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Is '12 Years a Slave' Too Safe to Transform its Audiences?

By Roya Rastegar | Indiewire October 29, 2013 at 11:22AM

Richard Wright described problems of violence and inequity in the U.S. along these lines: "There isn't any Negro problem; there is only a white problem." Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave" is a narrative of this "white problem." Beyond debates of whether the film is historically accurate, overly sensational, too brutal, or tame, an expanded reading of "12 Years" reveals a historical phenomenon rarely portrayed so explicitly on the silver screen: the pathology of white racism.
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12 Years A Slave

Editor's note: A version of this article was originally published on the author's blog. It has been repurposed here with her permission.

Richard Wright described problems of violence and inequity in the U.S. along these lines: "There isn't any Negro problem; there is only a white problem." Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave" is a narrative of this "white problem." Beyond debates of whether the film is historically accurate, overly sensational, too brutal, or tame, an expanded reading of "12 Years" reveals a historical phenomenon rarely portrayed so explicitly on the silver screen: the pathology of white racism.

The film establishes Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) as an intelligent, respectable freeman of color, living with means and a beautiful family in Saratoga Springs until he is kidnapped and sold into slavery. Slavery is something that happens to Northrup. He must learn to adapt. His character arcs when he sings a spiritual with other slaves, marking a kind of acceptance of his enslavement. The audience can sympathize with Northrup's situation with the benefit of knowing that it will end. The title affirms it. Twelve years for Northrup, 133 minutes for the viewer.

But this is all too safe a viewing experience for a film that is meant to disturb. Slavery is not a universal experience and does not transcend race. Slavery did not just happen to white people.

"12 Years a Slave."
Fox Searchlight "12 Years a Slave."

The praise of the film as the "ultimate testimony to slavery" strikes me not only as disingenuous, but also dangerous. Other, at least more honest, reactions have been disappointment, disconnection, even, boredom. With the spectacle of violence (especially on the bodies of people of color) so well-worn on screen, this disengagement is because viewers are not able to empathize with the characters.

To elicit empathy, a character's fears, joy, flaws, and strengths must be felt, deeply, by the viewer. Northrup's situation is certainly compelling; it's devastating, horrifying. But in terms of his character's development, there is little indication of how Northrup humanly endures his enslavement. Instead, Northrup's character - as written in the film - serves a cipher through which the violence of slavery is visualized on screen. The female slave characters, Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) and Eliza (Adepero Oduye), are further symbols - of suffering, desperation, and grief. (Nyong'o and Ejiofor's performances are all the more remarkable because they inhabit their roles with gravitas by sheer force of talent, despite the thin development of their characters.)

Black British director McQueen's filmic interpretation of an American slave narrative pulls focus away from the characters of the slaves, to foreground instead the pathological racism of the white slavers, most notably in Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) and his wife (Sarah Paulson), who are significantly more developed, nuanced, and complex characters.

So, let's reframe "12 Years" for what it is: a portrait of pathological white racism.

Racism is not about right or wrong. It is not something that can be turned on and off. Pathology seizes the entire body - not just of the individual, but the collective body of society. Pathology infects the way we see, and bleeds into the ways we experience the world.

In "12 Years," this pathology manifests through desire - not just sexual, but also social and cultural - to occupy, control, and consume everything until the myth of white manifest destiny is concretized in law, laid in the foundation of an entire economy, and preserved by culture. Religion, music, and dance masquerade this pathological racism as truth, beauty, love, and art. This pathological white racism did not stop with the individual slaver; it was the life force of slavery as an institution, and its legacy.

Slavery was not inevitable. Slavery was made possible by a pathological affirmation of white life over all other life. In an early scene, Northrup sits in chains confused about who sold him into slavery. The men he had traveled with were good men, they were artists. Pathology exceeds morality, and rationality.

This article is related to: 12 Years a Slave, 12 Years a Slave, Fox Searchlight, Fox Searchlight, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Steve McQueen, Awards






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