for rent from some pay streaming services. We could all watch it again and follow along with another post that's a detailed beat by beat analysis of Solomon's arc or of full on run through your checklist.

j.s. said...

Baring that, the most natural road map for Northup's development is the Kubler-Ross stages of grief.

I've said before that Solomon has a Rites of Passage arc. Often these arcs are about "acceptance." But not so much rolling over passively or merely giving in to one's Fate as the sort of profound acceptance that goes hand in hand with deep humility and radical serenity ("the things we can not change..." etc.). Always lurking in the background of such an awareness is a true confrontation with one's mortality. We're talking Buddhists meditating on bones type stuff.

I'm also reminded here of Brian McDonald's second book THE GOLDEN THEME, where he elaborates on these ideas, positing a kind of Ur-theme beneath all stories, one that's haunted by the inevitability of human suffering and eventual death: that we are all the same.

The key moment in this arc for me comes when Northup joins a group of slaves singing spirituals at a funeral. I've had some people tell me he looks utterly broken in this moment. They take it as a low point. I don't disagree with that. I might even say he himself doesn't understand the full significance of what he's doing by giving himself over to the group. In Kubler-Ross stages he's right on the cusp between depression and acceptance.

And the possibility of Northup's physical freedom doesn't occur until he's crossed that threshold.

But there are so many other moments in the film that you could see this way. The whole sequence of standing up to the white slave driver is some of the most external action in the film, yet the entire point of it is the horrible realization at the end that the well educated enlightened cultured plantation owner doesn't care about Northup's legal status or past history. That the integrity of the system of slavery itself is what matters. Here Northup's halfway between anger and bargaining.

Then there are more subtle interactions with fellow slaves. In one scene Northup scolds a grieving mother, who can't stop crying for her stolen children. This isn't only about the obvious things -- his surface annoyance in that moment of trying to concentrate or the slightly deeper reminders of his own family he's trying to keep at bay. This is about the fundamental nature of his bargaining with his Fate. On the order of, "Okay, I'll accept this, for now, but that doesn't mean I actually have to experience it. I'll just chose to hold myself back, to not interact, to not feel."

Because acceptance isn't really true acceptance unless you accept all of the feelings that come with it and truly allow yourself to feel them. This is a common misconception/mistake that religious novitiates make too. They imagine that somehow a life of prayer or meditation will remove them from the tumultuous passions and emotions of the outer world. When the entire aim of these practices is really the opposite -- to experience everything fully, deeply, and honestly without denying it or letting it overwhelm you. To see things as they truly are.

And it's precisely such a transformation that allows Northup to so powerfully bear witness, not just to his own experience but to all the suffering of the others.

You can actually track this change in Northup where it's most obvious near the end, in that scene where he's forced to brutally torture Patsey in front of everyone. He doesn't steel himself they way he might have earlier. He's fully present in that moment with himself and with her, and it's somehow, even in the midst of that horror, a little bit better for him and for her than it might have been otherwise.

(Btw, the letter thing makes more intuitive sense to me. I feel like three letters is one too many. And if you used that letter device so early on -- especially because nothing comes of it -- you're kind of blowing the juice of using it later.)

Matt Bird said...

I agree that the arc is there to a certain extent and discernible if you look closely, but I feel that we would have bonded more strongly with the character if that arc had been more acute.

j.s. said...

I guess then I'm asking how you'd make that arc more acute, how you'd let the audience in more, without completely altering the nature of it.

I feel like this kind of story -- about serious internal spiritual growth and struggle -- is pretty much the hardest kind of thing to do in the medium of film, which necessarily privileges external action.

Some of the better ones I've seen use all sorts of tricks to distract us from what's really going on beneath the surface. Lest we notice that, externally, the protagonist is largely passive. Or that s/he's grappling with the big uncomfortable questions. I'm thinking of picaresque existential Western comedies like LITTLE BIG MAN and THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE, whose subtexts tell tales of hard-won humility and profound acceptance.

12 YEARS A SLAVE by its very nature can't be fun or funny. It can't fill the screen full of busy events -- as enslavement is largely about stasis -- or hide its seriousness behind anything. The suffering it foregrounds is relentless. Perhaps that's a part of why it's hard to see past it.

But, as you've said, you have to show the all of the suffering, because anything less is a lie. And I think it would be an equal mistake to attempt to amp up Northup's internal struggle or externalize it in some kind of louder, less organic way just to make it more legible to even the most casual viewer. You'd probably wind up with a mediocre melodrama instead of the nuanced drama we have now.

Matt Bird said...

I agree. It's tricky. I would have liked a little more dialogue. What would I have done?

- A scene before he's enslaved where his daughter asks him what a slave is and he tries to explain how they're different.
- More scenes of him trying to explain to people that he doesn't belong here.
- More scenes where Patty calls him on the carpet for thinking he's better.
- More of a "corrected statement of philosophy" scene when he realizes the truth.

I agree that these all would have made the movie more melodramatic and less of a solemn testimony to this horror, and so they movie we got was probably the right way to do it, but if we had more raw movies about slavery, then this movie would be more free to milk Mr. Northrop's story for its drama, instead of being so solemn.

Parker said...

Alright, I finally watched this movie, and I think I like the subtlety and don't feel the irony needed to be played up more.

I'll point out the scene where, in a flashback, Northrup buys an expensive bag for his wife while a slave wanders into the store and watches in awe. Northrup doesn't play up his own superiority here; he tells the slave's master that the slave is "no trouble" (and should be allowed to enter the store). But it's one of those moments in the film where the audience is aware of the confusing separation between free Black man and enslaved Black man. Moments like this one underscore the irony without making Northrup the one who has to espouse his own superiority; the audience does it for him (feeling uncomfortable while doing so).

I agree that the moment when Northrup sings the spiritual with the rest of the group was a moment when that tension in the audience finds some release. Northrup is no longer different from the other slaves. Then, when Northrup returns home, we're painfully aware of how his slave demeanor still hangs on him as he apologizes to his family for being gone so long. He has gone from superior to inferior, and it's a really sad moment, but also one that again underscores that idea that there's no difference between a man who's "supposed" to be free and any other slave.