This great film is attuned to how people remember trauma: that mix of agony, revulsion and shame, cooled ever-so-slightly by time. Its goal is to make a true story from America’s deep past, which of course stands in for millions of similar stories, feel immediate—so that the viewer can go beyond, or beneath, the historical aspects, and understand the lived experience of slavery.
I’ve had such a hard time trying to write about 12 Years a Slave. Considering the criticisms of previous Steve McQueen films and that fact that I have only seen McQueen’s installation work, I felt like I wasn’t truly able to criticize the direction of McQueen.
12 Years a Slave is one of the most powerful and masterful films I have ever seen. Still, I was seeking to express a concern I had while watching the film. There is, in moments, an artful distance (which this article speaks to), that feels similar to the righteousness of the slave owners within the film. Of course, this film attempts to depict a specific, visceral, historical, painful truth. Is my criticism fair when accounting for this? Considering trauma and memory, isn’t this kind of righteousness the most crucial thinking anyone who experiences trauma can see? An absolute truth? Then, still, one must consider the impact on the audience. Does this pain have an impact? Circular thought returns me to the question of subject matter: Shouldn’t we all bare witness to this?
Matt Zoller Seitz’s article has me rethinking about it all over again. A great read.