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Prostitution and slavery. One you rent and one you buy. Both contain a vast variety of metaphorical meanings, but sometimes a slave is just a slave and slavery is wrong.
This is what 12 Years as a Slave teaches us and movies like Amistad and Django Unchained do not. But the latter two, which also delve into the wrongs of slavery, fail for entirely different reasons.
Amistad at least attempted to give us a sense of the anger and pain of being enslaved, even when the movie turned into a courtroom drama that proved the system ‘capable of change’: A Supreme Court packed with Southerners could not only free Cinque and the other people taken hostage on the Amistad, but actually made a statement supporting this revolt of free men. The film never mentions that during that fine hour when the Supreme Court made its ruling (United States v. Libellants and Claimants of the Schooner Amistad, 40 U.S. 518 ), millions of slaves were being legally forced to work as human chattel all over the United States. At least Chiwetel Ejiofor got his first shot at the star-making machinery stateside.
But I can appreciate Amistad. Whatever its failings, it’s a good Hollywood film. The same cannot be said of Django Unchained, and this dog just looks that much worse standing next to 12 Years a Slave.
For Tarantino slavery is just an excuse to create a posse of marketable action figures as ridiculous as the ones in Team America; World Police. Django Unchained fails because it’s amoral. What happens when you mash up a Spaghetti Western and a Slave Narrative? An act of deep historical ignorance.
Mind you, I’ve enjoyed any number of movies based on comics or illustrated novels. They use a storybook form that is a natural companion for a movie.
And some of Tarantino’s work has been revolutionary: Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction had a powerful impact. I even have a soft spot for Inglourious Basterds—Christoph Waltz’s performance is indeed Oscar-quality. But Tarantino’s work has more or less gone on a 10-year run, getting progressively worse along the way. The decline is highlighted when an exercise in bullshitting the audience such as Django Unchained stands exposed beside a movie with such shocking verisimilitude as 12 Years a Slave.
It isn’t just that the caricatures of Django Unchained are black and white. The problem is the characters’ sense of right and wrong can be colored by the number. We get a painting but it’s s-o-o-o boring. What creates this feeling is Tarantino’s way of distancing the viewer from anything happening on screen. How is anyone supposed to believe in the fountains of blood spurting up from a severed artery in Kill Bill, the sociopathic Jewish killers of Inglourious Basterds, or a plantation called Candyland? We’re not, and these films, hell-bent on showing the strings through the use of parody and irony, leave us empty. I came out of Django Unchained knowing no particular truth. Slavery was just a form of entertainment, another triumph of historical revisionism.
12 Years a Slave is also just a movie and therefore produced with the hope that it will make money—but what a movie! Was anyone thinking of anything besides what they’ve seen when they left the theater?
Interestingly, McQueen is a very stylish director. His earlier movies Shame and Hunger showed a real auteur at work, but I can’t think of a director in the United States working commercial screens who has evoked such revulsion since David Lynch. (Isn’t Elephant Man also a tale of Slavery?)
Silence is the key. So many movies coming out these days are as decibel-amped as an airport. It’s Wagner taken to the umpteenth degree. I wish that McQueen had tuned his soundtrack down as it became overbearing at times. But when the film returned to silence, I was captured by the short lines of dialogue or small sounds that would then dominate a scene. Because of the lack of distracting music we hear Solomon grunting as he stands on his tippy toes with a noose around his neck. The other slaves saunter by in the background, never turning to look at this man hovering between life and death as the scene fades from the early afternoon to dusk. It still shocks me to think of it.
Above all we feel Solomon’s trauma, which is the trauma suffered by anyone who is enslaved. The era Pulp Fiction ushered in, that of the smartass, post-modern auteur, is now officially over. Twenty years is a good run but as Ezra Pound said, “The age demanded an image/Of its accelerated grimace”. Now we’re back to basics like shelter and hunger. Verisimilitude triumphs over irony because it’s what our time demands.