Atrocity Exhibition
By Adam Nayman

12 Years a Slave
Dir. Steve McQueen, U.S., Fox Searchlight

Steve McQueen’s highlight reel is coming along nicely. To the prison cell tête-à-tête between Bobby Sands and the priest in Hunger and Carey Mulligan’s flubbed nightclub aria in Shame we can now add the spectacle of Chiwetel Ejiofor standing half-strangled on his tiptoes in 12 Years a Slave. And make no mistake, a spectacle is what it is, even if it’s awash in signifiers of detachment: a distanced camera, a naturalistically dimmed soundtrack, little flitters of background action to offset the painterly stillness of the composition.

Three movies into his second career as a feature filmmaker, McQueen has leveraged his obvious skills as an installation artist into becoming the modern master of a certain kind of set piece—the literal show-stopper, in which the movie grinds to a halt to beg our applause. It’s indeed disturbing to watch Ejiofor’s Solomon Northup choking underneath the noose placed around his neck by a brutal plantation foreman (Paul Dano), but it’s also infuriating in a way that exceeds its narrative function. McQueen may intend the sight of a dangling black man as the centerpiece of his grim historical drama, but it’s actually a symbol of his artistic exhibitionism. Powerful as this image is, it conflates the agony of the character with the bravery of the man unflinching enough to put it onscreen.

An adaptation of a best-selling mid-19th-century memoir by Northup, considered one of the most incendiary exposés in American literature, 12 Years a Slave is the sort of bad movie that’s at once easily pegged and difficult to take to task, as its subject matter more or less insulates it from criticism. It’s also the sort of bad movie that has a number of worthy things about it: for example, the plaudits that Ejiofor is getting for his lead performance are entirely deserved. Like Michael Fassbender in Hunger and Shame, Ejiofor has been directed to hold it all in, and his actorly restraint melds with the reticence of a character whose survival depends on withholding nearly everything about himself. Born free in New York, and then drugged and sold into slavery by a pair of high-flown tricksters, Northup is advised by longer-tenured laborers to hide his education and to deny his previous identity, lest the implications of civility unnerve his new masters.

Ejiofor makes sure that we notice Solomon’s efforts at self-erasure, and McQueen does the rest. When the camera isn’t resting at a Kubrick-like remove from the action, it’s right up in the protagonist’s face, the better to capture the various gradations of desperation and despair playing across his features. And, as in Hunger (and, in a different way, Shame), McQueen uses his star’s body as the site of the drama. In Hunger, the canvas kept shrinking; here, it grows thicker and ever more detailed with crisscrossed knots of scar tissue. And yet after the nightmare of the botched lynching—which leads to Solomon being rerouted away from one guiltily ineffectual owner (Benedict Cumberbatch) into the clutches of a full-blown sociopath (Michael Fassbender)—our protagonist is afflicted more by psychic wounds than physical ones: he shifts from being the embodiment of unimaginable abuse to a more or less mute witness to history.

Speechlessness is one response to Fassbender’s work as the petty tyrant Edward Epps; suffice it to say that the only thing to do with a performance this ill-conceived is to nominate it for an Academy Award. Fassbender is a supremely talented actor with a redoubtable sense of loyalty to a director who seems to get off on putting him through the wringer: there is, perhaps, some masochism on the thespian side of the equation here as well. Playing Epps as a rabid man-child may have been cathartic for an actor who’s recently become the go-to guy for smoldering sensuality, and the character’s depravities seem to have been faithfully translated from the source text, but there’s something lazy and distasteful about the way McQueen uses Edwin to personify the slaver’s mentality. In lieu of a plausible—and unsettling—portrait of institutionalized racism and exploitation, we get a bad guy who just keeps checking off boxes: an alcoholic sadist in psychosexual thrall to the petite but unbowed field worker Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), which in turn stokes the bloodlust of his jealous, dead-eyed wife (Sarah Paulson).

Say what you will about Django Unchained—and I say that it’s too long and not overly audacious—but its cartoonish elements are in line with its director’s caricaturist sensibility. Quentin Tarantino wears the mantle of historian far less comfortably than his trademark FUBU wear, and yet Django’s paucity as a piece of American countermythology doesn’t diminish the vividness of Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson’s villainous performances. Throwing shapes and pulling faces, they’re not so much over the top as dancing on the ceiling in a film where everything is purposefully heightened. Fassbender’s amped-up acting suggests that he’s still in Tarantino-land after his suave turn in Inglourious Basterds, and those positioning 12 Years a Slave as a “corrective” to QT’s vision should ask themselves if the films in question aren’t just two sides of the same coin—deliberately “audacious” auteur projects with reactionary cores.

Not politically reactionary, of course: McQueen is nothing if not a good liberal, and he stages Brad Pitt’s climatic cameo as a Canadian abolitionist as a blissful idyll. (This is the second movie this year after World War Z where Pitt the producer has gifted himself with a distinctly savior-ish role.) But the formal rigor and aesthetic risk-taking of Hunger and Shame have been downplayed in favor of a more Spielbergian approach: vast establishing shots, sophisticatedly stylized lighting, distractingly recognizable actors in supporting roles (Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano), and music (by Hans Zimmer) slathered all over the image. A lot of the time, the former gallery radical’s film language is utterly conventional, which can be understood as an attempt to make the material more “accessible” for the mainstream audience that the director, and his studio backers, are courting, or as a way of emphasizing the power of the more obviously confrontational sequences. But just as the hanging-tree scene proves doubly uncomfortable for what it shows and the self-conscious brilliance of the presentation, the other money shots—i.e. the single-take scourging sequence where the camera tracks around in a vicious circle that keeps the whip’s impact ever so decorously out of view—end up standing out in an almost distasteful way. (The whipping scene contains McQueen’s single most loaded and banal image, a close-up of a bar of soap dropped by Patsey after she’s been brutalized; as a colleague pointed out, this ivory white-orb serves as a period on what is the cinematic equivalent of a grandiloquent run-on sentence).

There are powerful moments in 12 Years a Slave, but they tend to happen on the margins of the action. When Solomon arrives in New Orleans, he watches helplessly as his shipmate is “rescued” by his Northern owner; the sight of this forceful, resolute young black man cowering gratefully in the presence of his white master—he all but climbs into his arms—is difficult to shake and suggestive of the collectively warped mentality that helped to enable the systematic oppression of an entire people. If it were allowed to exist as just a fleeting detail, it’d be indelible, but like so many incidents in John Ridley’s sturdily diagrammatic screenplay, it’s just a set-up for a punch-line: when Solomon is finally evacuated from Epps’s plantation, he (and we) are nudged to recognize the irony of this role reversal. Ideally, 12 Years a Slave would throb with incomprehension; instead, McQueen and Ridley have engineered things so that it feels like they’re having the final word on the topic.

That’s the Spielbergian imperative, which is not in and of itself a bad thing. Schindler’s List angled its individualized narrative in the direction of definitiveness as well, and in doing so has cast perhaps the longest shadow of its director’s career. Despite being a glaring example of what Hayden White has called “emplotment”—the assigning of narrative characteristics to traumatic histories so that we may better understand them—Schindler’s List was suffused with a sense of humility. Even that little girl in the red coat, perhaps the most celebrated visual effect in a career marked by killer sharks and rampaging dinosaurs, felt more like an admission (a very moving one) of futility than an artistic ace in the hole.

Whatever its flaws, Schindler’s List didn’t betray a sense of flourish. McQueen’s austerity measures are themselves a form of showmanship. When he holds a shot of Solomon staring off into the distance just long enough that the character’s eyes meet our gaze, the act of fourth-wall-breaking seems at first admirably polyvalent—it could be as much an invitation for viewers to sympathize, to recognize some aspect of their lives in his plight. But given the tenor of the rest of McQueen’s atrocity exhibition, it feels more like an accusatory coup de cinéma. Brian De Palma satirized the pitfalls of such experimental tactics in 1970’s Hi, Mom! with the infamous “Be Black, Baby!” sequence, in which an experimental theater troupe comprised mostly of African-American actors terrorizes its well-heeled, white audience until they understand vividly how the other half lives. The gag, of course, is that the theatergoers get off on the experience (“Clive Barnes was right!”) and leave feeling not worse about their country’s racial inequalities but better about themselves. Hi Mom! is something of a throwaway film. Yet De Palma’s unflattering observations about dubiously vanguard artistry—chiefly the way that Brechtian bullying can backfire into a kind of perverse edification—still have plenty of resonance as 12 Years a Slave gains its desired awards-season traction.