Five brief thoughts on a recent film. Ending will be duly spoiled sir, so take note.
1) Let’s start by saying this is a pretty difficult film to watch. Much like the terrific Hotel Rwanda we have a film which is as gruesome and horrific as any horror film but made a million times more powerful by the constant reminder that, yes, this really happened, and, yes, you should probably feel a little guilty that you or people like you allowed or encouraged such a horrible thing to happen. Directorial choices tell us with flair early on that this is not a film only about the past but a film about the world we live in now and asks us if even now have we made amends and turned society into what it should be. When Solomon is first kidnapped and the camera pans up from his window to show us the dome of the US Capitol building within sight, if you didn’t suddenly start thinking about the current republican party’s resistance to immigration reform and the way that state voting laws are being used to disenfranchise certain communities then you just plain aren’t paying attention.
2) Where the film really pushes further than previous dramas is in the depiction of the cruelty against slaves in the south at that time as an unavoidable and visible background noise that people chose to ignore. In perhaps the best single scene of the movie, Solomon is strung up and the other slaves and the overseer are unsure as to whether he should continue to be punished or to be cut down. In their fear, they leave him there, barely able to breath for a long amount of time until his owner returns, solely having the right to choose between his life and his death. The way in which Northup’s suffering moves from the foreground of a shot centred on him into the background of shots that track the other characters remind you that for the others this is just one more thing that through fear they have to ignore and to live through and to try and forget. Most of the flogging scenes also happen in the background of shots focused on other characters. To treat the race relations at this time as something private or behind closed doors is clearly not the case and the film succeeds in its boldness where others fail in making this clear.
Even the more sympathetic white southerners live in a kind of fear that they can never challenge this system and hesitate for their own lives when stepping between a master’s judgement of his slave property. I enjoyed that the more sympathetic character played by Benedict Cumberbatch was outed as being as much a scoundrel as anyone else by refusing to acknowledge the obvious truth that Northup is a free man kidnapped into slavery. To always show a balance of the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ slave owners in such dramas always seems like pandering and it’s correct to take the approach whereby the only categories are ‘bad’ and ‘worse’. Cumberbatch is uniformly excellent but the drama rests on the shoulders of Chiwetel Ejiofor in bringing a constant sense of humanity to the character on whose shoulders the entire film either succeeds or fails. He succeeds wonderfully.
3) Now onto the somewhat strange directorial decisions. The film surprised me by giving Northup almost no prior back story and very few lines prior to his kidnap. Whether this is true to the book on which the film is based or solely an invention of the script is unknown to me but the film resolves to explore who Solomon is through his ordeal of slavery, not to establish the character and then plunge him into his ordeal. We only know that he has a family and he can play the violin. We don’t know any more of his character, his past, his likes and dislikes and though a few more tidbits are provided in flashback, we really never do find out who the pre-slavery Solomon Northup is. I assume that the director chooses to do this to dissociate the character’s experience from being a historically grounded and anachronistic series of events and to instead make it into an experience onto which we could imagine ourselves. Northup is taken from civilisation to brutality by force and whether or not it is done through slavery, something like this could happen to any of us. In this sense, the decision pays off. Northup could be a civilised man of the North or he could be me right now slipped through a time portal. Opening the universality of the film makes sense and helps to move the film beyond the historical drama ideal that you get in excellent but otherwise dry and distant stories like Amistad.
However, the directorial decision that really defines the film is the ending. Once Northup is freed, we have one single scene where he is reunited with his now-remarried wife and then the film ends. Clearly, Director Steve McQueen wants the film to avoid hollywood cliche and the demand for a cathartic ending that somehow seeks to absolve the harm that has gone before. The film tries to leave the suffering as an open and untreated wound that again makes us think of current race relations and humanitarian infringements. Whilst this does disturb the audience in the way intended, it alienates too. The lack of a true end to the story is incredibly forced and arbitrary considering that the post-text informs us of Northup’s attempts to sue his kidnappers and to assist abolitionists in the underground rail road. By refusing to show the aftermath, McQueen turns Northup into a passive agent upon which the torture of slavery is inflicted rather than the historical actor he surely is. I am not sure the need for such a forced anti-catharsis is worth robbing Northup of his potential portrayal as a hero. I agree that avoiding a cathartic ending is a wise choice but in cutting the movie where it stands, it feels very much like the director trying to teach us a school room lecture and not at all like the ending a narrative film deserves. It feels very much like the sort of tiresome lecture we got from Michael Haneke in Funny Games. McQueen’s point is valid but he must accept that a slightly more fulfilling ending to the narrative arc would not take away the sting of his more horrific sequences if he handled it in a non-cathartic way. Northup’s cases failed, after all.
4) Remember that other film about slavery last year? No? Allow me to refresh your memory. Django Unchained. With hindsight, I bet Tarantino is happy that this film and his film avoided being released in the same year. Whilst Tarantino seeks laugher, yuks and action movie-dom in a way that this film never does, he aimed (at least according to his interviews) to make some kind of real point in typical brutal style. In truth he should be ashamed of himself. If Tarantino himself is all about great dialogue, long tension building sequences and horrific censor-testing violence then he must realise that this is the master-work and his film is so surface-level with regards to it’s subject matter, it’s almost patronising and insulting. Jaimie Foxx too must wish he could be in this film and not the one that he actually made.
5) Having bashed Django, there is something that both films share. Django’s Candie and Slave’s Epps are two sides of the same coin and possibly the most horrific thing about this time period that both films share. The idea that some of these plantation owners owned so many slaves but hated them all. They lived in near-seclusion in the countryside and must have spoken to their black slaves far more frequently than they spoke to their fellow white southerners and yet hated the people with whom they spent the most time. They chose in many ways to seclude themselves in a fantasy world where they were the only human around that mattered, building a kind of nightmare of superiority. Whilst they claim to detest black people as inhuman, they construct a world where they need them and their dominance over them is the only sustenance to their sense of self that they have a available. It’s scary to think about this kind of psychology – where we draw close those we hate because we enjoy hating them. Somewhere, someplace, in a tiny room a philosophy student is starting an essay about that right now.