The Blog

<i>12 Years a Slave</i> and the Problem of (Black) Suffering

Looking away has become a national pastime -- from the poor, the sick, and the civilians killed by war and drones. It is unclear to me what kinds of representations of suffering can always escape condemnation as sentimental, or manipulative, or "suffering porn."
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I keep reading these blogs about Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave claiming that black people are "tired" of seeing yet another slavery movie. Message board comments tell me that some non-black people are tired too, but these people are those who don't understand why a majority of African Americans are inexplicably still a little troubled by slavery, Jim Crow, and ongoing inequality in labor, housing, education, and the criminal justice system. Go figure.

Maybe I know what they mean. After all, we have all those movies about well-known leaders who were slaves like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, David Walker, Nat Turner, Sojourner Truth, Denmark Vesey... hmmmm. Not so much? Then I guess they are just tired of all the stories about slavery that show the variety of experiences that took place over 250 years in the United States. I mean, there are at least as many films about slavery as there are about World War II, cowboys in the nineteenth century, or white people during the Civil War, right? What? You mean there's not?

Thus the claim that people are "tired" of seeing slavery is fairly indefensible in relationship to the number of other historical genres that have many notable films. I would think that an institution that was immeasurably important in shaping our national history, demonstrating the greatest evils, tragedies, and resilience that we could possibly imagine, would garner a few more notable films than Mandingo, Beloved, Django Unchained, and McQueen's recent entry into the slave film "genre." Sure, there are a few more (and while it was on television, we must include Roots in this discussion), but given the number of people who were enslaved and the number of stories that nobody knows about, we have hardly cracked the surface of tales that could be told.

This argument is thus a bit baffling. Except it's not. And it isn't baffling because we have issues in this country with telling stories of suffering that don't result in uplift.

Critic after critic focuses on how it's just too much suffering: "It is torture porn." "Why doesn't Hollywood ever want to fund other stories about African Americans that don't involve suffering?" "Why do white people just love to see brown people subjected?"

There is no question that we need a greater variety of representations of African Americans and many different kinds of people in Hollywood film. It is always fair to ask questions about why certain films get made and others do not. But we owe it to McQueen's film to evaluate it on its own terms, and not use it to complain about all the other films that don't exist.

The principle complaint about this film is that the suffering is relentless. And it is. McQueen's narrative leaves out a great deal of slave history (did I mention that we're talking about 250 years?) This is not a film about black resistance. Or the ways in which slaves found joy and community with each other. This film is a meditation on the meaning of slave suffering. After telling the audience the year early in the film, 12 Years a Slave does not give us many clues about the passage of time, or the relief of periodic dates to keep track of when freedom will inevitably come. Time is marked by shifts to different plantations, gradual graying and the haggard appearance of the protagonist, Solomon Northup, and above all, long scenes of the body in pain. I don't think another film about slavery tries to demonstrate conceptually how human beings are, as Elaine Scarry has described it, unmade by pain. It is not entertainment, but it is an artistic rendering that attempts to get the audience to see the passage of time, and the transformation of the body and human spirit under torture, in a new way.

And in McQueen's choice to focus so intently on the story of a slave woman named Patsey, Northup's salvation -- which we know is coming from the title -- does not provide the typical Hollywood uplift. If the audience forgets her cries, still ringing in their ears when Northup sees his family again, they weren't paying attention. The accusation that it is torture porn ignores the fact that pornography is supposed to result in an orgiastic catharsis. The cheers and glee accompanying the rhythm of contemporary torture porn films like Saw, the cheering that accompanies the violence in cartoonish superhero films, and the tear-soaked sentimental catharsis of The Help are not to be found here. While it is always difficult to make claims about audience response, I would suggest that the rhythm of this film leaves you too exhausted to rejoice. There is no John Williams score rising up, as it does at the end of Schindler's List, that allows the audience to cheer the goodness of a savior. People comment that 12 Years a Slave is brutal, that they are wrung out, and that it leaves them broken. It is supposed to.

While not made as a response to Quentin Tarantino's Django's Unchained, it is an important response to the deeply conventional Hollywood narrative of that film. Django is an example of the exceptional Negro that proves the rule that real men can rise up and overcome any oppression. And in the narrative logic of the film, the climax, which always involves the death of the most villainous character, doesn't involve killing the slave owner. No, it involves killing the Uncle Tom character, who was actually the one responsible for overseeing Django's fall and torture. Black people, in Django, keep themselves down, and just need inspiration to lift themselves up.

The real Solomon Northup also resists slavery, and in an interminable scene, they break him. What does it mean that in the logic of so many narratives of masculinity, that makes him less of a man?

Racist resistance to representations of black suffering and anti-racist criticisms of representations of black suffering are actually two sides of the same coin. Producers of both discourses internalize a cultural discourse that sees representations of adult victimization as somehow less artful and distasteful. Looking away has become a national pastime -- from the poor, the sick, and the civilians killed by war and drones. It is unclear to me what kinds of representations of suffering can always escape condemnation as sentimental, or manipulative, or "suffering porn." But when we disparage 12 Years a Slave for trying to capture the essence of pain in chattel slavery, we are disavowing people whose pain can never totally be represented. There are, of course, other stories about slavery and black people that can and should be told. But that does not lessen the importance of this one.