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12 Years a Slave by Steve McQueen

January 4, 2014


I guess 12 Years a Slave – the book, the memoir – constituted a powerful punch when it was published in 1854 and I am sure that Solomon Northup – ¨thanks to his misadventure¨ – became a powerful voice for the abolitionist movement at the time, but I can’t help but wonder what is the relevance of this story now: slavery is over and Northup’s tale has little to do with the many subtle ways the racial issue is being declined today. McQueen’s directing choices – and John Ridley’s screenplay of course – have made even more explicit this lack of relevance to our times: history is never relevant per se, in order to be relevant it needs to be connected with the times we are living. McQueen and Ridley have given a lot of attention to the emotional part of the tale, to the torture, to the violence and the killings, the dehumanization and the disappearance of time – we know it’s twelve years but the film avoids to keep track of the passing of time, maybe implying time had no relevance in the life of the slaves – but as true as it is the experience of slavery represented here it is not the history of slavery and the film is not helped by the white owners and overseers: do we really need to believe than an institution that went on – in the Americas – for three centuries was managed by mentally disturbed persons like the ones we see in films like 12 Years a Slave? Would it be too harsh to show them as regular human beings not much different than the managers of our time who have killed eleven thousand persons in Bangladesh? or is it comforting to present the ”nigger” as an educated and civilized man while our white ancestors look like guys belonging into a mental institution?


Steve McQueen confirms his cinematic talent here, just take the scene of the ¨hanging¨ pictured above these lines: a long and beautiful take illustrating only with images and sounds how the people living in the plantation seem to be resigned to violence, alas at the same time McQueen has managed to diminish its power with the ¨good Samaritan ¨ girl who offers something to drink to the exhausted Solomon; McQueen confirms he can work with actors: Chiwetel Ejofor exhibits his range as never before, and the English director has managed even to get almost unobtrusive performances by Paul Dano and Hans ¨the thundering¨ Zimmer. There is one film which was constantly coming to my mind when I was watching 12 Years a Slave: Mel Gibson’s The Passion and I dont’mean it as a compliment, these two films share the same obsession in showing the brutal experience suffered by their heroes while completely forgetting its meaning. What does it mean to be kidnapped? What does it mean to live in a country where the boundary between freedom and slavery is so thin? What are the needs and beliefs leading some men to create such an abomination and some other men to accept it? The story of Solomon Nurthup could have been a fertile terrain to explore a lot of issues like these, McQueen and Ridley have gone for the emotionally shocking value of Northup’s story and so they have missed a chance to make a film about slavery that could go alongside Roots as a TV series or The Known World as a novel.

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