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An American odyssey of suffering: aesthetic strategies in Steve McQueen’s '12 Years a Slave'


Loren, Scott (2014). An American odyssey of suffering: aesthetic strategies in Steve McQueen’s '12 Years a Slave'. Anglia : Journal of English Philology, 132(2):336-351.

Abstract

In her seminal study on racial melodrama, Linda Williams suggested that “variations of the melodrama of black and white continue to be necessary to the way mass American culture ‘talks to itself’ about race” (2001: 301), with cinema as a means for cultures to reflect on unresolved social tensions through fictional forms. Williams’s choice of phraseology is reflexive of the theory informing her book: melodrama, a protean meta-genre and cultural mode, mobilizes cinematic aesthetic hyperbole and filmic realism, seeking to make an unspeakable moral order “legible”; a “mute text” used to conjure occult knowledge. Configured around signs of virtue and villainy through racial difference, racial melodrama’s Manichaeism of good and evil allows for intense, emotive cinematic identification, capable of reconciling “the irreconcilables of American culture” (Williams 2001: 299). Hailed as the most important cinematic event in years, the critical success of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013) seems to attest to the continuing legitimacy of Williams’s claims.3 This paper positions 12 Years a Slave in a melodramatic thematics of race. Examining the narrative and aesthetic strategies of McQueen’s adaptation alongside generic conventions, it considers the ways in which the film, as a racial melodrama, negotiates ambivalences and contingencies of historic national trauma through a narrative of Manichaean moral legibility.

Abstract

In her seminal study on racial melodrama, Linda Williams suggested that “variations of the melodrama of black and white continue to be necessary to the way mass American culture ‘talks to itself’ about race” (2001: 301), with cinema as a means for cultures to reflect on unresolved social tensions through fictional forms. Williams’s choice of phraseology is reflexive of the theory informing her book: melodrama, a protean meta-genre and cultural mode, mobilizes cinematic aesthetic hyperbole and filmic realism, seeking to make an unspeakable moral order “legible”; a “mute text” used to conjure occult knowledge. Configured around signs of virtue and villainy through racial difference, racial melodrama’s Manichaeism of good and evil allows for intense, emotive cinematic identification, capable of reconciling “the irreconcilables of American culture” (Williams 2001: 299). Hailed as the most important cinematic event in years, the critical success of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013) seems to attest to the continuing legitimacy of Williams’s claims.3 This paper positions 12 Years a Slave in a melodramatic thematics of race. Examining the narrative and aesthetic strategies of McQueen’s adaptation alongside generic conventions, it considers the ways in which the film, as a racial melodrama, negotiates ambivalences and contingencies of historic national trauma through a narrative of Manichaean moral legibility.

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Additional indexing

Item Type:Journal Article, refereed, original work
Communities & Collections:06 Faculty of Arts > English Department
Dewey Decimal Classification:820 English & Old English literatures
Language:English
Date:July 2014
Deposited On:11 Sep 2018 14:34
Last Modified:11 Sep 2018 14:36
Publisher:De Gruyter
ISSN:0340-5222
OA Status:Green
Publisher DOI:https://doi.org/10.1515/ang-2014-0033
Related URLs:https://www.alexandria.unisg.ch/234109/ (Organisation)

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