Steve McQueen’s political subjects and the rare miracle of 12 Years a Slave

Steven McQueen with his 2014 Best Picture Oscar. EPA/Paul Buck

The last man standing at the recent Academy Awards was the director/producer of the acclaimed 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen. I for one was happy, for complex reasons, to see him there; not least because his work for the cinema has displayed a striking unity over the past six years.

Like an artist of the old school, McQueen is actively working out a singular problem from film to film. But how does his newly crowned “Best Picture” contribute to the solution he is offering?

His signature style — a formal asceticism, classical compositions, long takes, elegant and understated tracks and pans, a kind of figural abstraction, matched with visceral and confronting affective materials — is fused together by its consistent subject matter, which is nothing other that the “subject” itself.

McQueen’s problem is the problem of the human subject — but not as we know it.

The protagonists of his three feature films to date share a common crisis in their status as social persons. The hunger-striker Bobby Sands in McQueen’s breakthrough Hunger is purified down to a militant demand for justice. He sheds all other connections to the world, his body wastes away, and he attains a state of grace. His true “subjectivity” is this singular passion, and has nothing to do with family, state, or institution.

Trailer for Hunger.

In Shame, which followed, McQueen tried a dark variation on the same theme. Advertising executive Brandon Sullivan similarly revolves around an obsessive drive, the sexual one. Neither the pleasures of occupation nor the demands of family life can finally put a dent in Brandon’s true and sincere passion, which is genital pleasure. Attaining it is shame, but it is nevertheless a realisation of his innermost subjectivity.

Trailer for Shame (2011).

12 Years a Slave concerns the true story of a free black man kidnapped into slavery. Torn from the security of his comfortable place in New York State society, Solomon Northup is subjected to every humiliation, depredation and torture as a slave in the antebellum plantation South. Once again, a person is reduced about as far as he can be before ceasing to be at all.

Trailer for 12 Years a Slave.

But something is wrong here.

Solomon Northup is a character who, in the end, fails to live up to the standards set by McQueen’s previous protagonists. He never, truly, becomes a subject in that sense — lit up by a singular passion that melts away his sense of self.

Solomon clings to the very things that McQueen’s other protagonists sacrifice: his name, and his station in life. Where those men are ultimately disburdened of their everyday identities and responsibilities in order to focus on their Duty (be it heroic or perverse), Solomon cannot relinquish his precious identity.

We are introduced to that dignified personage in flashback sequences, where the solid bourgeois figure of Northup strolls with his family, shopping in the respectability of his income and law-abiding decency. It is a figure of some stature and density. But it is not a subject in the way McQueen has taught us to consider it.

Throughout the length of the film, though he is savagely beaten, worked near to death, betrayed, insulted, shamed, and forced externally to adopt an entirely new identity, Solomon never cedes on his prior self. Time and again, though he is warned of the likely cost to himself and others, Solomon reaches out to others with the news that he is not a slave.

Every time he does this, Solomon disavows his slavery, and so his identity with the men and women who work alongside him. Every time he says “My name is Solomon Northup,” though he has legally been “Platt” for several years, he reaffirms a categorical distinction from his class that forestalls any political or “subjective” idea from taking root in his erudite, sensitive and capacious mind.

Time and again, we find that Solomon fails the subjective test of his situation. Think about the significance of his relationship with Patsey.

Patsey is far and away the “best nigger” on the Epps plantation, regularly picking more than double the cotton of any other slave, man or woman. Her herculean efforts, contraindicated by her diminutive stature, mark her out as utterly exceptional.

Indeed, Patsey is the one character in this film purified into a subjective passion. She has no “self” left in any conventional sense. It has been worked, beaten and raped out of existence. Though we are long kept in the dark about her subjective kernel of truth, we are sure that it is there, because it balances her suicidal tendencies and bathes her in a glow of beauty and majesty.

We learn near the very end what it is: it is the desire to be clean. McQueen watchers will remember the transcendent grace of the late scenes in Hunger, where the starving Bobby Sands is tenderly bathed.

Patsey, too, will have her bath. She will be clean, or she will die. That is her crazy, imperious, “subjective” demand.

Leaving Epps’ jealous oversight one critical Sunday, she walks the many miles to her only patron for a simple bar of soap, as Mrs Epps has deprived her of the privilege. The risk seals her fate: she is whipped past the point of endurance. It is only when Solomon cradles her unconscious form that the soap drops from her hand.

The point of this is that Patsey has already approached Solomon with her legitimate wish to be killed. She invests him with the responsibility of acting on behalf of her proud desire to be clean or be dead. And he fails.

Slavery does not allow Patsey to be clean. It is the common element of filth. Every bath is undone by torrents of gore. So, she insists, you must take me to the river and drown me in cleanliness. It is not said in despair, but in the accents of joy. For she sees in Solomon the possibility of a transfiguration into pure soul.

His reaction is typically self-interested, accusing her of melodramatic despair and withdrawing in horror from the sin she is asking of him.

This blindness costs him, on my count, his own soul. His unshakeable belief in the propriety of his own bourgeois identity prevents him from recognising subjective truth when it confronts him, let alone in himself. He has failed Patsey’s desire, and become complicit in her savage mistreatment. Every day that he refuses to kill her, he sentences her to more and more filth and agony.

The look she gives him from the pallet she lies on in horrific pain after the whipping requires no words. His betrayal is absolute. It continues into the departure scene, after his miraculous salvation by a Canadian deus ex machina, where Patsey, screaming his name, is suddenly reduced to a small, out-of-focus blur and collapses off-screen as the camera dwells on Solomon’s haunted face.

He returns to home and family, in a final scene that wallows so deeply in sentimentality that its falsehood is keenly felt.

Is McQueen asking us to tabulate the costs of refusing to be a subject, and clinging to one’s narcissistic self-image as a rounded, middle-class, propertied person? This crashing return to the banal individual Solomon has all along insisted on being has, for me, the force of a death sentence.

He who had had a chance to release the soul of the only exceptional human being he had been privileged to know, and join it with his own, has slunk off to the insipid and mortal creature comforts of home. There is nothing more to say; the film is over. The outward appearance of heroic survival is corrupted by an ethical failure, and a shame, so total that it will surely outlive him.

The true title of this film is 12 Years Not a Slave. Slavery is not a period, it is a condition of being. Its purpose is to obliterate identities and convert bodies into property. But in its very extremity, it precipitates rare miracles of subjectivity. Such miracles took place here and there, in exceptional subjects, reduced to hard edges of pure intensity that cut like razors through the social fabric of slavery.

Patsey is the name of one potential miracle, unfulfilled due to our protagonist’s moral cowardice.

We read about a fully realised such miracle, of sacrificial love, in Toni Morrison’s Beloved; others took a more openly political form: insurrections, collective escape plots, epic stands of grand resistance.

Subjects flared gloriously across the plantation South in rare explosions of egalitarian passion. Solomon Northup, more’s the pity, was not one of them. His lesson is a negative one.