Monday, 20 January 2014

The Physical Effects of Watching 12 Years a Slave

The Guardian writer Decca Aitkenhead stated in an interview with 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen that his films like to deal with the physicality of their subjects. It is an observation that I missed when I watched his first two films, Hunger and Shame, and one that was blindingly obvious when considered. Hunger subjects the viewer to images of starvation, with all the effects of it (scabs, sores,etc.) distinctly to the screen, leaving the audience to fully digest the agony that Bobby Sands (Micheal Fassbender) is putting his body through in protest. Shame is a film where a man's sexuality becomes his biggest downfall: his panting breath, his leering eye, and his aggressive sexual tactics all become repulsive.

This is an aspect of his films that make them as powerful as what they are. McQueen has stated that he just wants to represent on screen the honest physicality of what he sees, accurately depicting it, no matter how nasty that is. 12 Years a Slave is another film that portrays quite accurately the effects of slavery, from the flesh ripping of the skin of the slaves to the temper that brings slave keeper Epps (Fassbender) in a rage filled sweat.

The bit that is the most surprising for the viewer is the physical effects you feel as you watch it. For myself personally I moved from horror to disgust to heartbreak while my heart was beating fast and loud in my ears. I spent a lot of the film with my hand covering my mouth, as some scenes were just too agonising and I feared I would vomit, and also to stop me from shrieking at disgust. I also found myself crying at the inhumanity of the slave owners, literally tearing apart their workers, and also at the injustice that Solomon Northrup suffered after his return to freedom.

Leaving the cinema, both me and Richee were speechless, unable to describe the feelings brewing up in us. After a while, we came up with the word 'powerful', but really that wasn't enough to describe the brilliant but brutal film we just saw, and the realisation that what we just saw actually happened to people (the same effect I had after I saw these pictures of lynching in America). It took me a while to come down after seeing this film. It's a kind of shell-shock, a sadness at the horrific misdeeds that we do to each other under dubious conditions (both slave owners in the film use the Scripture as an excuse to keep and punish slaves). I know that slavery did happen, and still does happen, but its another to see a slave be whipped to the edge of their existence just because they want to be clean.

It is a testament to McQueen's extraordinary directing that a film can make you feel as deeply as this. Although it is a shame that it takes a film to do this (I never felt like this while learning about slavery at school), I'm glad this film exists, if only as an easily accessible way for people to educate themselves. This is an important film, and I hope you all watch it.

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