Friday, November 29, 2013

12 years a slave

12 Years a Slave dir Steve McQueen

Brit Steve McQueen is the toast of the film press at the moment.  However, I think he has stunted critical thinking by his aesthetical choices in this important film. His very clean and bloodless representation of the horror story of slavery in the US allows the viewer to actually distance herself from the visceral and
emotional impact of the true story of a freed slave living in upstate NY in the 1850s.  The slave was convinced by two foppish, bounty hunters into returning to the South where his former owners, a vile racist family, Michael Fassbinder and Sarah Poulson claim him as their property.

Like his previous work, Hunger, and Shame, this film reflects McQueen's obsessive fascination with power, pain, and suffering.

It is true we have seen slavery spectacles from Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind told from the white society point of view and little effort to authentically represent a slave's point of view. Critics are speaking of McQueen's cool, perfectly performed, exquisitely landscaped (and it is) as the great breakthrough in authentic storytelling. McQueen, as he has in previous works, shows us, almost as an intellectual conceit, the cool depiction of pain as if he were the Marquis de Sade watching the vile, yet ordinary, cruel racism of the Southern white ruling class is the norm rather than the exception. In theory yes, but aesthetically, no. McQueen cannot get out of his well-known art world installation sensibility; aesthetics trump reality. What both Quentin Tarantino and Lee Daniels understand is that real life people feel. This creates tension and allows empathy. They both fuse feeling with insight while McQueen stays in the post-modern mind-body disconnect. His actors all rise to the level of the angry script including a revelatory mirror held up by Alfre Woodard to Clarence Thomas tokenism. 

McQueen's distancing construction of the horror and suffering through his artist's eye and intellect simply lacks heart. Yes audiences will react in harrow but only as set up response, not in the kind of devastation art can invoke. Too bad because this angry script by John Ridley in the right hands could.

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