The film 12 Years a Slave, British director Steve McQueen’s antebellum Southern drama, sets a new standard in realistically depicting American slavery. With slavery at the heart of the paradox – the United States’ existence was founded on the principle of liberty – a mainstream film that depicts that bleak part of history is exceptional.
For that reason alone, 12 Years A Slave is probably the film event of the year, but worthiness in itself can be deadly – even if it does win Academy Awards. Fortunately, 12 Years a Slave is also exceptional as a film. Far from the push-button catharsis offered by most Hollywood redemption tales, the work is sober and deliberate, a mix of visceral intensity and artful design.
In contrast, most of the current cycle of historical civil rights movies, including Django Unchained, The Help and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, look as though they were made for and by children (the exception being Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln).
McQueen’s previous two art-house successes – the Irish prison drama Hunger (2008) and the sex-addiction film Shame (2011) – both starring Michael Fassbender, were dispassionate portraits of men in different kinds of hell. McQueen’s new film is painted on a larger canvas, using popular stars (Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch and Brad Pitt) who earned screams from behind the cordon at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, where the film won the People’s Choice Award. Yet its portrait of Solomon Northrup, a free black man living in New York in the 1840s who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, is another chronicle of wretchedness.
If Hunger was theatre of cruelty and Shame a contemporary opera, 12 Years a Slave is, like its source material, raw melodrama. The book, written by Northrup in 1853 with white co-author David Wilson and published a year after the century’s bestselling novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was intended to fuel abolitionist outrage at slavery. Yet while the film owes a debt to an effective, polemical tear-jerker, it’s framed with the cool detachment of McQueen, the Turner Prize-winning contemporary gallery artist. And screenwriter John Ridley (U-Turn, Three Kings) drafts a careful reconstruction of Northup’s testimony; the literary dialogue is often transferred directly from page to screen.
“Your story – it is an amazing one, and in no good way,” says Northrup’s eventual rescuer, a Canadian carpenter called Sam Bass (Pitt). While these people were closer to the King James Bible than we are today, the dialogue has the ring of writerly artifice. The director and screenwriter have chosen to replicate that instead of trying to make it more accessible or realistic.
McQueen has compared the 12 Years narrative to the fairy tale of Pinocchio, who was abducted into a strange and dangerous world. Some scenes of sun shining through giant sycamore trees in the Louisiana swamp, or of fields of sugar cane or cotton, suggest Terrence Malick’s nature images in The New World. Throughout, there is an emphasis on looking, often in long takes, and at times we’re witnessing torture that we’d rather not watch.
An early image in the film, echoed in later sequences, consists of a group of slaves in work clothes, standing in a field and staring warily at the camera. The shot suggests an anthropology textbook, or one of those 19th-century slave portraits. After the first long stare, we cut to a white overseer in front of a wall of tall reeds, instructing the slaves on how to harvest sugar cane.
The first flashback to Solomon’s early life as a free man seems like a hallucination. Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) appears in three-piece suit and top hat, walking the streets of Saratoga, N.Y., with his wife and family, greeting fellow townspeople. His background is briefly sketched. We know he’s a fiddler (also a farmer and handyman in real life) whose wife is going away to cook for a family for three weeks. On the village green one day, he is introduced to two strangers, somewhat absurd fancy talkers who say they work with the circus, and they offer him highly paid employment playing music for them, if he will just follow them to Washington.
After a journey and a night of drinking with his new companions, he awakes in a basement in chains. Solomon travels for the first years in bondage. After being taken on a boat to the Louisiana slave market, he is renamed Platt by a slave dealer (Paul Giamatti) and sold to the kindly and religious Ford (Cumberbatch). At first, he does not always hide his outrage well, losing his temper with a petty, sadistic overseer (Paul Dano) and turning the lash on him. He is barely saved from a lynching. To save his life, Ford sells Solomon to another owner, Edwin Epps (Fassbender), a man who prides himself on his ability to break strong-willed slaves.
Much of the remainder of the film is a psychological wrestling match between Solomon and Epps. At first, Epps seems like a stock villain (like Simon Legree, the cruel master in Uncle Tom’s Cabin), but Fassbender makes him into a more complex character. The script draws out the twisted dance of the master-slave relationship. Epps is alcoholic, violent and impulsive, but not entirely one-dimensional. He and his wife (Sarah Paulson) are caught in a bitter marriage, and their dependence on slave help seems to have made them infantile themselves. The central issue of the marriage is that Epps is sexually fixated on Solomon’s friend, a slave named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), who suffers as much from Epps’ attention as from her mistress’s jealous hatred.
In the film’s most graphic scene, Epps, partly to appease his wife and in a rage at his own confused emotions, has the young woman stripped, tied and whipped so violently a mist of blood forms each time the lash strikes. For comparable violence, you’d have to go to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. McQueen is partial to images that suggest religious iconography, so the parallel doesn’t seem entirely accidental. Audiences may reasonably ask why they should be shown such excruciating simulated torture; the director clearly thought the scene was important for those audiences to witness.
Solomon, meanwhile, is ingenious, patient and desperately determined, and he’s also our primary witness here. If there’s a coldness to McQueen’s gaze on suffering, Ejiofor, a British actor of Nigerian descent who previously starred in Kinky Boots and in Dirty Pretty Things, uses his wide, sad eyes and formal manner to maintain an empathetic, human connection. In a film where we are forced to confront that which is barely credible, Ejiofor’s performance provides a powerful countertone of understatement.