Wood points to a key fault with many of even the most liberal and best-intentioned films depicting slavery: they distract attention from fundamental evils by focusing on the sympathies and sensitivities of white audiences. This tradition of appeasing white audiences was central to the success, for instance, of the phenomenally popular 1984 TV mini-series Roots. In that case, the producers were careful to highlight white actors in promotional materials and to not only deliberately increase the presence of white characters in the story, but also to provide more positive and sympathetic white characters than Alex Haley's book had. The head writer of the TV series, William Blinn, said, "It was ... unwise, we thought, to do four hours of television without showing a white person with whom we could identify." Roots also deliberately emphasized the inherent goodness of the United States and the exoticism of Africa in a way that Haley had not. Africa became, in the words of scholars Lauren R. Tucker and Hemant Shah, more like "an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institute than the living, breathing, thriving community Haley describes."
The precedent of these patterns and proclivities may condition many viewers' expectations for what is acceptable and appropriate in a movie that depicts slavery. Our idea of what a "slave movie" is or should be gets coupled with our idea of what a "great movie" should be, and that's further coupled with our expectations for what makes a movie Oscar-worthy. These assumptions shape the lenses we wear when we sit down to watch 12 Years a Slave.
Steve McQueen is aware of these assumptions, and part of the power of his film derives from his careful acknowledgment and then undermining of those assumptions. The wonder of 12 Years a Slave is that it is, indeed, fully a movie about slavery, a great movie, and an Oscar-worthy movie.
It is a movie about slavery in a way that almost all movies concerned with slavery have not been. It pays attention to details of slave life with rare patience and precision, vividly conveying not only the horrors and humiliations of that life, but the basic details of the labor itself: what it is to pick cotton, what it is to cut sugar cane. Further, because this is a film for an adult audience, a film not seeking to be shown as an after-school special, it does not flinch from the violence inherent in the slave system. As he did in his first film, Hunger, McQueen allows the camera to linger on bodies in pain. This is not violence as spectacle — the actual representation of blood and gore is no worse than the average episode of Criminal Minds or Bones. But the violence feels more graphic than anything in a splatter movie, never mind network TV, because McQueen is willing to let pain linger.
Further, our identification is consistently with the victims, which keeps the pain meaningful. In the book Twelve Years a Slave, Northup speaks of the power of the slave system to make callousness contagious, and especially of the power that witnessing daily atrocities has to numb even the best souls and turn otherwise peaceful people into brutes. "The influence" he writes, "of the iniquitous system necessarily fosters an unfeeling and cruel spirit, even in the bosoms of those who, among their equals, are regarded as humane and generous." We similarly worry about the effects of representations of violence on audiences — could watching even the most honorably and realistically-presented acts of violence have the effect of inuring us to its horror? Could a well-intentioned film about slavery, one that tries to represent its viciousness without blinking, instead dull viewers' concern?
It's a problem that 12 Years a Slave confronts through the time it spends on particular people and images, and thus the manner in which it asks us to think and feel our way through the narrative.
In an early scene, Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a man born into freedom in the north, has just woken to discover he has been kidnapped and bound in chains. He denies that he is a slave to his jailer, who takes a paddle and beats him. We see the board smash into Solomon's back again and again, but from a side angle, not one that shows us the damage being done. We see some bits of blood here and there. We hear Solomon's screams, see the agony on his face, the torture through his muscles. We see the paddle splinter and break. The scene goes on longer than most directors and editors would let it, but it needs to: to cut too soon would be to allow it to be less painful, more entertaining, more a spectacle. We may think: "Okay, I get it, he's being beaten. Okay, can't we move on? Isn't there a story to get to?" Finally, it stops, and we are relieved.
But McQueen is not done with this. We might relax as the next scene begins, as we are ready for our emotions to be given some moment of respite, but this is, in fact, masterful misdirection. As Solomon talks with a slaver, the man tells Solomon to take off his ruined shirt. We see Solomon from the front. The shirt is, indeed, torn and soiled. Reluctantly, he removes it. Finally, we see the shirt's back: fabric soaked with blood. The audience I was with gasped at this moment. We had let our guard down. We knew, of course, what the paddle would have done to his back. We knew, intellectually, the pain inflicted. Here, though, we felt it in a deeper way than if we had simply seen Solomon's back as he is beaten, or immediately after.
12 Years a Slave is distinct because, again and again, McQueen chooses to make his film more about experience than information. Many incidents from Northup's narrative are either barely glanced at or skipped altogether. The challenge for any adaptation of this story is to fit the experience of twelve years into two hours.
And this is where 12 Years a Slave reveals its greatness. First, there is the triumph of its structure (how much of which is the responsibility of screenwriter John Ridley, I don't know, as I haven't seen the script). The film begins with Solomon having been a slave for at least a few years, learning to cut sugar cane and trying desperately to figure some way to write a letter to someone, anyone who might be able to help him. This information is mostly established visually. At night, as Solomon is approached by one of the female slaves (we don't yet know anything about her) for sex, the experience is unfulfilling for both, and then the film moves us back into the past as he remembers a much more satisfying moment with his wife when he was free.
Why start here? Why not just tell the story in order?