Seven Takes on ‘12 Years’

Links and observations on the movie of the year.

A scene from Steve McQueen's '12 Years a Slave,' which expands to more area theaters this week.


A scene from Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave," which expands to more area theaters this week.

After opening exclusively at Malco’s Paradiso theater last Friday -- and perhaps being a little lost locally in the midst of the city’s biggest annual film weekend, with the dual arrival of the Indie Memphis Film Festival -- “12 Years a Slave” expands today to six more area theaters. The film, from black English director Steve McQueen and African-American screenwriter John Ridley and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, is based on the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northup, a free man of New York who was abducted and transported South into slavery.

It’s the movie of the year in so many ways, and also something more than a movie. Here are a few thoughts and observations as it prepares to meet a wider audience, especially locally:

1. If you haven’t already done so, you should read our John Beifuss’ terrific four-star review on the film, which he says “encapsulates a national crime as one man’s tragic experience” and “enters the conversation as a lamentation, an accusation and an explication.”

Beifuss opens his review with this assertion:

“‘12 Years a Slave’ is not only the most powerful and remarkable movie yet produced about our national shame, but also the rare film about history and race that does not seek to absolve, comfort or flatter the mass audience it must reach to be a major commercial success and to stake its legitimate claim as perhaps the most significant American feature in years.”

2. Columnist Wendi Thomas comes at the film, unseen, from a more personal vantage point, weighing the decision to submit herself to what would be a draining, anguished experience. “Should I wait for the movie to come to Netflix, so I can ugly cry in the privacy of my home?,” Thomas asks.

3. The most essential writing done on the film, though, probably comes from Pulitzer-winning African-American critic Wesley Morris, working for, who writes brilliantly within the bones of the film and also of his own personal experience of watching it, but also pulls off a provocative connection between the meaning and iconography of the film and elements of contemporary pop culture. Two observations from Morris, in particular, grab me:

4. Morris writes: “This isn’t a psychological movie, but the roots of so much national pathology are here.” He means this in any number of ways, from how whites have viewed black men and women to how African-Americans have viewed themselves over the course of American history. (As usual, writing in racial terms brings home the crudity of the language.) But one thing I was struck by was how well “12 Years a Slave” depicts a slave society as something that morally and psychology corrupted the slave owners themselves. But it does so, crucially, without drawing any parallel between this and the degradation and brutality visited upon the enslaved. Movies aren’t truth; not even docs. But this feels like the most honest and perceptive visual depiction of the slave society of the antebellum South we’ve ever seen.

American cultural history is littered with depictions of this world based on the comforting-to-some lies that the Southern slave society told itself. Perhaps the film medium’s most successful spectacle, 1939’s "Gone With the Wind," is basically a grand celebration of this lie. More recent correctives -- such as “Django Unchained” -- have tended to make the villainy of the slaveholder too easy and familiar. “12 Years a Slave” shows complex people who have let themselves become monsters by submitting to the monstrous system around them.

5. Morris also writes: “The power of McQueen’s movie is in its declaratory style: This happened. That is all, and that is everything.” A visual artist by trade, McQueen’s previous films, "Hunger" (which I liked very much) and "Shame" (which I found to be a pretentious dud), were actually more aesthetically ambitious than “12 Years a Slave.” He seems to be intentionally muting his style here, and for good reason. It’s shameful that our most persuasive cultural medium -- “history writ with lightning,” as President Woodrow Wilson said about another film built on a false depiction of Southern slave society, "The Birth of a Nation" -- has so avoided serious consideration of the most momentous topic in American history. But that’s the reality that “12 Years a Slave” confronts. It asks you to look at this, plainly. Finally. Because you can’t get past something you’re unwilling to go through, and we’ve been averting our gaze for generations.

6. The history of film depictions of American slavery is paltry. “Roots” is a cultural touchstone, but quickly dated. Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad” and “Lincoln,” as well as the Civil War film “Glory,” are all honorable to one degree or another, but take on the subject only glancingly. Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” converts the subject into a gonzo revenge fantasy, with mixed results. (I thought Tarantino’s irreverence was pretty pointed for much of the film’s run-time, but that he was ultimately more interested in commenting on other movies than on historical reality.)

One film, though, that deserves a much greater audience than it’s found is Charles Burnett’s “Nightjohn,” a made-for-TV (Disney Channel, believe it or not) adaptation of a young adult novel of the same name. An African-American filmmaker, Burnett is one of his generation’s most under-recognized talents, perhaps best known for his 1979 debut “Killer of Sheep,” a hardscrabble tale of family life in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles that I count among my very favorite films. “Nightjohn” stars Carl Lumbly as a former runaway slave who secretly teaches a young slave girl on his plantation to read and write, a crime punishable by death. Dealing with a subject as profound as slavery in an honest way while also making it accessible to a young audience is so tricky as to be seemingly impossible, but Burnett pulls it off here. While bypassing the graphic scenes depicted in “12 Years a Slave,” “Nightjohn” is smart and provocative about the economics of slavery and the institution’s moral logic. It’s available on Netflix and perhaps, if you hunt around, piecemeal on YouTube.

7. The honesty of “12 Years a Slave” makes for a stark juxtaposition with the now-muted but still-lingering profanity of Memphis’ anti-historical monuments to the slave South: The statue of Jefferson Davis that blights Front Street in tribute to the segregationists who erected it and the statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest on Union, the presentation of which amounts to an abdication of public history to those who still romanticize what “12 Years a Slave” reveals. (I’ve written about this on several occasions in my past life, including here.)

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