Sunday, January 5, 2014

Under the Circumstances: 12 Years a Slave

In what is already the iconic shot of 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) digs his toes into the muddy ground his heels can't quite reach in order to avoid being choked to death by the noose around his neck. It's a gruesome yet painterly image, which makes it quintessential Steve McQueen. And as the director is wont to do, he holds this wordless shot for well over a minute so that we might feel Solomon's struggle and notice the nonchalance with which the slaves behind him return to their chores, either disinterested in his fate or painfully aware that they are powerless to intervene. In any movie about any man, this near hanging would make for a striking image, but here, of course, it takes on added meaning because of the significance of the subject matter. In this one shot, McQueen does much to sum up the entire American slave experience in which life was little more than trying to avoid slipping into death.

But after watching 12 Years a Slave for a second time, I wonder if a more significant shot might happen a little later in the sequence — after a fellow slave dares to bring water to Solomon, after the plantation overseer is seen pacing on the nearby veranda, waiting for his boss and Solomon's owner (Benedict Cumberbatch's William Ford) to return to determine Solomon's fate, and after a few slave children are spotted playing in the field behind Solomon, laughing obliviously. It's a shot of the mistress of the house (Liza J. Bennett) standing at the railing of her mansion balcony calmly observing Solomon, whose shoulders and rope-bound neck are out of focus in the foreground. In this one image, only a few seconds long, McQueen does much to sum up the institutionalized indifference that's core to not only America's shameful slave history but to any instance in which human suffering or inequality is allowed to persist in plain view.

In this sequence and others, 12 Years a Slave repeatedly observes the oh-so-thin and often arbitrary line that exists between those relegated to suffering and those allowed to avoid it, even if only momentarily. Solomon, of course, is Exhibit A: a free black man living in a home with his wife and two children one moment, who upon being kidnapped becomes a slave assigned the name "Platt" the next. But consider, too, the early scene in which a well-dressed black man walks into the store where Solomon and his wife are shopping for luggage, seemingly as free as they are until his white master enters, apologizes for the disturbance and leads the man away by the collar as if he were a loose dog. Or the scene in which another man on Solomon's boat toward slavery manages to be saved from that fate by his white owner and races off the boat without looking back. Or the scene in which Solomon, considering escape from the Epps plantation, manages to stumble upon and walk away from the hanging of another black man solely because he's wearing a pendant that marks him as Epps property. Or the scene in which Solomon avoids certain death by convincing the vicious Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) that he couldn't possibly have written a letter intended for delivery in the north, and Epps, buying Solomon's account that he has been hoodwinked by the duplicitous Armsby (Garret Dillahunt), a white man, says regretfully, "Were he not free and white, Platt. Were he not free and white."

Why are some deemed worthy of deprivation and others not? As Solomon tells Tibeats (Paul Dano), when it is suggested that the wood panels on the clapboard cabin he is constructing are uneven, "It's all a matter of perspective. From where you stand you might see different. ... I simply ask that you use all your senses before rendering judgment." As Mistress Ford gazes from her balcony at Solomon hanging from a tree, we can't be sure exactly what she's feeling, but it seems safe to assume she isn't using all of her senses. And given that Mistress Ford wouldn't have been born with an innate hatred or indifference to people with dark skin, it seems safe to assume that she learned to ignore those senses over time, ultimately seeing the world from a perspective in which the enslavement and brutalization of black people was perfectly appropriate. Solomon, on the other hand, is so aware of an alternative to this perspective that he deduces that his relatively compassionate enslaver, William Ford, must be a victim like he is, calling him a "decent man" who is a slaver only "under the circumstances." It's an assessment that echoes in memory later, after Ford cuts down Solomon from that tree and arranges his transfer to the Epps plantation to avoid the murderous wrath of Tibeats. "Whatever the circumstances, you are an exceptional nigger, Platt," Ford tells Solomon, "but I fear no good will come of it." Bottom line translation: You'll never be more than a nigger.

In that moment, as Ford shows a curious, inconsistent and yet unmistakable affection for the slave lying on his floor, still bound at the wrists and ankles, it's tempting to object to this injustice in light of Solomon's equally unmistakable exceptionality, and because of his documented freedom. (It's so obvious he doesn't deserve to be a slave! How can Ford not see it?) But that's the bait in this movie's trap. Solomon's freedom, of course, is no more justified than that of any other slave, and likewise his enslavement is no more inhuman. Indeed, this much should be obvious, and yet repeatedly Ford and Epps preach the Bible to their slaves while committing their ungodly acts. They get lost in Scripture, property laws, cultures and customs and ignore fundamental truths. And, sadly, these behaviors didn't end with the Emancipation Proclimation.

"It's all a lie," Solomon tells Epps after being double-crossed by Armsby. He might as well be talking about the pretenses we cling to anytime we ignore suffering and inequality around us, which for many of us is pretty often. There is a significant difference, it must be noted, between those who are legally and forcibly enslaved and those who held down "merely" by poverty, prejudice, inadequate education, limited opportunity and so on. Alas, there's less of a difference between those who looked suffering in the face and accepted it 170 years ago and those who do the same today, which is why I'm chilled to think that when I'm looking at Mistress Ford looking at a man hanging by his neck in plain view, I'm looking at me. All that's changed are the circumstances.


The Film Doctor said...

Nice to see that you are posting again. I like the way that dangling scene with Solomon gains power over time (instead of becoming dull, as most with lengthy static shots do), as the cicadas kick in, the kids play in the background, and the sunlight shifts overhead. The scene blends growing horror, banality, and cosmic indifference in a way that summarizes the rest of the movie. I also enjoyed the way McQueen never seems to be manipulative in his effects. The movie comes across as very straightforward, but by not commenting on the subject matter in the ways that we expect, it leaves the viewer to respond all that much more.

C. Ward said...

Amazing review. Literally the best thing I've read regarding this film...ever.