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Why "12 Years A Slave" is like "Schindler's List," but in a crucial way Isn't

From left: Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o, Chiwetel Ojeifor
It's been three weeks since I saw "12 Years A Slave" by British director Steve McQueen. It's taken me this long to muster the strength to write about my response to it.

Whether you've seen it or heard about it, you've probably got an opinion about the story, and possibly about the way the story is told. I'm going to assume that most people reading this accept the truth of the story. But I also suspect that even people of a liberal persuasion (not the sort of people who call the Civil War "the War of Northern Aggression") might hesitate about seeing this film, because of the extremely upsetting depiction of the racial violence. To wit: the kidnapping of a free man, a real person called Solomon Northup, upon whose memoir the film is based; a savage beating on his first night of captivity; a transported slave being knifed to death and tossed into the ocean; grown men, women, and boys routinely being slapped and kicked; families being split up; a lynching where you see the hanged men's feet shaking in their death throes; a slow, almost-lynching torture scene where the central character dangles by his neck for most of a day, his toes only just touching the ground; the rape of a slave girl; and in the most horrifying scene of all, the slave girl being whipped almost to death by Solomon Northup, and Epps the maniacal slave-owner. That last scene in particular exemplifies the method of the film: keeping the camera fixed on the action, not moving a lot (except for one stomach-wrenching pan halfway through the whipping), building up the tension within the scene in an almost forensic way, and above all refusing to flinch from showing the worst sort of people doing the worst sort of things.

As I said, if people feel that they need to steel themselves to see this film, in the knowledge that it is extremely uncomfortable to watch, they are quite right. I think everyone should see it, or at least that its audience should extend beyond the "art house" category that it occupies. But that doesn't mean that someone's hesitation should be dismissed as a lack of moral fibre. In some ways, the film makes demands on the viewer that are not just bound up with the subject matter, but also with the way in which it's made. Steve McQueen is a conceptual artist who makes narrative films that still bear the stamp of art world video making. He made "12 Years A Slave" using only one camera, many of the takes are long, scenes are often framed with central perspective, and shot head on, with minimal camera movement, so that you are able to look longer at faces, objects, landscapes, and action. Many of those technical points are used within "art video" to play against the idea of narrative, which often is difficult to watch because it is tedious. McQueen uses similar techniques in this film to make a narrative that is difficult to watch because there is so little distance between the viewer and the violence.

Here is where I began to think about the comparison with Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List." Both films tell a story about one of the most horrific acts of mass murder in human history. Both films depict acts so repellent that you almost look away from the screen sometimes. Both films, however, were also made within the world of commercial film-making, with financing, studio backing, and therefore some awareness of selling tickets to a paying audience. In each case, I have no doubt that the writers and director grappled with the problem of how much violence to show to an audience so that it conveys the desired emotions, without descending into the disgusting schlockiness of horror films. Simultaneously, there is the problem of how much you can mitigate that violence without sentimentalizing the story or drawing a veil over the crimes.

In McQueen's case, there is definitely artfulness in the story. Most of the time you don't notice the camera position, framing, lighting, and so on, but it's all there if you look for it. Spielberg is, of course, far more advanced than McQueen in the technical aspect of film making, but the criticism that is often leveled at him when he turns to "serious" subjects is that he can't help sweetening the pill at some point. It's as if he's always afraid of pushing an audience too far in case they walk out of the theatre. Or that in the ends he still wants you to like him as a great director, so you will turn up for his next movie. He largely avoided these compromises in "Schindler's List," though not entirely: for example, during the great sequence showing the clearing of the ghetto, he can't help picking out a little girl from the black and white film by temporarily colouring her coat in a stand-out red. The real difference between "Schindler's List" and "12 Years A Slave"  is underlined by the ending of "Schindler's List." The last shot of Spielberg's film shows some of the surviving people whom Schindler helped save from the Nazis, walking towards camera over a hilltop. At the very least, this seems to be Spielberg emphasizing that there is hope, even after something as awful as the Holocaust.

McQueen, on the other hand, refuses to offer the audience any comfort at all. Solomon Northup may be reunited with his family at the end, but it cannot erase the shame of what came before: the shame that the slave holding class deserves, the shame that the slaves endured, and our shame for being temporary witness to that history. As the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates said: This was a crime committed in broad daylight. And nearly everyone got away with it.


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