Panel offers artistic critique of “12 Years a Slave”
Alex Winegar | Thursday, April 3, 2014
The Saint Mary’s Art Department screened Steve McQueen’s Oscar-winning film “12 Years a Slave” in Carroll Auditorium on Wednesday, followed by a panel discussion.
Tiffany Johnson Bidler, assistant professor of art, started the panel with her opinions on the comparison of McQueen’s gallery and video work.
“McQueen always communicates directly with viewers through what he calls the medium of aesthetic effect,” Bidler said. “What this means in a nutshell is that McQueen is interested in engaging viewers’ emotions. Much of McQueen’s gallery work addresses historical moments.”
Bidler said it was interesting to see connections between McQueen’s older work and “12 Years a Slave.” An example she gave concerned McQueen’s 1997 short film “Deadpan.”
“We see a couple of things that are evident in ‘Deadpan’ and also ‘12 Years a Slave,’” Bidler said. “First is the relationship between the projection and the viewer. The projection is large for deadpan and when you walk up to it, it is overwhelming.
“It only focuses on his face, which I also think he does in interesting ways in ‘12 Years a Slave.’ He focuses on the faces of the characters.”
Jamie Wagman, assistant professor of history and gender and women’s studies, gave a historical context to the 19th century and slavery. Child slavery began in the 1600s, and historians estimate that approximately 12 million African slaves endured the middle passage, Wagman said.
“Some people however never reflected on the morality of owning slaves,” Wagman said. “For example, historians have reason that George Washington, like many white slave owners, never gave much thought to slavery. We don’t have any evidence of any of his writings including slavery.”
Wagman said she wanted the audience to think about how McQueen exposes the ways in which men and women experience slavery in different ways. She said “The New Yorker” brought up an interesting perspective to viewers.
“The New Yorker recently brought up that this film leaves audiences grieving for thousands that were never able to tell their stories,” Wagman said. “I think that’s an important comment and I hope that’s something you’ll remember. So many people were born into and died into slavery; you will never know their stories.”
Junior Clarissa Frederick compared the movie to the novel and said the two were very similar.
“The movie did a great job of portraying the characters in the novel, but there were some things that I wish they would have expanded upon,” Frederick said. “I found Eliza and Patsey’s characters to be the most tragic of the entire novel, because … of the way that she begged to have her children stay with her.”
The biggest difference for Frederick was the character named Bass and his role with the main character Solomon.
“Bass, the one that helped him be freed, worked a lot harder to getting him free than what is shown,” Frederick said. “He worked for almost a year, sent out several letters, and when they weren’t hearing anything back he began saving up for the trip to Saratoga himself in order to petition to a long list of people that he knew to save him.
“He was an older man who took this as his mission in life to see this man free. Solomon is very grateful for him and prays for him every night, as said in the novel. He calls Bass his savior, and Bass saw Solomon as basically the reason he had lived that long.”
Rika Asai, visiting assistant professor of music, spoke on the importance of the soundtrack to the film. She said there are three categories of music on the soundtrack that include the sound effect, the music and the dialogue.
“Of these three categories, the dialogue is usually considered to be the most important element, but I think also we were all really aware as to how much silence there was in the film,” Asai said. “It wasn’t dead silence.
“There was a lot of ambient noise in there. I think the first time I watched this film, I had the sensation of feeling the heat of this film with the crickets and insects, and the wind of all of this. I think this is really part of this authenticity the sound world is trying to help us create.”
Asai said non-diegetic music helped the audience understand the emotion and importance of the movie.
“This idea of non-diegetic music, which means it is music that doesn’t take place within the world and the narrative, it is what the composer has scored to aid our understanding of the narrative and perhaps even characters,” Asai said.