For my birthday, I went to see Twelve Years A Slave. But on reflection, maybe I really went because it’s Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent – the film reminded me most of all of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Both are important, worthy films, which involve a harrowing of the audience in the watching. You are asked as an audience to participate in the suffering of an innocent man – and in both cases, there is much extreme whipping.
Its great achievement is to give us a two hour taste of what it might have been to be a slave in the USA in the mid-nineteenth century. I wonder to what extent, though, it works as drama. There is very little hope in this film, and very little agency. It steers clear of the feel-good trajectory in which Solomon may have kept impressing his initial slave-owner to the point of achieving freedom. (It had to of course- I presume it was sticking to the outline of his real life account.) One by one, all his efforts to achieve his freedom come to naught. As a consequence, the rescue is really a kind of deus ex machina. Perhaps this is truer to life than dramatic form would demand. Perhaps it is not a drama so much as an example of a genre I shall dub ‘harrowings’.