Slave to critical correctness

12 Years a Slave


Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt; directed by Steve McQueen

Critically commenting on this film, one runs the risk of being labeled a “critist” (not to mention another -ist) — that is, someone who engages in cinematically snobbish criticism. Sure it’s possible to play it safe and exclusively praise the laudable qualities of this film — its great acting, pacing, authentic look and feel, unflinching brutality, compellingly true story, emotional poignancy and vitally important subject matter. That would be the “critically” correct thing to do.

But then one could be attacked for being a slave to critical correctness, which is equally egregious if one is to be true to one’s “critical code” of honesty and integrity. It’s not about being insensitive to the subject matter; it’s about being truthfully evaluative of the way it’s depicted.

In short: damned if you do, damned if you don’t. And because of that, an important clarification is in order before reading further: Although there are some critical observations below, they are in no way meant to suggest that this film (or any slavery focused film) should paint a rosy picture, tamp down, excuse, or temper the appalling awfulness of this period in our history. Rather, they are meant to suggest that all films, no matter what their subject matter, are open to analysis, opinion and examination of their elements, techniques and messages — even if those may be influenced by temporal distance, subjectivity, or lack of direct experience. The added risk here regards a film based on a book of one person’s personal experience. The observations below are not intended to deny or diminish those, only to reflect upon what appears on the screen.

Chiwetel Ejiofor from 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen.
Photo courtesy of Jaap Buitendijk

So, at the risk of being damned, here are some “critist” observations:

Vicious Whites: Films that focus on slavery typically depict white slave owners (and even many greedy northern whites) as vicious, inhuman monsters. Of course there were atrocities and even the very activity of slavery is savagely brutal and an abhorrent affront to morality and humanity. But that is an irrefutable given. Sure, even in this film we have a slave owner — the first to own an African American named Solomon Northup, on whose life this is based, a northerner who was free, kidnapped and forced into slavery — depicted as less sadistic than later whites, but he is still a slave owner and by definition (and action) morally deficient and cruel to other human beings. That cannot be avoided no matter how his actions are tempered. And there is the white character at the end who helps Northup. But his views are still modulated as he is engaged in business dealings with white slave owners. This suggests that we are all complicit, even if we never lived in those times or harbor those views. Not having lived in these times or even assuming what a racist mindset is like, it begs the question of whether this was so universal (were there any “humane” slave owners? Is even that a contradiction in terms?), or is cinematically based on the need to show the brutally sadistic aspects for the sake of drama and expressing a message?

The Angelic Northern Whites: Seemingly to overcompensate for the white monsters in the South, slavery films typically depict northern, non-slave owning, non-slave trading whites as heroic saviors. In this film, African Americans are treated by northern whites as if they were a part of their own families — as equals. That’s as it should be — by today’s standards. No doubt class divisions were present in pre-Civil War times, and no doubt these corresponded to racial divisions (though certainly not exclusively). But, judging by slavery films like this one, such divisions were either nonexistent or, again, not worthy of dramatic depiction for other, larger (and arguably more important) objectives of showing the stark dichotomy of white approaches and attitudes at the time.

Shakespearean Language: All of this film’s characters — white, black, rich, poor, educated, illiterate — speak in highly stylized English. Not just airy prose, but word choices and structures that even Shakespeare would appreciate. This again could be another attempt to suggest — like many other slavery films — that we are all complicit. But instead it detracts. Did everyone talk like this before the 20th century? Is it language lifted directly from Northup’s book?

Rape by Whites: No doubt this occurred as part of racist slave-owning white males’ repertoire of repression and sadism. But (are you sensing a pattern here?) one wonders why it must be included in every slavery film. Is this about slave-owning white males’ sexual perversion? Of the perversion that is inherent in slavery itself? Not intending to refute these atrocities, just being a tad “critist” in wondering how prevalent this was irrespective of the impression conveyed by slavery films that it was perpetrated by nearly every slave owner.

Slavery and Religion: It appears that Christian religious teachings are equally culpable in supporting a slave culture, according to this and many other slavery films. We always seem to get a character whose sick passion for slavery is founded upon scripture — or at least such justification is attempted through Biblical citations. Again, is this an effort to depict the all-encompassing rationalization of the ill-treatment of fellow humans? Were there any slave owners who found slavery an affront to religious doctrine, but found other ways to rationalize the scurrilous practice? Or maybe slavery itself so twists and pollutes the mind that anything can be construed to support the activity? This last point is suggested in this film by the near demonic zealotry with which the final slave owner uses religion to visit brutality on his slaves.

Black is White: In an effort to present the universal culpability for the horrors of slavery, this film (and many like it) depicts Northup as a passive observer. He is not a slave in the traditional sense as he lived among the white educated and social elite as a free man before being abducted, and he does not seem to be especially interested in the greater cause of rescuing slaves or the wholesale ending slavery. He is more focused on saving himself and getting back to his former life of safety, comfort and respect. A “critist” could even go so far as to observe that Northup is deliberately portrayed this way so as to provide a sense of how a white person would react to such a situation — even a “twilight zone”-like depiction of a white person being taken for a runaway slave and forced to see what it’s like and thereby be repulsed by it and hopefully providing an educative, transformative experience. Although this is an interesting cinematic approach, it is akin to many slavery films by suggesting that audiences haven’t yet gotten the message that slavery (and racism) is atrocious and we thus need films like this that make it feel closer to home.

The N-word: Not having counted, it seemed that the use of this word was no more or less pervasive than in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, a slavery film full of stylized action and colorful characterizations. However, unlike with Django, this film has not been subjected to the raft of criticism leveled at Django for its uncomfortably ubiquitous use of this slur. A “critist” observation explaining the unequal treatment might be that Django was directed by a white man, and this film is directed by a black man. Or, it could be that this film is intended to be serious, while on the surface Django was broadly satirical and possessed over-the-top (almost cartoonish?) characters and action. Nevertheless, Django still possessed the same sorts of slavery film elements involving the horrors and complicity of slavery as does this film. Either this word was widely used during slavery, which means it is appropriate for any film depicting that era, or it was not. Without some clear sense that it is being used for nefarious or illegitimate reasons in a film, it’s hard to appreciate the disparity in reactions to its use.

At the further risk of being called a “critist” (but hopefully not any other -ist or -ism), there isn’t much new here that hasn’t been said before. Its poor showing at the box office may be a reflection of this fatigue — not fatigue regarding the need to be reminded of our slave-holding past (just as we should never forget the Holocaust or any other such awfulness and the factors that may engender their repeat), but in the sense that audiences may be exhausted with the topic in the same way that audiences turned away from Iraq war films. We have seen enough. We get it. It’s bad and we were bad for allowing it. And we don’t relish being reminded of the perpetration of it and the stinging effects on humans and humanity.

All in all, this reaction may in fact be a positive sign of progress (being repulsed by evil and abuse). But then again potential moviegoers will be missing out on a powerful, quality experience at the multiplex.

Doug Young is an award-winning film critic for The Colorado Statesman. He also serves as senior policy director in Gov. John Hickenlooper’s Office of Policy and Research.