Slavery is rightfully considered the darkest mark on America’s 237-year history. It was the issue that defined 19th Century America, and one of many examples in humanity’s narrative of the oppression of one people at the hands of another. “12 Years a Slave” is a brutal but necessary reminder of that evil. It is a film that sugarcoats nothing and struggles desperately with the entire notion of justice.
Director Steve McQueen makes a big career leap with this biographical epic of Solomon Northup, a free black man and talented violinist who in 1841 was kidnapped and sold into slavery, which he remained in for 12 years before a fortunate encounter with an abolitionist eventually led to his freedom. McQueen has shown a deft hand for uncomfortable subject matters (his last film, “Shame,” tackled sex addiction in a melancholy way) and so slavery is something he seems apt to handle, and he does so with painful magnificence.
As with “Shame,” McQueen works diligently at transmitting the experience of his characters onto the audience, and so “12 Years a Slave” becomes more than a mental and intellectual exercise, but an emotional, full-body experience. It is eye-opening, heartbreaking, gut-wrenching and soul-shaking, the kind of film that will challenge you for a seemingly endless 2 hours and 15 minutes and then for a long time after you walk away from it.
And that seems to be the idea. McQueen doesn’t want anyone who sees his film to get too comfortable, because there’s nothing comfortable about what African-Americans endured during slavery. If that’s what some people had to deal with their entire lives, you can watch it for 135 minutes. All the beating, whipping, hanging, fighting, abusing, raping and degrading slurs occur with a relentlessness arguably unprecedented in film history. Every scene featuring one of these horrific things goes on just a little longer than we expect — or what Hollywood has conditioned us for — enough so that we must really internalize it and practically beg for it to stop. Rarely do these kinds of large-scope biopics ever feel as though they occur in real time, but McQueen gives us a number of scenes that do, and it has a serious impact.
From the moment the drugged Solomon wakes up to find his hands and feet chained, the abuse begins. When he refuses to accept his newly given identity as Platt, a runaway slave from Georgia, he gets a brutal beating from his captors, and he continues to face violence the more he speaks up and/or demonstrates the qualities of a learned man. Solomon’s decision process on how he should behave factors throughout the film. He must constantly weigh whether to hold steadfast to his identity and his beliefs at risk of provoking anger and getting himself killed, or to keep his head down and feign ignorance in order to survive.
This balancing act in the face of all kinds of horrific circumstances comprises Chiwetel Ejiofor’s career-making performance as Solomon. Solomon works hard for the two plantation owners in the film, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Epps (Michael Fassbender), but he must lie and manipulate to save his hide (literally in some cases) and he never stands down when mistreated or falsely accused, earning a stern and watchful eye from “his owners.” Then there’s the underlying element of Solomon’s longing for home and family, his simple but powerful motivation throughout the film. Ejiofor elicits our sympathy with ease and conveys Solomon’s inner toil at countless points throughout the film with complex emotions rather than riding the more dominant ones such as anger, fear and sadness, which John Ridley’s script and McQueen’s direction craft so effectively.
Much of the film’s stellar cast is difficult to praise, because they play such despicable characters. Paul Giamatti as a slave trader and Paul Dano as a power-hungry labor manager of sorts are especially good at being awful. Fassbender is brilliant as Epps despite the character’s countless flaws, and it’s even worse because the script gives us a window into Epps’ conscience, and we see him make the choice to fall victim to his pride and continue his poor behavior time after time. Even the seemingly “better” characters, aren’t any good. Cumberbatch’s Ford is a sympathetic and caring man, but one with no stones, as he accepts the slave system and does nothing to stand up to those who show true bigotry. The only praiseworthy supporting performance of a praiseworthy character is comes from Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey, a young slave woman who works hard and keeps her chin up only to be struck down time and time again. What she had to do as an actress is award-worthy in and of itself.
One gets the sense these many esteemed actors took parts in this film believing that telling this story was so important that it didn’t matter if they were having to play awful roles and do and say terrible things on screen. They must especially revere McQueen, and rightfully so. McQueen pulls off what every true cinephile fantasizes about; independent directors bringing their non-traditional artistic vision to the type of film you’d expect Hollywood to make and consequently dumb down. This is not the Steven Spielberg with a sweeping John Williams score version of slavery; this is an the unapologetic, gritty, haunting and beautiful version.
Many will argue against the authenticity of this version, that it is excessively violent and pointlessly so, that Ridley and McQueen have exaggerated and amplified the horrible nature of slavery for purpose of shock value. Taking such a position, however, comes from a place of fear. To insist that “12 Years a Slave” be less brutal is to wish slavery were less brutal. Real life does not cut, fade to black or a pick a gentler angle when it comes to hate and violence. The fact that McQueen dared to take such a stance with his film and that the producers all appear to have stood behind him based on the film’s final cut, deserves to be lauded as an act of true cinematic bravery.
Film is considered an escapist medium, and that’s what we love about it, but “12 Years a Slave” shows how powerful narrative storytelling can be when it is used to explore the deepest darkest corners of human existence, the things we prefer not to confront or talk about yet define us as much as anything. It is the kind of film that has the potential to profoundly affect your perspective as a human being and that happens so very rarely.
12 Years a Slave
Directed by Steve McQueen
Written by John Ridley, Solomon Northup (book)
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch