I recently watched the Steve McQueen film Twelve Years A Slave. It was the very definition of a tour de force – it genuinely is one of the most striking and utterly compelling stories ever committed to film. As anybody who has seen Shame or Hunger will tell you, McQueen knows how to make extraordinary cinema.
The only problem (and it really isn’t a problem, per say) is that the director seems somehow duty bound to chronicle the very worst aspects of the human condition. The 2011 film Shame may not have been based on a true story like Twelve Years A Slave and Hunger, but it is every bit as harrowing. There is degradation, disgust, violence, depression, grief and intense physical misfortune in all three of McQueen’s existing films.
There is also an abundance of hope, IF you have the stomach to stick around and wait for it.
When it comes to Shame and Hunger, I accept the fact that not everybody is keen to endure McQueen’s famously long shots and staunch refusal to cut away from intensely unpleasant scenes. I get it – they’re hard films, really hard. They’re incredibly important films, but I can accept that they don’t have the same relevance for every type of audience.
For example, Hunger is a tremendously British film – it chronicles a uniquely British situation that didn’t have a direct impact on the rest of the world. To a British audience, it simply means more. I cannot accept the same explanation or excuse for Twelve Years A Slave.
I’m personally offended by the amount of middle class white people who have complained about the harsh nature of this film – American and British. You have no right to be comfortable with the reality of slavery. Who told you that you had a right to turn away? It is designed to hurt, it is meant to make your fingers and the hairs on the back of your neck curl up in revulsion. If you had any true sense of humanity in you, you’d bear it quietly and with humility like the rest of us.
Because this isn’t fiction. It doesn’t go away when you turn the movie off and go to bed – this was real life for millions and millions of people for a very long time. There is a very good reason why a graphic five minute scene of a black teenager being flogged is bound to make you feel a little ill inside. It’s because you know full well that you’re not watching something that you can detach yourself from – not if you’re a decent human being.
It’s exactly how McQueen wants his audiences to feel and it’s exactly how they should feel. For the record – I hated it. I curled my toes up, hid behind the sofa cushions and prayed for some of the scenes in Twelve Years A Slave to end. I didn’t consider turning it off for a moment.
What’s five minutes of uncomfortable cinema compared to a lifetime of pain and suffering, all for something you can’t change and have no control over?
I’m not some sort of evangelical film fan who thinks that every movie is a life changing work of art, but I do staunchly believe that to turn THIS film off is a betrayal of sorts – even if you’re only betraying yourself in the end.
It is far too easy for white people to hide from the difficult truths and lessons of history. I simply don’t understand all of those people who go round denying their need to learn about or acknowledge slavery. They say ridiculous things like ‘It was a long time ago, it isn’t anything to do with my generation.’
Unfortunately, white guilt for the imprisonment and torture of an entire race of people doesn’t really come with an expiration date. If you live on this planet and you have white skin, it is your responsibility as a human being to recognise that simple fact.
And for Christ’s sake, watch the fucking film. You might learn something.