Shades of Grey
During the publicity blitz for 12 Years a Slave Steve McQueen told a BBC interviewer that he didn’t make films for white people. Whereas it’s hard to see how this self-important and intellectually shaky proposition applies to the likes of Hunger and Shame, one can understand it as a statement of intent framing the true story Solomon Northup; a mid-nineteenth century musician from New York, who was kidnapped and sold to plantation owners. McQueen’s obviously of the opinion that previous cinematic treatments of slavery, spearheaded by white filmmakers, have stopped short of recreating history in all its brutal and unsentimental ugliness. He may have a point. White Hollywood’s been dealing with its guilt for decades by casting the American south as a backward, racist bog, populated by half-wits and Jackie Gleason but slavery is typically the manacled elephant in the room. Everyone knows that’s the spur for these movies but it’s seldom depicted and when it is, it’s flippant and cathartic like Tarantino’s Django Unchained. This is not a criticism anyone’s going to make of McQueen’s treatment.
12 years… might be thought of as his Schindler’s List. Like Spielberg, he’s not allowed anything as trite as geography to prevent him claiming the history as his own; an ancestral pain that must be confronted and reconstructed as a corrective to those who’d bury its poison legacy. Legitimate custodian or no, he’s made a film that’s superior to Spielberg’s holocaust chronicle. List was marred by the imperatives of the optimist; a filmmaker who ultimately wanted to give his audience something warm and uplifting to cling on to in the midst of all that death and suffering. McQueen opts to tell the truth instead.
His film is a nuanced and sober treatment of an inhumane period. There’s no girl in a red dress here, no grab at pathos, and certainly no cathartic ending; Northup may have been liberated but his fellow slaves stayed behind; just human nature and with it a reminder that people don’t snap to fit a social system, whatever its moral underpinning. Consequently we have sympathetic slave owners, grateful slaves, tyrannical masters who nevertheless desire their best workers and unsympathetic blacks, shanghaied and scornful of those born into slavery that are thought too meek to rise up and free themselves.
McQueen’s film can claim to be unflinching without being sensationalist but it also doubles as a well-judged piece of social history. The great rejoinder to those that would try and write off the movie as a stoker of racial tension is that in Obama’s America the social effects of the system explored here with such anthropological deftness can still be seen and felt. One of the first lessons Chiwetel Ejiofor’s slave is taught by a fellow captor is to hide his education and ability to read and write at all costs. His white masters would sooner kill an educated black man than take the risk that he may use that social advantage to rise up and usurp his owners. Indeed, the entire system is predicated on keeping blacks docile and impoverished to consolidate and reinforce the power of the ruling whites. You don’t need to be an historian to work out that abolition did very little to correct this injustice and that it survives to this day, dividing an America that lacks the conscience or political courage to redistribute its borrowed wealth by way of descendent reparations.
In a film marked by great performances across the board (and Brad Pitt), that cannily contrasts the beauty of Sean Bobbitt’s Louisiana backdrops with scenes of human deprivation and violence for maximum impact, we’re left in the unusual position of being presented with a movie that comes close to being a total success on its own terms. This is history alert to the many gradations that inform any fully formed understanding of the past; history unbound. Sure, it’s worthy in both senses of the word, perhaps that was inevitable given the subject matter, but black and white audiences alike will appreciate the craft on display, as well as the reminder that history’s never just black and white.