Tuesday 21 January 2014

12 Years a Slave

    Critical reaction to 12 Years a Slave is, to say the least, very interesting. Sometimes it’s really good - one of the first pieces I read was Carole Boyce Davis’ short article here. It gives you a brilliant sense of the limits of McQueen’s film and it’s worth reading before you see it. It raises all sorts of questions about what is, and probably isn’t, possible in Hollywood today.

5 Reasons ’12 Years a Slave’ Is No Oscar Lock: Backlash, the Unseen and McQueen

     This article by Osterweil in Aljazeera America isn’t so good. It’s a very broad piece that makes a couple of good points but is obviously wrong on some issues and just plain obvious on others. Anyone remotely interested in film will know the damning statistics about the representation of non-whites and women in Hollywood – in all aspects of the industry. Nor will they be under any illusion that the Oscars or any other awards celebrate the best films or the most innovative films. They are a celebration of glitz and glamour and if they manage to get a few decisions right then all our smiles are a little wider for a night or two – that’s all. Not that we can’t be reminded of this but I think Osterweil joins this up with some inaccurate criticisms of McQueen’s film.

     Some of Osterweil’s criticisms of the film are a little bizarre. He writes that “the film portrays the North in 1841 as a racism-free place where black and white live in harmony” yet two of those white people arrange for Northup to be sold into slavery and McQueen is careful to include the scene where a fearful black man, obviously desperate for a better life, follows Northup and his family into the shop only to be hauled back by his ‘master’. Or “white characters get much more dialogue and characterization than black ones” and the slaves are “mostly-silent extras whose graphically suffering bodies make us feel bad about slavery” – urgh! Chiwetel Ejiofor is in almost every frame and dominates the film whilst McQueen tries to allow us to imagine how difficult it would have been for the slaves to speak out or help each other. His rhetorical question about the use of famous white actors is interesting but he doesn’t answer it! I can answer his question though. First the film is for anyone that loves and appreciates film; secondly he wants to begin two sets of dialogues. One with tens of millions of Americans who are unaware of their own history – do I really need to produce one of those sets of statistics that shows how clueless they are? The second with the American film industry that has historically failed to address the horrors of slavery. Go on, think of all those brilliant, nuanced films about slavery. You’re spoilt for choice aren’t you? Glory has lots of good points but Amistad is dull with extra added dull. Give me Django Unchained any day.

    After careful consideration (lol), I also reject this paragraph:

In the predictable ending, the good white people outmaneuver the evil white people and return Northup to safety. The obvious defense of this dramatic device — “but that’s what really happened!” — shows exactly how “based on a true story” shuts down critical thought. The point is not to question its factual accuracy: The film by all accounts keeps quite close to Northup’s memoir (although some scholars debate the memoir’s veracity). But that objection ignores the fact that the filmmakers chose to tell this particular story and to tell it in this particular way.

   Really!? My overriding feeling as Northup left Epps’ plantation, leaving many others to an uncertain, probably horrific, fate wasn’t anything to do with good or evil white folks and nor is this the film’s secret message, its lasting message, its implicit message or its ideological conclusion. He got lucky, though lucky doesn’t really sum up his experiences does it? Nor does saying it is “based on a true story” shut down critical thought – what condescending bollocks! “Twelve Years a Slave, one of the longest and most detailed slave narratives, was a bestseller when it appeared in 1853” (Sarah Churchill - 12 Years a Slave: the book behind the film. Guardian. 10/1/14) seems, for McQueen’s purposes, a perfectly good choice. Don’t get me wrong I can’t wait for his film of the Haitian revolution, his biopics of Toussaint Louverture and Frederick Douglass or his epic about the impact and bravery of slave revolts but forgive me if I don’t get my hopes up to see those films any time soon. Maybe I’m wrong – maybe Hollywood producers are sitting down with Robin Blackburn and a new generation of black filmmakers as I write now.

   Hands up – my sarcasm has got the better of me. Danny Glover is STILL trying to get his film about the Haitian Revolution off the ground.

   What’s just as interesting this year is that whilst 12 Years a Slave has had nominations in all the various awards so far, it isn’t winning many. That despite the fact that it really is the best movie produced in Hollywood this year. Yes film fans it really is! Bradshaw’s review in the Guardian gets to grips with why most cinephiles of any political stripe are excited. The film represents an evolution of McQueen’s technique and the film skilfully, beautifully and innovatively marries structure and content – basic stuff really. Does that mean it was the best film made in 2013 or even the most interesting film made in the USA? Probably not, but so what? Furthermore, whilst its critical reception has been unanimously positive – 97% on Rotton Tomatoes - you don’t have to look too far for all sorts of snide tomfoolery on various film blogs and websites – some would have you believe it’s nothing more than a horror film.

   Other factors: is McQueen’s film typical Hollywood fare? It was made for $22 using a tight filming schedule. Filming in Louisiana helped reduce costs because of state rebates. Nonetheless $22 million was relatively cheap and compares well only with Philomena($15 million) and Nebraska ($12 million) amongst other award season contenders: American Hustle ($40 million), Captain Phillips ($55 million) and Gravity($100 million). It looks like Fox fronted all the money so it is a Hollywood production though its director is an auteur who has thus far only made two low-budget films about respectively, Bobby Sands and a sex addict.

   So why isn’t the film winning more awards? Could it be that McQueen and his producers knew what they were up against – conservatism at all levels of the film industry and American society? Churchwell is bang on when she writes 12 Years A Slave “was produced as a corrective to a century of Hollywood sentimentalising and glorifying slavery”, and that leaving out details of Northup’s life – he might have been a bit of a rogue! – “is neither surprising nor objectionable”.

    She is also right to conclude:

But slaves don't have to be saints or their masters monsters in order for slavery to be an atrocity: our stories will remain trapped in simplistic pieties until we can admit that a man could be a rogue and still have been martyred by a barbaric system in a land that has yet to accept the terms of William Grimes's offer, and admit how bound its constitution is by the flayed skin of its victims.

    I’m not convinced there are that many simplistic pieties in McQueen’s film though clearly I’d love to see a film that pays greater attention to resistance and revolt. Still, I hope lots of people see it and I hope it wins a few gongs come Oscar night.

    For me McQueen has made a film without easy answers, a film that dramatizes a real, impossible situation, whilst providing lots of historical and social detail. It gives us a real sense of how the system brutalised people and placed fetters on their actions and their imagination. You could say it does so by reducing the narrative to one individual’s journey and the interiority of that experience; that implicitly it becomes imperative that you ask yourself how you might have behaved in the same situation. Perhaps you could easily see that as a limit on its credentials – too liberal and bourgeois. There are undoubtedly truths in such criticisms but they are also part of the film’s great emotional and interrogative achievements.
    Go see it and join the debate.

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