12 Years A Slave Steve McQueen (2013 Usa)

12 Years A Slave Steve McQueen (2013 Usa)

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12 Years a Slave Steve McQueen (2013
USA) Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt

Viewed: 14 Jan 2014, Empire Cinema
Newcastle; Ticket £3.95

As presented film, Steve McQueen’s 12
Years a Slave is little more than a soap opera tricked out with
predictable contemporary graphic violence. The big stars Brad and
Michael do their movie gestural facial acting without ever breaking
sweat. Ejiofor is a competent lead figurehead, but without a voice, who
takes us down the overlong narrative from its beginning until it gets
to its end. ‘!2 Years’ is a typical product of that Hollywood
production line that turns out noble but anodyne films.

But it is something more: it is also a
betrayal of its source material.

Camera replaces voice.

Steve McQueen’s movie ’12 years a
slave’ is based on the book of the same title written by free black
Northerner, Solomon Northup, about his experience as a slave. It is
remarkable work, both as literature and as document.

Published in 1854 and written in the
first person, it is a harrowing terrible account in which the author
explains how he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South. An
ordeal of brutal beatings and humiliation, a vicious existence as a
non-being that lasted 12 years before somewhat fortuitously Salomon
contrived his own rescue.

This classic work of American
literature might have seemed a natural fit for black UK director
McQueen. An opportunity to make a filmic statement out of a strong
clear black voice harking from the shadows of the nineteenth century.

Significantly though McQueen chooses
not to use Northup’s voice as the dynamic form holding the story
together. McQueen’s camera replaces Northup’s voice. Image
replaces insight. The clarity and understanding of Northup is
replaced by a mish-mash of camera angles that represent only
McQueen’s technical decisions. The camera replaces voice promoting
uncertainty of origination; and McQueen’s semi flashback structure
which looks cobbled together in the edit, replaces Northup’s straight
time line.
McQueen renders the material from
Northup’s book in the same way cheap hamburger producers render meat.
His film ends up like a pattie of cliche’d images palatable to the
taste of the consumer. ’12 Years’ is not so much a film more a soap
opera or TV mini series, whose scenario was designed to manipulate
Northup’s observations to pander to the prejudices of contemporary
audiences and Oscar juries. For the director who made Hunger, ’12
years’ looks like a sell out to the usual suspects. ’12 Years’ is
refusal to take on the contextualised material on its own terms.

’12 Years’ is the voice of a man:
Solomon Northup. A man of his time with perspectives informed and
fashioned by his age. As a voice of a man, if you do not respect it
but instead manipulate it for your own ends, then you are little more
than a mountebank. A thief laying claim to a false legitimacy of
ownership. Instead of writing his own script and filling it out with
his own retrojected contemporary conceits McQueen goes through the
process of dishonestly representing Northup’s work as something that
it is not.
Opportunistic fabrication characterises
McQueen’s film.

This is the voice of man. Solomon
Northrup’s account of his experiences in ’12 years’ retains its power
and more because read today it surprises us at every level. The
first thing you hear in this voice is a sensitised intelligence
grounded in character and experience. Intelligence as a resource
that is refined throughout Northup’s suffering. The second thing
that strikes the reader is that Solomon’s ‘intelligence’ informs not
only his intellect but also his emotions. This sort of intelligence
is difficult to understand. The pain inflicted on him by the white
race produced in Northup neither anger nor hate but compassionate
insight in the hollowness of the white psyche; an understanding that
a corrupt social system produces corrupted vicious individuals to
represent it. Like both Primo Levy and Nelson Mandala he rises
above the cesspit system of racially structured degradation and
annihilation arriving at a state of mind in which he sees clearly the
nature of evil. Finally Solomon Northup[ is sustained during his
torture by his faith in the Lord. It is faith that carries him
through. His ability to call on an externalised power (whether
projected or real) endows him with the psychic stamina to sustain
hope and finally take his chance. His faith in the Lord and the New
Testament is strengthened even by the slave owners selective use of
readings form the New Testament to their slaves. Northup sees at
once that it is an abusive attempt to justify what is indefensible
in Christian terms. These readings, judged by Solomon Northup to be
a distorted self evident insult to intelligence, are by McQueen’s
script exploited as an opportunity for cheap theatrical parody.

And in choosing the option of
theatrical effect and the spectacle over voice, McQueen’s film is
not true to the spirit of the book. The lie replaces the true.
But the betrayal of Northup’s spirit
extends into fabrications of the actual text that McQueen finds it
necessary to introduce. When Solomon regaining his freedom, returns
home after his 12 years, the film represents that his wife Anne has
remarried and her new husband is with her when she greets Solomon.
This is not in the book. In the book Northup writes that when she
heard he had returned, his wife Anne ran home from work into his

There are many ways of honouring truth:
literalism is but one. It can be honoured in the word in the spirit
in the practice in the structure. McQueen chooses none of these. He
seems to have taken a road in the development of his scenario in
which piece by piece what is true in Northup’s book has been
gradually discarded. All that remains is pastiche soap opera. In
which case why lay claim to Northup’s work? Instead like Tarantino,
fashion your own Slave story script and do what you want with it !
Make it film that panders to whatever values of history, history of
film and entertainment and indulge whatever anachronisms you want:
have your escaped slave call home on a mobile.

In this scenario of ’12 Years’: the lie
replaces the truth.

Adrin Neatrour


Author: Adrin Neatrour

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