I recently saw 12 Years A Slave for the second time.
The first time I saw the film, at the cinema, with a screen so large it swallowed you whole and a sound system that ensured every wail and whimper cut you to the bone, I felt traumatised. Black bodies were flayed and brutalised, left without dignity or hope.
Later, thinking back on what I’d watched, I was of two minds. Films such as 12 Years portray a seismic and yet frequently dismissed history, the origins of a legacy still borne and profited from to this very day. However, they also exist to qualify a sort of liberal white guilt that often facilitates self satisfied exoneration or navel gazing rather than the altogether more difficult expression of empathy or productive introspection about complicity in systemic racism and national historical accountability. The audience watches this litany of pain and hardship, inflicted upon both flesh and psyche, and they flinch, gasp and shed tears, until they finally depart, wearied and low of spirit. Ultimately, many leave with the carefully preserved and static representation of bruised and bloodied blackness; for our bodies are never far from violence on screen, as either perpetrator or victim. They take with them another chapter in film which determines that black history is one solely of Western oppression, one rooted in the suffering of colonialism and slavery.
I long to see more films where people of every race are afforded roles that transcend pigeonholing and clichés; where nuance, complexity and contradiction are extended to the characterisation of all. Admittedly, there are slow but meaningful changes taking effect, as the discourse about race and it’s bearing on both success and opportunity is continually expanding and the awareness of just how underfed certain demographics are is at last being recognised. This year has seen La La Land produce a number of important works helmed by or starring black people: Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, Issa Rae’s Insecure, Donald Glover’s Atlanta, Marvel’s Luke Cage, Ryan Coogler’s Creed, Hidden Figures, The Birth of a Nation, Ava DuVernay’s The 13th, Raoul Peck’s James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro, Fences, Jean of the Joneses, Queen of Katwe and many more.
However, 12 Years a Slave, several years on and with an Academy Award forever a footnote of its institutional success, will always be a work of art. Devastating and assured, the immense power of Steve McQueen’s searing cinematic creation seemingly overcomes all who watch it. As a historical film, as the partial means of giving both voice and name to ghosts of an unfathomably wretched past, there is no denying the enormity of its necessary and deeply important task, of bringing an authentic slavery narrative out of virtual obscurity, especially in light of the unmitigated mess that was Tarantino’s highly damaging and disingenuous Django Unchained.
This second viewing allowed me to pay a little more attention to the unspoken, to not only what was portrayed, but how it was portrayed. I could see little beauty the first time around, only bleakness and brutality. But McQueen’s wide camera angles choicely unveil the complicated beauty of the Deep South; achingly romantic and sedate shots relentlessly punctuate the misery endured by Solomon, Patsey and their peers, making the effect all the more galling. Hell resides within Paradise, or rather Hell could be mistaken for Eden at first glance, especially when there are so very many trees.
If those trees could talk – what abject horrors would they tell us? Fortunately, Solomon Northup’s memoir survives to provide an invaluable testament of just what he lost, everything he withstood, and all that he witnessed, and I would staunchly recommend it, for the film is an unflinchingly faithful and sensitive adaptation of his incredible account.
The second time I watched the film, I was also reminded of the words of Strange Fruit.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the roots
Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant South
Them big bulgin’ eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias clean and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burnin’ flesh
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the leaves to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop.