Cinema: Finally, a film that digs to the roots of slavery
January might sound a bit early to be talking about the best film of 2014, but it's hard to imagine anyone coming up with a better one than 12 Years a Slave. Steve McQueen's harrowing drama is set in the Deep South in the 1840s and based on a memoir by Solomon Northup, a freeborn black man who was abducted and sold into slavery. It opens here next week.
British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Northup, an urbane and cultured violinist who lives happily with his wife and two children in New York State until he makes the fateful acquaintance of two nattily dressed out-of-towners who invite him to play with their travelling circus.
He accepts, and in McQueen's film we see him enjoying his good fortune with the two men on a night out in Washington DC. The next morning Solomon wakes to find himself chained to a floor in a rundown warehouse, where repeated whippings persuade him to suppress his own name and accept the identity of Platt, a runaway Georgia slave.
He's ferried down the Mississippi to New Orleans, where he's sold at auction to a relatively benevolent plantation owner called William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Ford senses that Solomon's educated, and in the charming parlance of the time declares him "an exceptional nigger".
But in the twisted logic of plantation life, an educated or "uppity" slave was the ultimate provocation for overseers intent on preserving the fiction that blacks were not people, but livestock. Solomon Northup's accomplishments earn him the enduring hatred of Ford's carpenter John Tibeats (Paul Dano), who tries to lynch him.
Thereafter he's sold on to another master, one Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who's violent, unhinged and totally unpredictable. Only then does Solomon truly understand what a horrific lottery is the life of a slave.
One of the many myths debunked by McQueen's outstanding film is the idea of the kind master: another is the notion of the happy slave. As the character played by Benedict Cumberbatch makes clear, there were no good outcomes for those at the business end of a system as cruel and perverse as Southern slavery.
Being the property of a relatively kind owner might mean fewer beatings, but slaves were still worked like dogs until they dropped dead prematurely. They were still deprived of their liberty, treated like cattle and could be ripped forever from their families on a white man's whim.
After seeing 12 Years a Slave I instantly decided it was the best film about slavery I'd ever seen, then realised it was practically the only serious film on the subject I'd ever seen. Because though slavery appears obliquely in many classic and recent Hollywood films, it has generally been seen as way too hot a potato.
Dramatising it is a grim business and, in addition, the very existence of the practice in America until as recently as the 1860s does not chime with that nation's heroic view of itself. As a consequence, most early screen depictions of slaves and plantation life tended to be soft-focus, and idealised in the extreme.
DW Griffith's Birth of a Nation is a deeply troubling film. It's a silent masterpiece, and has even been called the greatest American film of all time, but Griffith's 1915 epic is also a poisonously racist take on 19th Century US history.
In Birth of a Nation the plantations of the Old South are represented as happy, harmonious places whose idyll was destroyed by the Civil War. When the South loses, drunken and corrupt blacks are depicted entering politics, and chasing after white women with dishonourable intentions before order is restored by the heroic Ku Klux Klan. The film's message seems to be that slavery was too hastily cast aside, and to make matters worse the black villain, Gus, is played by a white actor.
The happy slave was a common trope in early Hollywood cinema, and another compelling but problematic film, Gone with the Wind, is the obvious example. David Selznick's sprawling Civil War epic is still a popular favourite on television and, when adjusted for inflation, is the most successful film ever made. But behind the gloss and romanticism is an insidious historical misrepresentation.
Tara, the handsome Georgia cotton plantation so close to heroine Scarlett O'Hara's heart, is presented as a warm and jolly place. Fans of the film tend to forget that Mammy, Scarlett's fussing and loving maid, is a slave. And though Hattie McDaniel, the actress who played her, became the first African-American to win an Oscar, Mammy reinforced some of the worst racial stereotypes.
Harriet Beecher Stowe's classic abolitionist novel Uncle Tom's Cabin has been filmed several times, most notably in a 1927 silent version starring James B Lowe in the title role. Uncle Tom was often played by white actors in blackface, and at least Lowe was an African-American, but bizarrely all the other supposedly black characters around him were played by Caucasians.
After the Second World War, when segregation in the South became a growing embarrassment to liberal America, the thorny issue of slavery seemed to disappear off Hollywood's agenda. It returned with a bang in the 1970s, though not as anyone might have hoped or wished.
The Blaxploitation genre divided opinion when it emerged from nowhere in the early 1970s. To some, their violent and steamy plotlines were examples of black empowerment, to others they were nasty and cynical B-pictures that reinforced racial stereotypes. But whatever about the quality of most Blaxploitation movies, a few of them did explore slavery. In the charmingly titled 1972 film The Legend of Nigger Charley, former American footballer Fred Williamson played the leader of a small group of runaway slaves who are hunted through the old west by a posse. "I ain't taking no shit from no white man again," declared Charley at one point before beating the tar out of a discourteous bartender. The film was your basic revenge fantasy.
Though more successful, Richard Fleischer's Mandingo (1975) was even dafter, and annoyed the late Roger Ebert so much he gave it a no-star review. It certainly was unpleasant, and starred heavyweight boxing champion Ken Norton as Mede, a Mandingo slave who's taught to box by his master and eventually ends up bedding the boss's white wife.
There was more titillating inter-racial sex in a sequel, Drum, but neither film told you an awful lot about slavery. In fairness, Alex Haley's Roots did. The 1977 TV mini-series based on Haley's bestselling book would probably seem a bit timid today, but marked the first serious attempt to address this most shameful episode in America's past.
The show's success was tainted somewhat when Haley was accused of plagiarising someone else's novel and inventing most of his family history, but Roots' depictions of beatings, rapes and hobblings had a profound cultural impact in 1970s America.
But Roots' success did not result in further slavery dramas, and it was the late 1980s before the subject was seriously addressed again, when Denzel Washington won an Oscar for his performance in Glory, playing a fugitive slave who joins the Union army during the Civil War.
Steven Spielberg's sometimes overlooked 1997 drama Amistad was based on the fascinating true story of a mutiny by recently captured slaves on a Cuban schooner. Djimon Hounsou played the slaves' leader, and Anthony Hopkins was John Quincy Adams, the abolitionist politician who made the Amistad slaves a cause celebre.
Oprah Winfrey spent 10 years bringing Toni Morrison's historical novel Beloved to the screen, and starred in Jonathan Demme's 1998 film as Sethe, a former slave who's tormented by the spirit of her dead daughter. The film bombed at the box office but is actually pretty good.
Last year, Quentin Tarantino took on slavery in Django Unchained, a film that seemed like a pastiche of Blaxploitation movies but was actually for the most part a very serious and accomplished drama. But in the end it was too glib to have anything approaching the emotional impact of 12 Years a Slave.
Steve McQueen's film is hard going, no question about it, but it really deserves to be seen.
McQueen: Director on the edge
- Hunger (2008)
McQueen's startling feature debut is set in the Maze Prison in the early 1980s and stars Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands, a charismatic IRA inmate who leads a hunger strike in protest against conditions in the jail. It's not always easy viewing, but is paradoxically beautiful to look at.
- Shame (2011)
The director's controversial 2011 film explores the problem of sex addiction, with Michael Fassbender playing a New York advertising executive whose otherwise successful life is blighted by his compulsion for meaningless sexual encounters. Carey Mulligan co-starred.