Having spent more than a year writing a book about the American Civil War, I had high expectations about Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. I saw it in Sheffield on Saturday, and it didn’t disappoint. Southern slavery has featured in a number of films over the years, mostly in ways that distort its reality or represent it in ways that reflect the expectations of white filmmakers and a white audience.
There is the rustic arcadia in Birth of a Nation, in which contented slaves play music to entertain their benevolent masters after a leisurely day picking cotton, before the Civil War and Reconstruction give them ideas above their station that require the Ku Klux Klan to put things right. Then there are the mammies and loyal house slaves in Gone With the Wind, appendages of white patriarchs and charming Southern belles and nary a whip in sight.
There were plenty of whips in the racialised slave-porn of 70s blaxploitation flics like Mandingo and Drun, which combined lavish doses of sadism with torrid but titillating inter-racial sex. Sadism was not absent from Quentin Tarantino’s brainless and blood-spattered ‘spaghetti-slave’ western Django, whose maniacal Mandingoesque plantatation owner Calvin Candie hearkened – not without a certain nostalgia – to the trashiness of 70s slave flics.
Somewhat improbably, Esquire Magazine described Django as a more realistic depiction of slavery than Spielberg’s more stately Lincoln, and even when so far as to hail it as ‘ one of the most overt attempts ever made to deal with the physical reality of slavery.’
Sadism and the ‘physical reality of slavery’ are not absent from McQueen’s searing and utterly unsparing examination of the slave experience. Based on the ‘slave narrative’ of the abducted freeman Solomon Northrup, 12 Years a Slave features some of the most gutwrenching and unbearably realistic scenes of physical suffering that have ever appeared on screen. But unlike Django and Mandingo, these scenes are not intended for vicarious titillation.
As in his portrayal of the Irish hunger strikers in Hunger, McQueen has a striking and disturbing ability to render raw physical pain, and bring the viewer into uncomfortable and claustrophobic proximity with the bodies that are being whipped, hanged, and beaten. Like Mandingo and Django, 12 Years has the stock figure of the sadistic master, in the form of Michael Fassbender’s sick and brutal plantation owner.
But whereas Calvin Candie is essentially a comic book caricature, Fassbender’s character is a product of the moral sickness of slavery and racism – a sickness that also extends to his equally cruel wife and the more beneficent, religiously devout plantation owner played by Benedict Cumberbach.
The sadism that McQueen depicts is not just dependent on ‘good’ or ‘bad’ masters; it is the essential component of an institutionalized system of forced labour, in which human beings are reduced to the status of ‘living tools’, as Aristotle once described the ‘barbarians’ of ancient Greece, and forced to spend their lives meeting production quotas imposed by their masters.
Though some slaves had better masters than others, McQueen demonstrates how the everpresent threat of terror and violence was an essential instrument of social control and subjection in the ‘old South’.
The suffering that McQueen describes is not only physical. 12 Years captures the essential sadness and emotional trauma of slavery through a series of astonishingly powerful performances, most notably from Chiwetl Ejiofor in the lead role as Solomon Northup and Lupito Nyong’o’s heartrending depiction of Fassbender’s doomed object of desire Patsy.
In one of the most painful scenes, a female slave sold with Northrup is separated from her two children. Brought to the plantation still weeping, her genteel white mistress casually consoles her by telling her ‘ don’t worry, you’ll soon forget about them.’
For McQueen, such attitudes are another consequence of a corrupt and diseased system – and the disease of racism itself. In the isolated Louisiana plantations that he photographs so beautifully, even the landscape seems to echo the prevailing corruption and sense of desolation and oppression.
This is most definitely not the world of Rhett Butler and Scarlet O’Hara. Nostalgic ‘Lost Cause’ narratives of the Civil War, from Birth of a Nation to Gone With the Wind, often lament the loss of a unique rural Southern ‘civilization’ destroyed by the industrial North.
McQueen’s brilliant and essential film is another reminder of what that civilization was based on.