At first it looks like an ornate latticework, but there is no way to separate the scars from the man. Most of us are familiar with the image, although few know the name of the most iconic whipped black man whose tortured skin has been reproduced so many times. Sitting in a chair was Gordon, a run-away slave from Mississippi. His flayed back has since the 1860s been the foremost visual representation of the institution of slavery in the USA. It is as though Steve McQueen in 12 Years a Slave wanted to make a “before”, or a “during”, of the making of backs such as Gordon’s. In one of the most excruciating scenes in a painful film Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) shows us a similar back with the wounds still open. It is here that McQueen’s gaze is most piercing. As in Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011), he shows without mercy the continuation between the individual human body and the bio-political mass of the species, of human life. And it is not only a story about victims. The striking thing about Gordon’s back is that the violence inflicted is so direct and, strangely, bestially human. It is like a visual accompaniment to the obvious lie that we can opt out from being our brother’s keeper, as much as an admission that the keeping is often perverse.
Steve McQueen’s film about the “peculiar institution” and the real-life freeman Solomon Northup from upstate New York who was kidnapped by slave traders in Washington, DC, does not shy from some obvious symbolism. Indeed, even Northup himself was keen, and justified, to point out (in his 1853 book Twelve Years a Slave) how his first days in captivity were spent in a house with a view of the Capitol: “The voices of patriotic representations boasting of freedom and equality, and the rattling of the poor slave’s chains, almost commingled.” McQueen’s ambition is, however, to lift the specific story from the outrage at not being included in the “We the People” part of the US constitution. The capitol is there, but we are confronted with a film that on a gut level seeks to portray not so much a particular socio-economic system as a universal body-life disciplinary conjecture, in which one group is singled out as property of another.
McQueen’s cinematic language is eminently visceral, his ability to show the link between the body and the physical world is unrivalled in today’s cinema. This is why his long shots of faces peering out into something behind the spectator is so different from the lyrical transcendentalism of Terrence Malick. There is no idealism to take refuge in; the body is the world. It is here the visual art background of McQueen is most evident. He is best, in other words, when he is less obviously cinematic. This also makes him a perfect candidate to finally try to approach the topic of slavery that has hitherto been so taboo on the screen. But there is something that goes wrong in 12 Years a Slave. For some reason McQueen is tempted to take steps away from his visceral materialism. Strictly speaking is it a tendency that was there from the beginning of his career. When he makes concessions to cinematic tropes there is danger in sight. In particular this can be seen in his ham-fisted approach to flash-backs, closing of temporal loops and the use of music. The flash-back scenes in Hunger and the music sequence on the New York subway in Shame come to mind.
12 Years a Slave adds something to McQueen’s repertoire of unfortunate cinematic compromises, or whatever we label them, namely a stilted and formal spoken language. This introduces a veneer of the theatrical period-drama, coating the materialism unnecessarily. “Luxuriate” was a word popular in the 19th century, but here it and its kind crop up in the most unexpected places. What must be a well-meaning attempt at historical accuracy comes across as contrived. But this is really nothing in comparison to the Romantic string music that paints scene after scene with undifferentiated affect killing the concrete suspense that McQueen has so meticulously constructed. He undermines his own project by, unconsciously, suggesting that it is enough if we have an experience of vaguely, and abstractly, feeling something rather than facing the full weight of different sensations. McQueen is otherwise a master in making us feel the body and realize that the mind can produce no escape route from it. With the strings he invokes a register of the Romantic Movement that for all its radical pretence keeps on stumbling into reactionary positions. In plain terms: pity takes over from the almost physical reaction to the unjust.
The story of Northup in McQueen’s hands thus fluctuates between the brilliant and the frustrating. The acting by Chiwetel Ejiofor is undeniably impressive, but it only feels as though Michael Fassbender scratches on the surface of the complex and brutal slave owner, Mr. Epps, he plays. There is an interesting attempt by McQueen to show how men can be brutalised and cowed into submission and fatalistic listlessness. At the same time he might be taking the image somewhat too far. That those not born free were so subjugated as to not actively seek freedom undermines claims for universality. Gordon, the man born a slave with the whipped back, did escape his tormentors thanks to his sheer ingenuity.
Furthermore, in the light of McQueen wanting to base his story on a real one it is strange that he chose to exclude the part where also Northup tries to flee. In the film we see him abandoning one such attempt after only a few steps. In his own account, Northup described an escape from his owner that was ever so planned as Gordon’s. Northup had installed fear in his master’s dogs by “whipping them severely” and thus “subduing them completely” in preparation for the moment he would try to escape. In this way he was sure that they were too afraid of him to attack. Gordon made do by fooling the dogs with onions. In the end Northup had to run away as to not be beaten to death, but was too far from help. He returned momentarily instead to his first, and more benign, master.
If we have to compare the visual impact of the photo of Gordon’s back and 12 Years a Slave there is no doubt that the former is still stronger. And this is not the result of some more privileged link to “the real” in a naive sense. McQueen has made a commendable and interesting film about a difficult topic but fails to live up to the most fascinating aspects of his own artistry. The risk is that the film will fade from memory as it gave us more the feeling of how it is to be a spectator of a cruel system rather than, as in the superior Hunger, drawing us into its painful essence.
Axel Andersson is a writer, critic and historian from Sweden. His works often deal with the intersection of cultural history and media theory. He is the author of A Hero for the Atomic Age: Thor Heyerdahl and the Kon-Tiki Expedition (2010).