Director Steve McQueen’s “12 Years A Slave” won Best Picture at the 2014 Oscars last night, and if you liked that film, just know that it’s not even his best work. That would be “Hunger” (2008), a bold and beautiful film about IRA member Bobby Sands and the 1981 hunger strikes in Northern Ireland’s Maze prison. I’m not trying to dim the victorious afterglow of the “12 Years A Slave” parade. I enjoyed the film. It is unique among slavery films. While most focus on the hardship of the Southern slave, this film shifts the usual narrative to the story of a real-life free black man named Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who is kidnapped in New York and brought to the South.
When I watched the film, my mind drifted to when I first read Amiri Baraka’s 1964 play “Dutchman” — and his notion that it’s a colossal miracle modern-day black folks don’t kill every last white person in the United States and just say screw-it-all to the niceties of trying to find their place in the U.S. I had the same reaction I usually have watching films about that shameful period of our shared history — anger. There are a number of sickeningly unforgettable moments. Most of it at the hands of a sadomasochistic plantation owner named Epps, played by Michael Fassbinder, who has appeared in every McQueen film. (Including playing Sands in “Hunger”.)
There’s a day-long near-hanging that’s unbearable to watch and a gut-wrenching piece of whipping-pole grotesqueness. But the scene that stays with me is one where Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson), out of jealously because her husband obsesses over a slave he continually rapes, forces her slaves to dress up and dance for her in the midnight hour. It’s like a marionette ball for the damned. In some degree, McQueen has foregone the edgy idiosyncratic work of his past two films, and that’s what has opened the door leading directly to his Oscar speech. There’s a reason why Brad Pitt both acted in the film and put his money and talents into producing it. Clearly, slavery is a topic close to McQueen’s heart. And the film is filled with strong performances, where nearly every other actor outshines the understated Pitt character, Bass, a Canadian who opposes slavery and befriends Northup.
But there is dissent to dubbing this one a masterpiece. One of my favorite critics to read, Jonathan Rosenbaum, wrote in a blog post last December, “A Few (Further) Demurrals About Films that Didn’t Make It Onto My Ten Best List”: “If our discussion of American slavery can essentially be licensed by Django Unchained, which appeared to be the case last year, then I suppose 12 Years a Slave could be regarded as a partial corrective, even after one factors in the restrictive aspect of focusing on the relatively exceptional case of a non-slave forced to become a slave for many years. For me, the treatment of slavery as something relevant to both the present and more than just the U.S., in Pedro Costa’s sublime Sweet Exorcist (his half-hour episode in Centro Historico), is a more valid corrective and carries much greater force, not least because it has some access to poetry –- which, I would insist, is a crucial source of knowledge -– and beauty, and not merely to exploitation-movie assaults.”
He goes on to describe “12 Years A Slave”, in a piece written a few weeks before the words above, as such: “An arthouse exploitation gift to masochistic guilty liberals hungry for history lessons, some of whom consider any treatment of American slavery by a black filmmaker to be an unprecedented event, thus overlooking Charles Burnett’s far superior Nightjohn. “ He has a point, to a degree. The story is an aberration. But it seems strange to dislike a film largely because of the people who may enjoy it. Or because it might not compare to the work of a master like Burnett. It’s also difficult to fault the film for the story itself. I mean, that’s what the film is about: a man’s life experience. Or perhaps I’m oversimplifying Rosenbaum’s main argument. And maybe the larger question isn’t the amount of “poetry” or if there’s condescension in the film, but rather if the slave narrative has become stale in the hands of blockbuster, big-studio pictures — at least as far as Rosenbaum is concerned. For me, even before “12 Years A Slave” — McQueen’s “Hunger” and “Shame” already put him into the directorial ranks of three of my favorites, Abbas Kiarostami, PT Anderson, and Terrence Malick. I’m always looking forward to his next work.
• New releases: A couple of interesting releases on the horizon. On March 25th, Film Chest is releasing an Ida Lupino film called “The Bigamist” (1953), starring the recently-deceased Joan Fontaine. It’s the story of a Los Angeles couple who adopt a child, but when a background check is made on the husband, it’s discovered he’s leading a double life.
• Filmmaker Dies: Sadly, Alain Resnais, the French filmmaker who created nonlinear narrative films like “Hiroshima Mon Amour” and “Last Year at Marienbad,” died on Saturday in Paris at 91. Read a nice Washington Post piece written by Tim Page.