“Truth” vs. “Exploitation”: The Violence in ’12 Years a Slave’

Over the last few days, an interesting discussion has broken out over Steve McQueen’s masterful 12 Years a Slave. Aside from the blogsphere fact-checking and critical deniers (it’s impossible to believe that there are some people who actually hate this film), one of the most interesting arguments have come from people who believe that the movie is just… too violent. In fact, one of the most vocal opponents, AP writer Christy Lemire, recently said that, for her, the level of abuse and torture levied upon main character Solomon Northup and his indentured kind was nothing short of exploitation. While not venturing further with this analysis, it seems that she, along with several other members of the cinematic Fourth Estate, have been turned off by McQueen’s desire to emphasize the offensives committed in the name of “State Rights” in this warts-and-all overview of America pre-Civil War.

Now, Lemire didn’t argue that the brutality wasn’t authentic or true. No, instead, she implies that, by using sequences such as Solomon’s near hanging at the hands of his first master or female slave Patsey’s horrific whipping at the hands of his second, McQueen is going for shock value and sensation, not drama or emotional heft. Of course, there have been many articles focusing on the veracity of this adaptation, with primary consultant on the film, Henry Louis Gates Jr. arguing that the storyline, and the depictions therein, are drawn directly from Solomon’s own memoir (which is the basis for the film) and are therefore, the truth. Others have also stated that, by showcasing the terrible tortures visited on the “pieces of property”, McQueen is giving a solid, shattering face to the racism which still simmers under our social order to this very day.

Granted, one’s tolerances do make up a great deal of one’s opinion, and if something is too gory, or too cruel, or too over the top, a person has the right to complain. They can even infer that such situations are only being used as a means of tweaking the overall tone or reputation of an effort to get an audience’s attention. Mel Gibson was accused of same when his scourging of Jesus in The Passion of the Christ bordered on overkill. In his defense, the controversial star stated that this is how such an incident would have actually occurred in the Holy Land and that by highlighting the horror of the Messiah’s trials, his suffering (and by religious result, our salvation) is all the more understandable and glorious. Still, some don’t like the thought of seeing “realism” within an otherwise fictional film (even when following a given set of facts, almost everything outside a documentary is created for cinematic reasons) and balk at such bloodshed.

Back in the mid ’70s, Snuff was condemned for trying to pull off the ultimate cinematic ruse. Really nothing more than a bad B-movie infused with a certain level of grindhouse grimness thanks to genre pioneers Michael and Roberta Findlay, the otherwise ordinary horror film was tabled, bought by another producer, revamped with some additional footage, and sold as depicting the ultimate non-sexual celluloid taboo: an actual onscreen killing. Of course, it was eventually debunked, but the scandal inspired dozens of imitators, up to and including the home video distributors who compiled their own collection of faked footage and coroner’s reports and called it Faces of Death. Again, almost all of the non-autopsy and newsreel material was made up, but it didn’t stop the outcry from pundits or the rentals from kids looking for some kind of cheap thrill along the bottom shelf of their local Mom and Pop video store.

The connection here is one of labels. No one would argue that Snuff is not exploitation. The only reason it exists is to entice its audience into paying to see something out of the ordinary and scandalous. In fact, the very definition of the cinematic movement centers on the concept of pushing buttons and envelopes while never quite giving in to the horrible realities of what’s being depicted. Exploitation was all about sex and violence that the mainstream moviemaking community wouldn’t dare touch. When the postmodern movement came, it quickly killed off the category, sending many in its trade off to obscurity, or pornography.

Back to Lemire and 12 Years. Gates also cited Django Unchained as the “other great movie about slavery” in the modern era, and it too contained a classic moment of splatter as Jamie Foxx’s character goes Scarface on an entire plantation of full of racists (to be fair, Gates was a consultant on that film as well). He wasn’t suggesting that Quentin Tarantino’s combination of spaghetti western and blaxspolitation was a well-made and definitive depiction of the era, only that it showcased an aspect of the cause that few want to fathom: revenge. Indeed, one can only assume that Ms. Lemire is so upset about the violence in McQueen’s movie because, when paired with the other telling aspects of the story, it sheds light on the horrific way the majority in America circa the 1840s treated the minority. In fact, it’s funny that she points out the gore and yet says very little about the more telling, significant slights presented.

Where is the outrage over “exploitation” when a mother is separated from her children and warned against weeping about it less she “pay” for such emotion? How about the constant references to people are “property” with its owners capable of doing “anything they want” with them? Would the movie be more effective had McQueen opted to focus on the finery of Southern plantation living and not the bilious hate on display from all around? In general, where is the outcry over the entire depiction of slavery in the South? Why aren’t the same teeth being gnashed over the notion of daily beatings, rapes, and other demeaning behavior? The violence may be the personal tipping point, but it’s important to understand that these things did happen. Sadly, we live in a “show me” society, and McQueen does just that.

In some ways, Ms. Lemire has an argument. Unless you are talking about the Mondo movies like Africa Addio or Goodbye Uncle Tom, most mainstream dramas deal with slavery in subtle, specious ways. There are hints and half-depictions, the better to hide the horrible truth: Americans systematically demoralized, debased, and dehumanized actual human beings because of their skin color and their necessity within the agrarian economy. They traded them like cattle and killed them off when they no longer fulfilled their purpose. Parse the “truth” all you want to, but McQueen deserves credit for creating a talking point which doesn’t back away from the facts. Those who can’t see 12 Years a Slave for what it is are destined to deny its import. If it needs to “exploit” a subject to get people to pay attention, so be it. Unfortunately, everything shown onscreen is part of our problem plagued legacy on the subject. You just can’t (and shouldn’t) hide the truth.