The political intentions of Twelve Years A Slave are so intertwined with a delayed justice that it is with a great deal of hesitancy that I would criticise the film, but although the film portrays the abuses of slavery in rarely seen and upsetting ways, the film itself suffers from a certain amount of abstractness that dulls its power.
The director, Steve McQueen, was a visual artist who had won the Turner Prize with his short films. His use of the visual image launched his career and has been admired in his other work such as Hunger and Shame. And long slow shots are a trademark in both films.
Yet this is the problem with the film. Slavery in this film is depicted in a series of elliptical scenes, images and moving images. It is very beautiful, but slavery is reduced to a sort of succession of poetic images: melancholy, transient, savage and eternal. The characters have very little sustained dialogue amongst each other and there is very little development of character. There is a sad, haunted Solomon Northup with a great deal of focus on his eyes, yes, but a character fully immersed in the horror of his circumstances, no.
The film is beautiful, yet it does not pull at the emotions in the way a film on this issue would be expected to. The lack of a strong narrative and the paucity of character development means that very little identification with the characters is buit-up. We see very little of Solomon Northup’s interactions as a free man, very, very little about his own personal journey from free man to one who has to adopt the mantle (and manacles) of slavery; and the state of slavery itself seems to elicit few words or scenes of great power – brutality, yes, but powerful, impacting scenes, no.
Many of the actors have been praised for their performances. I cannot help but think there was not much in the way of sustained performance. It is all contrived scenes and mournful looks and movements. Just beacuse the subject is weighty does not mean the performances are great; they aren’t great because there is nothing for the actors to get their teeth into. Few characters respond to another’s speech and scenes although long, involve a lot of silent staring. And characters suffer from an inconsistency at times that seems incongrous – however, having seen no consistent development they may not be inconsistent. Time is unrecorded so we have no idea whether brutality follows on brutality or if they are separated by months or years.
People may recoil from horror at this, yet in certain ways I preferred Tarantino’s depiction of slavery. Slavery was an institution, and like all human institutions it is eminently human and corruptible. The masters and slaves in Tarantino’s film are human beings, human beings who are diverse, idiotic, grotesque and noble. In McQueen’s film, they are close to melancholic zombies upon whom outrages and humiliations bestow a timidity and predisposition to slow, foreboding looks and languidness. Slavery was not all like this.
In an interview, Steve McQueen stated that the costume designer took different types of soil samples to help her get the colours right for the slaves’ clothing. That’s a lot of energy wasted on a trivial point. Why not go to a museum of slavery and see what they actually wore? I think this small omission sums-up a very worthwhile and important film that shows huge artistry but fails as a narrative – too much art and not enough truth.