[One of my favorite cultural works of the last year was Small Axe, filmmaker Steve McQueen’s anthology film series about the West Indian community in England from the 1960s through the 1980s. I’m not an EnglandStudier, but I think there are plenty of ways to apply the five wonderful films to AmericanStudying. So this week I’ve highlighted a handful, leading up to this Guest Post on McQueen’s prior films!]
[I’ve written a few times in this space about my former Fitchburg State English Studies colleague, and lifelong friend, Joe Moser. Joe wrote two great paragraphs toward the end of his first book on director Steve McQueen’s first two films, and I asked his permission to quote those paragraphs here. And then he’s followed them with two new paragraphs giving part of his take on McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave!]
[Quoting Joe’s book:] “Productively complicating this artistic landscape further is another phenomenal Irish film from 2008, Hunger. This is the work of Steve McQueen (b. 1969), also a Londoner, who is the son of West Indian immigrants. A renowned photographer and fine artist, McQueen transitioned to cinema to craft his visceral interpretation of the IRA hunger strikes at the Maze Prison in 1981. An astounding, revelatory debut, Hunger is by equal turns horrifying and breathtaking, as well as restrained and careful in its attention to the humanity of pro-British guards and IRA prisoners alike.
McQueen followed up Hunger with a second collaboration with the versatile and enigmatic Michael Fassbender, the Irish-German actor who portrayed hunger striker Bobby Sands with harrowing depth and conviction. Their 2011 film Shame is another meditation on human degradation—one that reveals, through its portrait of sex addiction, the angst and excesses of modern Western masculinity with unflinching, clinical precision and insight. Fassbender’s Irish-American protagonist, Brandon, spends much of the film plundering New York City for increasingly lurid erotic stimulation, leading him to the brink of psychological breakdown and alienating him from his only close human connection, his fragile sister, whom Brandon abandons in her time of direst need. McQueen’s film leaves viewers in a Beckettian state of penultimacy, wondering if someone as damaged and self-destructive as Brandon, so far gone down the road of addiction, can ever lead a remotely normal, healthy life again. The movie is a devastating critique of the half-truths, self-deceptions and outright lies upon which patriarchal masculinity relies to maintain its ascendancy.”
[Joe’s new paragraphs:] “McQueen’s third feature film, 12 Years a Slave (2013), is at once his most accessible and challenging film. Whereas Hunger’s portrayal of Bobby Sands is ripe for misinterpretation in some key respects, 12 Years offers few comforting illusions of masculine moral agency for viewers. The earlier film has been attacked by some critics and admired by others as a valedictory portrayal of an ambiguous historical figure (Bobby Sands); those who ignore McQueen’s sympathetic portrayal of the IRA prisoners’ adversary, the conflicted Long Kesh guard played by Stuart Graham, will fundamentally misunderstand the film. On the other hand, from its opening scene, 12 Years a Slave confronts viewers with the essential psychological horror of slavery: the systematic destruction of any individual will to resist and the coopting of humane men and women into acts of brutality and subjugation. McQueen amplifies the terror of Solomon Northup’s ordeal by rendering familiar scenes and tropes of American literature and film atrociously unfamiliar and pregnant with dread, including pivotal riverboat voyages, noble defenses of vulnerable women, benevolent authority figures confronting abusive underlings, and ingenious escape plans and attempts. Viewers able to endure the succession of visceral shocks wrought by the film’s first hour, however, will likely settle into a slightly more conventional latter half, as Solomon and his female counterpart, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), contend with their mercurial, tormented, vicious master, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender, once again). This is no fault of the film, and the imbalanced battle of wills between Epps and his chattel Solomon and Patsey builds to a shattering but admirably restrained climax.
If McQueen has erred in his handling of this breakthrough film, it is only in his marketing efforts. While promoting 12 Years a Slave to the brilliant satirist and tongue-in-cheek Southern apologist Stephen Colbert on cable television, McQueen touts his film as ‘a true story about an American hero.’ With all due respect—tremendous respect—I emphatically disagree. The director’s greatest artistic coup with this work is the manner in which he assiduously pares away any notion of heroism and shows an oppressive system for precisely what it is: an authoritarian affront to human dignity and a concerted effort to turn its victims into degraded mirror images of its perpetrators. Fittingly, then, the film’s most intense moment of liberation parallels a demoralizing concession and betrayal from the opening act. In this sense, one of the most notable outlying critical opinions of 12 Years, that of Slant Magazine’s Ed Gonzalez, gets the film exactly right (in his two-star review): ‘Solomon almost appears deaf to the world. This is because the film practically treats him as passive observer to a litany of horrors that exist primarily for our own learning.’ I completely agree that Solomon is frequently characterized by passivity, but regrettably, Gonzalez fails to appreciate McQueen’s scrupulous intelligence and artistic (as well as educational) purpose in holding his protagonist, and vicariously, his viewers, in that agonizing condition for the duration. Even the lone white abolitionist depicted in the movie—a carpenter (Brad Pitt) working briefly on Epps’ plantation—finally answers Solomon’s plea for help with a muted promise of action punctuated by the caveat: ‘I am afraid.’ By the film’s close, we are all afraid—of freedom as well as bondage. Indeed, Solomon’s tragedy, and that of millions of others coopted into oppressive systems, is that survival and the hope of freedom ultimately depend on passivity and deafness to the suffering of others, on repressing the capacity for moral agency, much less heroism. It is McQueen’s monumental achievement that he has crafted a Hollywood film that cuts straight to the heart of this painful, damning truth.”
[Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think?]