With his new film 12 Years a Slave earning rave reviews and Oscar buzz, British filmmaker Steve McQueen–whose background is in fine art and experimental filmmaking–is poised to become a darling of this year’s awards season. Accolades are pouring in for McQueen’s Slave for its powerful depiction of slavery and the dynamo performances of its cast. But to me the most interesting thing about Slave is what it means in the larger context of McQueen’s feature work. His films–Hunger (2008), Shame (2011), and Slave (2013)–each depict visceral, sometimes brutal explorations of human embodiment. They are centrally concerned with the body: its power, its limits, and the complex manner in which it interacts with one’s will.
12 Years a Slave, as any movie about slavery must be (including last year’s Django Unchained), is a harrowing look at the politics of the body. In the flesh-for-cash world of slavery, bodies are reduced to property: instruments of labor that can be beaten, whipped, lynched or worse with nary a conscience-pricked hesitation (this is all horrifyingly depicted in Slave). The illogic and evil of this is underscored by the plot of Slave, which follows free-born African American Solomon Northrup as he is kidnapped from his home in New York and sold into slavery in Louisiana, where he is in bondage for 12 years. McQueen foregrounds the shocking juxtaposition of the civilized, middle class Northrup at the film’s start–decked out in antebellum suit and top hat–with his stripped, beaten, bloodied body later as a slave. It makes the now familiar imagery of slavery seem shocking and horrific in a new way. A scene of Northrup and other naked slaves being “inspected” by auctioneers and white suit-clad aristocrat slaveowners has a similar effect.
One of Slave’s most indelible images is a prolonged, agonizing scene in which Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) hangs by a noose from a tree, his toes just barely touching the ground, enough to shift his weight around slightly but not enough to relieve the suffocating pull at his neck. McQueen’s camera stays on this painful scene for what seems like an eternity. It’s hard to watch, yet McQueen forces us to watch. As kids play in the background, and the lady of the plantation (Sarah Paulson) peers out coldly from a nearby balcony, we are confronted with the horrifying humiliation and degradation of a human body. Similar scenes (particularly a brutal lashing near the end of the film) are repeated throughout. Over and over again, the slaveholders express their power position by beating the slaves into submission. The idea is that over time, the relentless lashings will break the slave’s will–rendering him or her wholly obedient (which is to say largely powerless).
Yet the human body is resilient. One of the striking things about Slave is that it shows just how much bodily violation a human being can withstand. To keep living, to refuse to break (as Northrup does), is to wield the last shred of power an embodied being can exert. The opposite may also be true: To end one’s own life, especially when one is held captive as valued “property” of another, is in its own way an act of power. This is an idea flirted with in Slave by own of its most tragic characters. It’s also the idea at the center of McQueen’s first feature film, Hunger.
In that film, control over one’s body as a means of political power takes the form of the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike. As Bobby Sands, Michael Fassbender leads his IRA comrades in a statement of rebellion by refusing to bathe and then refusing to eat. In prison, these men have no freedom but the freedom one can wield (in some capacity) over one’s body. They intentionally wallow in their filth and refuse to bathe as a punishment to their captors. They refuse to eat until their demands are met. And yet one’s ability to push the body to extremes in this way, while retaining the ability to function, has its limits. In both Slave and Hunger we see visceral portraits of the bodiliness of bodies, simultaneously strong and frail, willed and wild, under and out of control.
McQueen’s second feature film, the controversial Shame, explores these same issues by depicting one man’s (Michael Fassbender) struggles with sex addiction. With its scenes of pain, frustration, guilt, and self-loathing, Shame soberly illustrates how one can be both master and slave to their body. Brandon (Fassbender) is at war with his carnality. Even while he is free to employ his physicality at will to charm any woman he wants into fulfilling his lustful desires (a form of power, to be sure), he cannot fight the bodily desires that plague him: to have more, and more, and more sex. Brandon finds himself a captive in his own body. The film’s deepest conflict is Brandon’s conscious desire to do one thing vs. a body that wants to do another.
In all his startling depictions of the raw carnality and fleshiness of humanity, McQueen is less interested in judging the morality of his characters’ actions as he is with observing the curious ways that humans attempt to control their bodies or abuse them as a sort of power play.
It’s interesting to consider these themes in light of our contemporary culture’s peculiar relationship with the body. Increasingly disembodied/digitized both in our expressions and perceptions of reality, are we becoming estranged from our own embodiment? Has our body become an abstracted other?
Think about all the ways we treat our bodies as almost alien things to be conquered and controlled:
We adopt bizarre diets and crazy fitness regimens to force our body into whatever beefed-up or slimmed-down physique we desire (often in efforts to mimic some idealized body image we’ve been mediated to envy). As a corollary to this, eating disorders are rampant.
We can purchase a medicine or an implant or a surgical procedure for almost anything we could possibly want our body to do or be.
We use contraception, and in some cases abortion, to stop the body from doing what it naturally does (procreate).
We use technologies and performance-enhancing drugs to push our bodies beyond the limits of what they can naturally do.
We pierce and tattoo our bodies, we reconceive our body’s gendered makeup, we twerk around like Miley Cyrus, all to declare our absolute ownership and dominion over the body, however transgressive it might be.
What does all of this say about the way we think about our bodies today? In some ways it’s simply a natural progression from the feminist and racial body politics of the latter twentieth century. What’s new is the extent to which technology is reshaping our understanding of embodiment and our ability to manipulate our bodies to our liking. Not only can we define our bodies, reshape them and package them to serve an agenda, but we can also manipulate how others see them. Think about Facebook/Instagram. In the Photoshop era of quick-click touchups and cropping, our actual embodiment is sometimes less important than the way it is portrayed to others. This is just another way we alienate ourselves from the body, even while we seek to control it more.
Is Steve McQueen conscious of these changing realities of how humans understand embodiment? Is that what’s behind his films’ preoccupations with bodies as symbols of power and politics? Perhaps. Or maybe he’s simply an artist with a particular fascination with the complexity and brutality of embodiment. In any case I find his vision absolutely fascinating, frequently beautiful, and provocative without being gratuitous. His films are not easy to watch, by any means, and I cannot in good conscience recommend Shame to anyone (I would never see it a second time). But Hunger and 12 Years a Slave are compelling works of art. Punishing, yes. But also profound.