(This article contains spoilers revealing the general nature of each film’s conclusion. Both films are adapted from existing memoirs and are therefore grounded in reality.)
In 12 Years a Slave (dir. Steve McQueen) and The Wolf of Wall Street (dir. Martin Scorsese), we contemplate abusers and the abused. In the former we are invited to sympathise with the sufferers, and in the latter, with the perpetrators. The two films are wildly different in tone, to the point where comparing them may seem absurd, but each illuminates the other; in their contrast their potency is vivified. Both based on true events, they concern human depravity. 12 Years a Slave has been praised for its confrontational realism, whereas The Wolf of Wall Street has proved controversial due to its alleged glorification of an amoral lifestyle. Each film concerns a man who is at one point incarcerated – one as a slave and another for his crimes – but ultimately walks free.
12 Years a Slave is the third feature film by McQueen, fine art filmmaker-extraordinaire turned director-proper. Based on the memoirs of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), it eloquently recounts twelve years in his life, as a nineteenth-century New Yorker and an articulate, free black man, who is kidnapped, sold into slavery, and forced to work on a cotton plantation in Louisiana. Scorsese brings us The Wolf of Wall Street with Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role as Jordan Belfort, a stockbroker who, with the help of his employees, illegally accrues millions of dollars fraudulently extracted from clients, which he proceeds to spend, for the most part, on sex and drugs. When seen in conjunction, these films ask us to consider certain nadirs of morality from opposing points of view. We are moved to compassion by the first narrative – McQueen cast Ejiofor for his “humanity” – whilst Scorsese’s is a spectacle of grotesquery at which we may marvel and recoil. Now a $30,000 an hour motivational speaker and businessman, the real Jordan Belfort has said of his days as a hedonistic crook, “you can get desensitised”. It would seem so; entire screenings of The Wolf of Wall Street have been sold to bankers to view en masse, with their clients. In these films, McQueen and Scorsese both probe humanity in contexts of extreme conditions and perverse economics.
McQueen’s film has attracted universal and ardent acclaim, possibly due to the way in which the director combines a harrowing, graphic account of real suffering, almost unbearable to watch, with a lucid awareness of the light and shade of such an extreme situation. McQueen knows that the gravitas of the film makes it possible for it to wield beauty. Filmed on location in New Orleans, the films’ willow and poplar trees dominate; there are remarkably few shots in which trees are not present. One slow, panning shot of trees reflected in a twilight river, the colour of molten bronze, is particularly hypnotic; the helplessness of the film’s beauty sharpens its brutality. The slaves cannot be free, but the trees are often seen gently buffeted by the breeze, and the widescreen format lends itself to the impossible freedom of the soaring branches in panorama. Yet in other shots we see the slaves laboring over sugar canes, hacking at them with scythes; we are reminded horribly of how humanity, alluded to by the trees and crops, is mutilated. The beauty of the trees is also violated by their use as a vehicle for lynching condemned slaves.
Even in the indoor shots, we see articulated, smooth wood in the form of Northup’s violin – in his former life, Northup was a musician. The violin is given to him by his first master, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), of whom Northup is a favourite. This brings us to another of the film’s shades of grey. Ford does not treat Northup benevolently because he is sympathetic to the plight of slaves; rather, it is because he is attracted to Northup’s intelligence. Ford is neither particularly good nor bad (although his employees are vile and racist), unlike Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who Northup is later sold on to. Epps sexually abuses Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), a young slave girl, and is the most sadistically violent character in the film. It seems that Epps would be depraved given the opportunity in any setting, whilst Ford in a way is a more challenging character for the viewer, as he seems to be an ordinary person going about his business in a dystopian context. The same spectrum of humanity becomes apparent amongst the community of slaves too – Patsey and Northup try to defend and protect one another when they can, but another slave, a white, alcoholic ex-overseer (Garret Dillahunt), betrays Northup’s ability to read and write to Epps when the chance arises, presumably to curry favour, or out of fear. At another point, Northup is forced by Epps to whip Patsey with a rope, in one of the film’s most tortuous scenes; he is compelled against his will to perform inhumane actions.
Scorsese’s film, on the other hand, is not in the business of subtlety: it looks to be flash, uncomfortably funny, and farcical. This demonstrates astutely how the economic bubble in which the characters are situated becomes unreal, and money meaningless. Belfort’s willful recklessness tells of the removal of his circle from what is real: in his isolation from reality he is debased, a machine enslaved to his own instant gratification. The characters are stupefied by their economic power; in 12 Years a Slave, the humanity of Northup is seen in augmentation through the foil of his reduced status to that of a commodity.
McQueen and Scorsese both reveal to us how distance can be put between thought and feeling concerning humanity in a commodity culture. 12 Years a Slave is redemptive in its cathartic release; an affirmation of human resilience and hope in the beauty that pierces its bleakness. As for The Wolf of Wall Street, the meaning of its narrative is yet to become fully apparent, as the plot thickens and develops in real life; Belfort will no doubt ride high on the wave of infamy that DiCaprio’s portrayal of him will fuel.