The Movie Club

12 Years a Slave: How Brad Pitt has changed the way people view Steve McQueen’s film.

Entry 14: All of Steve McQueen’s movies are about the human body as a commodity.

Chris Hemsworth in Rush
Chris Hemsworth in Rush

Courtesy of Jaap Buitendijk/Universal

Dear Dana, Stephanie, and Mark,

Well, Daniel Brühl is always great in everything, as those of us who’ve paid attention to the mini-renaissance in German-language film over the past decade have long been aware. (You guys see what I did there, right?) Playing Rush’s Niki Lauda, a legendary pop-culture figure in the Teutonic zone—you can’t call Lauda beloved, but he is admired and respected—had to be a dream role for him.

As for 12 Years a Slave, which is—depending on the time of day—either my second- or third-favorite film of 2013, yes, let’s discuss! I can concede the merits of your arguments, Dana and Stephanie (and the merits of Armond White’s arguments, too!), while arriving at a different analysis. Yes, Steve McQueen is a formalist, a highly accomplished visual artist who thinks in terms of composition and juxtaposition. Yes, there’s a degree of detachment, maybe even dispassion, to the film at times. While Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a tremendous leading performance, this isn’t one of those movies where you feel swept away into his subjective experience of the world. The film is Solomon’s story, of course, but as I read it, the focal point, or the locus of audience identification, is deliberately unstable. Even Michael Fassbender’s deranged, Kurtz-like slave-owner—a man literally driven mad by a level of power over others no one should ever have—attracts our gaze, our passion, and in a perverse way our sympathy. Benedict Cumberbatch, as a well-meaning, “enlightened” planter who is personally decent but cannot resist the power and logic of the “special institution” (because no one can), stands as a specific challenge to the self-reassurance of the liberal audience: I would never have stood for those dreadful things!

And as I wrote yesterday, even the cruelty and sadism of Sarah Paulson as Fassbender’s wife has a double meaning. The way Paulson’s character looks at Solomon Northup did not seem mysterious to me, but she cannot claim him the way her husband has claimed Patsey, the enslaved woman played by Lupita Nyong’o, and her libidinal desires only come out in her vicious mistreatment of Patsey. There’s as much erotic perversity in this film as there was in Shame, and much of the same tormented relationship between body and spirit that we see in Hunger. All three of McQueen’s features, in fact, are about the human body as a symbol, as an artifact, and above all as a commodity. To sound even more like a raving Marxist loony than I do already, they’re about the political economy of the body in what we might call conditions of extreme contradiction.

So while I would not use the phrase “prurient horror-movie vibe,” Dana, I do understand what you’re talking about. And I don’t blame anyone for preferring a different kind of film in general, or for wishing someone would make a slavery movie that had a bit more of a clear-cut humanitarian-historical agenda and a bit less Michel Foucault philosophical infrastructure. Because of its subject matter, its cast, its Brad Pitt–ness, and the hype that attended its premiere, 12 Years a Slave has been received as a mainstream film—Hollywood addressing history at last, or something—when it arguably has more in common with the films of Gaspar Noé or Bruno Dumont than with Spielberg’s Amistad.

In sum—yeah, there are things that are perverse, cold, and arty about 12 Years a Slave, and if some people feel like that’s an inappropriate way to approach such historically painful material, then OK. From my impossibly privileged position as a white male heterosexual New York intellectual, I think it’s a brilliant piece of work, one that challenged me, indicted me, and reminded me that Solomon Northup’s lesson—freedom is an illusion, revocable at any moment—applies in various ways to all of us.

Have at it, Stephanie! This has been a blast—thanks to all of you.