An interesting piece today in the Guardian by Carole Boyce Davies titled “12 Years a Slave fails to represent black resistance to enslavement.” Davies’s argument speaks in part to questions I raised in “Militants and Cinema” about McQueen’s decision to engage with resistance through abjection. Davies nicely describes how McQueen’s adaptation of Solomon Northup’s text chooses scenes of physical abjection while eliding instances and spaces of resistance:
Northup indicates that not a day passed without him contemplating escape. References to the Great Pine woods are a constant symbolic evocation of the possibilities for living elsewhere than on the plantation. The journey between that “free” space and the plantation marks the boundaries between being free and being enslaved. […]
But in focusing so much on the plantation, the film misses the Great Pine woods, as free space symbolically and literally.
Further, she notes, McQueen’s film omits Celeste, a slave who lived for months in the Great Pine woods and instead focuses on the awful abuse dealt to Patsy:
Patsy is seen with her back flayed and her skin lacerated in a horrible scene depicting the degradation of the black female body. Northup may leave the plantation in the end, but there is no chance of any positive outcome for her. Rather the gratuitous display of the black woman’s raped and flayed body is chosen to represent the horror of slavery. The film’s overwhelming graphic presentation of these scenes – minus the other resistance stories – presents largely complicit black women, singing and picking cotton or cowering in fear.
Davies pinpoints what I think is a central problem when it comes to McQueen’s work, both here and in Hunger: the display of bodies undergoing violence as the means of representing a political resistance, in large part by soliciting a sense of horror, and, in what seems an increasingly important term for McQueen’s work, shame. It is not that his films are not moving and powerful, but that they use narrative and film conventions that limit their ability to engage with their social, political, and historical contexts.
Perhaps chief among these are the conventions of art cinema: it’s important that Northup is not an action hero for McQueen to achieve the affects he desires. One drawn out sequence in which Northup almost dies as a result of an arrested lynching highlights the degree to which McQueen wishes us to experience the injustices of slavery through a character’s inability to act or control his life. The film thus seems to me, in retrospect, as a series of sequences in which Northup experiences slavery’s dehumanizing attempts to exert total control over a person. The one exception–when he beats an overseer–generate such dire consequences that its inclusion emphasizes the same point, that such catharses are useless given the realities of slavery, and, most especially, for a film that means to engage with those realities.
But this attempt to undermine the potential drive toward the narrative conventions of the action film–i.e., Django Unchained–with those of art cinema means putting narrating and reflecting on resistance off-limits. For me, to learn of these omissions from Northup’s text is far from surprising. McQueen’s films are physically focused, body focused, and the physicality of 12 Years a Slave tries to communicate the incommunicable horrors of slavery. But these omissions also indicate that the body remains a continuing limit for McQueen’s attempts to engage with history and politics. In some senses, this is, of course, true: individuals have often been reduced to bare life over the course of human history. But bare life is not the entirety of the story, nor the entirety of the stories that McQueen has chosen to tell. That was the point I tried to get at in my essay, and it is the point that Davies makes so well here.