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Why we all want to watch 12 Years a Slave

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Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is currently number one at the UK box office – what is it about this challenging film that has cinemagoers flocking to it?

Steve McQueen’s brutal portrayal of slavery in America’s Deep South has caused a considerable stir since its world premiere in Toronto last September. Word of 12 Years a Slave’s uncompromising representation of the violence many slaves suffered at the hands of ruthless plantation owners quickly spread, with mention of ‘torture porn’ surfacing amidst an otherwise outstanding critical reception. The anticipation I felt in the lead up to its UK release was unbearable, but being secure in the knowledge that it would shock me to my very core begs the question: is it strange to feel such excitement at so terrible a prospect?

Secure in the knowledge that 12 Years a Slave would shock me to my core begs the question: was it strange to feel such excitement?

I’ve seen 12 Years a Slave twice now in three days. The second time I went alone. There’s no denying it is a very difficult watch. The moment musician Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) awakes in the filthy basement of a Washington slave pen marks the start of one of cinema’s most harrowing journeys to date. We join Solomon as he’s shipped to the markets of Louisiana and transferred into the service of two very different masters, where unspeakable torment awaits.

Not concerned with telling a story of twists and turns, heroes and villains, McQueen’s vision is one of stark and ferocious realism. Characters drift in and out of shot as they do our lives, while time disintegrates until all we have to mark its passing is the changing face of wounds and scars. It’s a film made up of moments, both profound and horrifying, that illustrate one man’s experience of a grossly dark and shameful period.

12 years a slave

From the creak of violin strings to whip cracks and the groan of ropes straining from branches, 12 Years a Slave is as painful on the ears as it is the eyes. During my first viewing, one particular scene gave rise to audible gasps, while the chap next to me embraced his visibly shaken partner. A day and a half later, two people made for the exit in the throes of the same sequence. Despite moments of tenderness and affection – typically infused with dread – watching 12 Years is excruciating. So why have I told everyone that it’s “absolutely amazing, one of the best things I’ve seen in years”?

12 Years a Slave won’t let us swap places with the characters; the experience is never about us

Clichés about the solace we find when immersed in cinema’s latest release, stuffing our faces with the most calorific popcorn on the market, won’t fly in this instance. If I feel the need to abandon my middle-class, relatively un-oppressed, happy existence, the terrifying reality of one of history’s most appalling abominations is the last place I’d seek comfort.

There is the temptation to equate our ‘enjoyment’ with that which we experience when watching horror films, but this doesn’t suffice. The horror genre is a realm of fantasy: we put ourselves in the position of the victims – the chased, the haunted – and relish in our own physical repulsion and terror. Central to horror’s success is the viewer’s fearful relationship with the beast lurking just around the corner – we never shed a tear for those on the receiving end of things. 12 Years a Slave won’t let us swap places with the characters; we get distressingly close to them but the experience is never about us.

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What’s more, while I take great pleasure in the chilling splendour of films like Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, I’m afraid the Hostels and Saws of this world are far beyond my palate; as such, using ‘torture porn’ as a means of explaining McQueen’s appeal simply won’t do. Sorry Armond White.

With Hunger, Steve McQueen announced himself on the world stage with a determined focus on image and honesty

So 12 Years a Slave is not just a historical horror movie. Neither is it McQueen’s first expedition into controversial territory. An introduction to his work at Brighton’s famous Duke of York Cinema in 2008 left me breathless. Hunger, the Turner Prize winner’s first feature, honed in on a difficult period during the British and Irish Troubles at the start of Thatcher’s reign. The true story of a quietly raging and resolute republican protester, Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), is a disturbing work of significant power. With a disregard for dialogue but a penchant for walls smeared with excrement, the director announced himself on the world stage with a determined focus on image and honesty. Hunger is a tragedy that invokes disgust and revulsion, and it’s brilliant.

Three years on, McQueen and Fassbender reunited for Shame, a brooding and frozen expose of the life of a sex addict. Brandon, a transatlantic city-boy, lives in anticipation of his next orgasm. Through his visiting sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), we catch a blurry glimpse of their childhood and with it a notion of why he has fallen into such depravity. We know that his hideousness is not his fault, which makes it all the more painful to watch. We might even relate to him and feel a little shame ourselves. It’s a story of objectification, degradation and perversion told with astounding grace and sensitivity. It’s magnificent.

shame michael fassbender

A sympathetic portrait of baseness is something that McQueen often pays particular attention to. In 12 Years a Slave we feel for Solomon’s first and relatively warm master, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) – painted as a villain (or victim) of circumstance. Even Fassbender’s Edwin Epps isn’t quite the complete embodiment of evil. There’s a complexity to his fury that makes him more than just a monster. His monstrosity is human and all the more terrifying for it.

The artist’s unflinching filmography will always conjure feelings of guilt and repugnance, just as it does self-reflection, which is key to understanding what it is we crave from his work: we are always learning about ourselves and the world around us in the most moving and revelatory fashion.

What we get from watching such unsettling material is not warped or perverse – it’s the satisfaction of a longing to know and feel more

Steve McQueen’s business is with sating our appetite for knowledge. We want to feel empathy for characters like Solomon Northup; we want to know and understand their plight as far as we possibly can. What we get from watching such unsettling material is not warped or perverse – it’s the satisfaction of a longing to know and feel more, to comprehend our past in new ways and work towards the future. If a film promises to shock, appal, depress and impress itself upon me in such a way as 12 Years a Slave has, I’ll more than likely lap it up.

 

All images: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Inset images: Fox Searchlight Pictures; Icon Film Distribution; Momentum Pictures

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