On ‘12 Years A Slave’

Film journalist and writer Johanna Schneller opened the press conference for ‘12 Years A Slave’ at the Toronto International Film Festival saying “It’s difficult to say we love this film, we like this film, because it’s so tough.” Director Steve McQueen immediately responded “You could love it, you could love it.” Schneller backed up with “we do… it’s a necessary brutality.” The protest left of her down the long table, populated by dedicated members of the cast, quieted. From there, Schneller proceeded to try to discuss the ethics behind the making of such a “brutal” film. But first she dove “right into the deep end”, asking if it was possible to talk about race in America. McQueen’s eyes darted, his brows knit close in utter confusion- he was clearly appalled by what the deep end meant to this Canadian journalist asking him about his film- hard-earned, closely examined, painstakingly, and lovingly crafted. He said in an earlier interview that “When you think about Goya, who painted the most horrendous pictures of violence and torture and so forth, and they’re amazing, exquisite paintings, one of the reasons they’re such wonderful paintings is because what he’s saying is, ‘Look – look at this.’” That is the answer. How can we discuss what we don’t feel anything about? And how can we find empathy if we don’t see suffering? McQueen chose to discuss the making of the film and directorial intentions for the difficult, brutal, violent, very real story of a Nineteenth Century man named Solomon Northup.

The cast rightfully followed suit, describing their individual and collective commitments to telling the story of their journey as performers. The director, writer and producers, Brad Pitt, Dede Gardener, Jeremy Kleiner, Anthony Katagas, Bill Pohlad, Arnon Milchan, and Tessa Ross, got funded and labored over the creation of Northup’s story for a worldwide audience precisely because they all believed that Northup and his story are worth knowing about. There is no doubt about that; no one produces a film they don’t think people should see, but further, Solomon Northup’s story says so much about the human indignity brought forth by the system if slavery because Northup was born and lived, married, and worked free. He had a deeply ingrained prior sense of equality in Saratoga, New York, so he is, as McQueen and co-writer John Ridley have stated, extraordinarily relatable.
Northup deplores the system of masters and slaves, as well as their buyers, dealers, bankers and loaners: the money, the greed, the weakness of the families of plantation owners to those materials, against the bodies and minds of other human beings. The color of his skin had not barred him from enjoying his life in New York, but in the blink of an eye, he was chained- a totally different man. One who had everything a man could hope for up North, but who was nothing but a “Georgia runaway” in the South. His shock did not cease during his captivity on different plantations- sugar cane, corn, cotton, timber. The mild mannered Preacher Ford, the sadist drunkard Edwin Epps, the weakling Tibeats, and the mysterious Mr. Eldret. This is a story about slavery as a system that took freedom from black people, not as much the later continuation of horrors in the racially divided Southern states- a continuum, unending and terrifying. This is film: a story is told.

McQueen’s view is that by taking a free man and enslaving him, audiences would be exposed to a greater sense of empathy and would be even more appalled by the system of brutality. Schneller missed the core, but I understand why. For example, I would ask Gaspar Noé about why he felt it necessary to show his pregnant female lead being sodomized in a tunnel in ‘Irreversible’. Why create a sadist? Why rape a protagonist? Because it happens? Because it happens to women and she is one? In the case of Northup’s story, it happened- it’s documented history. To Noé and other filmmakers who write up violent fictions, entertainment is the highest value, but a story that really happened lends us to sympathize on the level of justice. The instinct of having to tell a story about inhumanity is, however oddly, more understandable than someone having the urge to create stories about abuses they’ve imagined. Schneller skated a slippery slope on that line of thinking. Regardless, McQueen’s sympathy for his protagonist is clear and his intentions are amply justified by the historic documentation surrounding the harrowing tale he has out in theaters, now. In the end, Schneller and McQueen did agree on the part about the violence being necessary, the cast just had to explore with her why they would choose that kind of struggle.

For McQueen and the cast of ‘12 Years A Slave’, it is, as Alfre Woodard explained, the duty of the filmmaker and actors to tell the whole truth about a real story, otherwise “you’re disrespecting the audience.” It is about what free people did with their freedom during the pre-Civil War era. Brad Pitt’s character risks his financial well being freeing Ejiofor’s Northup from Epps’ plantation. Epps revels in his power, lashing even those he supposedly loves for the twisted sake of the system, sometimes calling it his Biblical right.

The core, freedom, is an invaluable topic of deconstruction in film, and here McQueen has done it with a true story of a black man who knew freedom was his no matter his situation. To do justice to him and all who were brutalized in his era, and even now, his story was told unflinchingly, so that we may confront the history, recognizing where indignity still lies and perhaps how we may serve those who suffer under it- whether it be our own selves or our neighbors. This film should inspire us to value and promote freedom in our time where it’s still an imaginary state to aspire to.

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