Is it possible for a movie to tell a truth its audience does not want to hear?
We know that movies can sell the pretty lies of propaganda more persuasively than other medium. In fact, you could say the definition of a movie is a “pretty lie”. But can a film tell an “ugly truth”?
12 Years a Slave, the newest winner of the Oscar for best picture, directed by Steven McQueen and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, is the rare film that allows us to answer “yes” to this question.
There are a lot of reasons films like 12 Years a Slave are so rare. The essential one, however, is the simple fact that you have to sell tickets to movies.
The average price of admission to a movie in America last year was $8.35 and if you were an adult attending a non-matinee showing, $12.00 to $15.00 was more like it.
In aggregate, people will lay down money to be entertained by a movie. They will especially slap down coin to participate in a filmed fantasy: sex, wealth, power, revenge or justice, adventure, romance, agency, freedom, lives lived with noble meaning and purpose.
Sometimes, they will pay to see the truths of their real lives expressed for them by a film. Even less often, but still sometimes, people will pay to watch a movie that tells an ugly truth about someone else.
But people do not want to pay for the experience of confronting an ugly truth about themselves. Because it damages their self-esteem.
There is a growing body of social science research (see this recent piece on the vaccines-cause-autism myth as an example) that finds when people are confronted with evidence that contradicts one of their dearly held beliefs, they end up clinging even more strongly to that belief.
That’s why so many “issue” movies are sanitized, prettified, heavy-hand pieces of didactic crap in which an exceptional, self-sacrificing hero from the victimizer class achieves some sort of redemption for the victimized class, often while a representative sample of the victims stand admiringly off to one side.
This is because it is nearly impossible to show an audience an ugly truth unless you give them a big, honking, obvious, unambiguous way of disassociating themselves from that ugly truth. Thus the self-sacrificing hero from the victimizer class and thus the speech (or speeches) in which said hero firmly articulates the principles we all eagerly embrace so we can feel like good people.
The remarkable, harrowing, painful, brilliant achievement of 12 Years a Slave is how little of this it does and consequentially how powerfully it succeeds as art and history and moral persuasion.
As you doubtlessly know by now, 12 Years a Slave, tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York state who is kidnapped into slavery. The film focuses on the brutal daily reality of Solomon’s life as an enslaved man: the what-should-be-impossible to endure physical, emotional, and psychological suffering that Solomon and the men, women, and children who are enslaved with him do endure until they die.
Director Steven McQueen keeps the focus on Solomon’s suffering and refuses to allow us to look away. We are immersed in Solomon’s experience, in a firestorm of words he cannot risk speaking, of emotions always felt but seldom expressed because their expression will bring him destruction, either from the hands of white slave-owners or his own enormous interior pain.
As Solomon Northup, Chiwetel Ejiofor is simply astounding. The role requires Mr. Ejiofor to do everything and nothing. To feel and to show us that feeling and to show us Solomon hiding that feeling. To not speak and to show us the words he does not speak. To show us a life in which every minute of that life is anguish and exhaustion – sometimes gentle but usually unbearable.
There are many indelible scenes in 12 Years a Slave, but for me the most unforgettable is the one where a slave-owner named Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbinger) forces Solomon to whip Patsey, a young enslaved woman with whom Epps is malignantly, sexually obsessed. (Patsey is played by Lupita Nyong’o, who won an Oscar for the role.)
The whipping nearly breaks Solomon and is devastating to Patsey as well. Solomon’s reaction, the red mist of blood that rises from Patsey’s back each time the lash strikes, her uncontrollably weeping, and the deep furrowed wounds from the whip McQueen shows us, all should put to an end – for the last time – to the lie that slavery was a just “particular institution” or a “benevolent institution”; or the lie that abolition was a less worthy cause for liberty than the liberty of slave-states to determine within their borders who did and who did not deserve the right to the freedoms promised by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; or the lie that slavery was a mere minor blemish on the glorious, now persecuted culture and history of the American south specifically and America in general; or the lie that the suffering of enslaved men, women, and children has been overstated and oversold, and in any case, slavery is in the past and so it is far past time for people to shut up about it.
McQueen does a good job of not letting his audience off the hook in this movie – and by “his audience” I should be specific and say the audience not escaping the hook is “American white people” and fair enough – but there are two stumbles in Twelve Years a Slave.
The first is in the characters of the slave-owner Edwin Epps and his wife, who both shade far enough into psychotic villainy that McQueen could allow his audience to say that it was only a few crazy bad slave-owners who did crazy bad things to enslaved people.
A bigger problem is the abolitionist carpenter name Bass who helps Solomon regain his freedom. Bass is played by Brad Pitt and as the exceptional, self-sacrificing hero from the victimizer class who achieves a redemption of sorts for Solomon – and who while at it, also delivers a few neat little speeches that articulate the principles we all can eagerly embrace and so feel like good people – Pitt stands out like a big fat sore thumb.
I get the feeling this was not exactly McQueen’s choice. Pitt was one of the film’s ten producers, and of the ten, the only generally recognizable big Hollywood gun in the group. When the best picture Oscar was announced, Pitt was the first producer on stage, the first producer to take his Oscar, and the first producer to speak — though he spoke briefly and graciously, and mostly to introduce McQueen.
If the price of getting 12 Years a Slave in theaters was to give Pitt a few glamour moments, it was a price well worth paying. But the movie would have been better served if Pitt had switched roles with Paul Giamatti, the slave-trader who knows Solomon is a kidnapped freeman and sells him any way. Pitt’s glamour would have made a bracing contrast to his character’s actions, and Giamatti would have made the audience-hero-surrogate less pretty, less preachy, less courageous, less unconflicted. Less like the person we would like to be. More like the person most of us are.