12 Years a Slave: A Slave to Image Over Emotion
Why a film that should have been exceptional is soulless and sadomasochistic
Jan 19, 2015
Within the first few seconds of 12 Years a Slave, I was struck by the familiarity of the music, confirming my suspicion that Hans Zimmer, my most beloved composer of all time, is credited with the film score. I recognized it instantly because I was hearing the same bars from Inception*, with a changed note at the end. Yes, this is recycled music—which would be fine (the famous theme song for Pirates of the Caribbean is a reworking of The Battle from Gladiator) if not for the fact that those few bars were repeated throughout the 134 minutes. Every time there’s a sappy scene, or a scene of any emotional gravity at all, that little tune is there to suggest it. “The nature sounds are better in this film,” I expressed in earnest. In fact, the same kind of sore famine plagues the whole film.
For a film meant to invoke feeling (or is it?), 12 Years a Slave is completely devoid of it. Steve McQueen’s Oscar winner is treated with the artistically beautiful grace of his own astrological chart. McQueen, a Libra, casts an impersonal light on the film, objectifying the story and the characters. I’m among the most sentimental of viewers (I’ll tear up over someone drinking tea), and I felt detached through most of it. The morning after watching it, I declared it was like watching a war unfold without a window into the people involved in the war.
Libra as an astrological symbol can feel challenged by emotions, preferring to rationalize them. Where the movie does excel is its artistry, and this too is strongly attested to by McQueen’s Jupiter being directly on his Sun in Libra, the sign of poetry. This means expansive, even grandiose artistic vision for the filmmaker. Indeed, we are treated to the poetic beauty of burning a letter of hope in the flames of a candle, over the reward of seeing the main character, Solomon Northup’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) hopelessness humanly expressed. This Libran preference for beauty over gravity marks the nature of the film.
To add more rationalism into the mix, the movie derives its emotions from the fact that Solomon isn’t supposed to be a slave. In no way do we see how Solomon experiences the degradation of his quality of life as a slave; his internal response to the adjustments he has to make, or the misery he undoubtedly must feel for these losses. In fact, we never even experience the agony of his loss of family, much less his loss of freedom. The audience is left assigning or imagining his inner anguish instead, because we all understand that it’s inherently awful to lose your loved ones and your life. I’m all for subtlety over overt drama, yet Solomon’s feeling-experience of his plight is barely conveyed, vocally, by facial expression or body language.
Steve McQueen’s other key planet, the Moon is in Virgo. A sort of Libran aloofness combined with the Virgo plodding for simple physical “survival” takes precedence over the heart’s fight for its life. During his kidnapping, the main character movingly states that he does not wish to survive; he wishes to live. That gained an affirmative nod and “I feel you” from me. But as the film ticks on, we never find out what living is to Solomon. The film had the best device of all for evoking empathy and affection from the viewer—music. Once again, it fails. We never gain a sense of the comfort or meaning Solomon derives from his violin. If the Libra/Virgo director was less determined to beautifully show human injustices and more attune to the artistry of emotional build, he’d have exploited the instrument to gain a truly rewarding emotional payoff. Imagine Solomon suffering doubly hard in his new enslavement due to the absence of his music, and the lighting up of his aura upon receiving it. But alas, as with its leftover musical score, emotional build is missing entirely from this film that I can best call a “display of scenes.” Venus is Libra’s patron; a symbol for vanity, the display of glamour.
In fact, 12 Years a Slave is a work of artistry with the sole mission to display injustice. Jupiter on McQueen’s Sun doubles his enthusiasm for this, because this planet is the “judge” or deals with judicial matters. The feeling gained from the viewing of injustice after injustice is half-baked, at best. We know Solomon is undergoing an injustice, but we know nothing about his personal hopes, wishes, dreams. He has little personal narrative other than his enslavement. We receive almost insulting flashbacks to him laying with his wife, but we never see the experience of remembering his wife in his face.
If McQueen had been more in touch with the humanity of his Moon in Virgo versus the drudgery, the net result would have been far more rewarding. Ed Gonzalez said it best in his review of the film, that McQueen “lacks the passion . . . to truly connect his affectations to the spirit of human struggle.” The Moon, representing the seat of your emotionality, is really the seat of your passion, and earthy Virgo is a “cold” (by temperature), dry sign, not well suited to the heat of affection. Libra, an air sign, is the opposite, but can be prone to indifference and left-brain thought patterns.
There’s a dark caveat to McQueen’s Moon that testifies to the abundance of torture scenes in 12 Years a Slave. The director’s Moon is overwhelmed by grave-digging planet Pluto, which symbolizes none other than the Master/Slave relationship. In astrology, Pluto deals with possession, which by extension covers bondage and sado-masochism.
Without engaging the little moments of laughter, recognition and tears to humanize the characters, the scenes are essentially snippets of human horrors. McQueen, with his significant Moon-Pluto connection, would be keen on arousing horrors. Self-inflicted pain and death are a characteristic of the Moon-Pluto pairing, and sure enough, Patsey’s (Lupita Nyong’o) plea for her own murder is his invention, not history’s. In order to detach myself from the reprehensible brutality that was about to ensue when she was being stripped naked for flogging, I made a remark about it being fetish fare. The person watching with me was more reverent, which created a sorriness in the moment, but in retrospect I am glad I said it, because it was probably truer to the spirit of the scene. Patsey didn’t need to be naked for the event. True to Pluto, she was stripped to demonstrate the extremes of possession and its accompanying humiliation.
The DailyMail calls it “one of the most compelling accounts of the brutal slave era ever made,” and the key word is “brutal,” but how powerful are these accounts, really? I was surprised to hear viewers and critics honing in on the film’s brutality, using words like “repugnant” and “atrocities,” when I felt it was light fare compared to Roots. But I realized the atrocities here weren’t experienced as powerfully as in Roots because we have less of an emotional investment and stake in the characters. Looking back at your viewing of this film, you may admit that you only cared for the characters because you ethically had to. In other words, the unspeakable injustices they experience as human beings garner sympathy, but not the characters themselves. And the reason is simple: We are not acquainted enough with their drives and their lives. While a two-hour film allows for less exploration of character than a miniseries, 12 Years a Slave finds ample time to artistically dwindle and pause on scenes to expose an injustice.
The Virgo Moon is all about working to satisfy, and that’s exactly what we see Solomon do. In fact, I was a little jarred by how easily Solomon settled into his slavery, only to discover he was essentially sucking up to slave master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) in hopes of being rewarded his freedom. Playing the “pleasing game” is further backed up by McQueen’s Libra Sun-Jupiter.
When all is said and done, 12 Years a Slave functions as more of a History channel documentary than a movie with rounded characters and ascending climax. Characters flit in and out of scenes without ever impressing us with their humanity; only their pain. And pain is intrinsically human, isn’t it? That seems to be the message of McQueen’s Moon-Pluto. (This “wounding” runs deep for the filmmaker, who also has “wounded” Chiron opposing his own Moon). Each character serves as a new cardboard cut-out to fill in the narrative of the “documentary.” Each cut-out is also an actor’s cameo, ending with Brad Pitt, who plays the quintessential Sagittarian sage or Santa Claus, the “reward” of the hero’s journey or deux de machine of the narrative. He uses the word “truth” more than once and shocks people with his provocative, expansive beliefs! Indeed, Mr. Pitt, or Mr. Sagittarius himself is the way out, the way to freedom. (For those of you that don’t know, freedom is a concept fundamental to Sagittarius).
The overall effect is much like the Virgo penchant for routine and physical struggle, day in and day out. The film’s subject matter inherently garners the sympathy of the world and its glamorized aesthetics may charm and enchant the world of the Oscars, yet 12 Years a Slave is underdeveloped and unexceptional, plagued by the mediocrity of a stock fare slave narrative. It serves those in need of a shock drama to hoist them out of their pretty lounge chairs. But the shock values don’t even compare to that of Roots due to missed moments of spirit, sweetness and soul. The biography of Northup himself deserves our awe and amazement, and the movie relies on this for its commendations. Astrology backs up the net result: Jupiter, patron of judges inflating McQueen’s Sun in the sign of the judge, Libra, delivers little more than impersonal, moralizing propaganda as Oscar bait. Personally, I’ll stick to experiencing the overwhelming complexity and realism of this dark period in history from the part-fictional Roots.
*Want to hear it for yourself? Listen to DiCaprio’s farewells to his wife or the airport scene at the end of Inception, or play the last half of Dream Within a Dream from the soundtrack.
Dar Alexander is the founder of Daemon Entertainment and advocate for Emotional Freedom.