January 1, 2014
by Derek Defoe
Steve McQueen has emerged as one of the most fascinating filmmakers of this generation, dealing with stories where his characters attempt to make a physical penance for abstract ideals beyond their control or understanding. Hunger saw a man revolting inside prison walls by leading a hunger strike. Shame saw a man dealing with addiction and inducing his own sexual abuse and deviancy. 12 Years a Slave, his third feature-length film, is about Solomon Northup, a free black man in 1841, during the rampant years of slavery in the United States, who is sold into shackles- either by plain misfortune or cruel fate. He makes a simple mistake. He’s free, as is his wife and children. He’s well-off. He sees slaves here and there, he pays no mind, it doesn’t affect him. In these times he might be a black man who mistook himself for white. He’s a talented violinist, and he’s charmed by a duo claiming to represent a circus chain in Washington, promising high pay for his time and performances. Just a momentary lapse of judgement. Maybe it’s pride, or naivety, that doesn’t let him think twice about being as safe and privileged as anyone born white. He accepts the proposal. He’s grifted, drugged, and is sold, waking up in chains. This is McQueen’s most ambitious and searing film yet: the symbolic whips of penance become literal ones.
Northup isn’t the only one duped into such a horrific situation. He meets others like him. These are not the types of slaves we’ve seen stereotyped in other films (as fine of a picture as Gone With The Wind is, it’s an understatement that its portrayal of slaves causes great discomfort): they are learned, they can read and write, they’re eloquent, and poetic in their prose. It makes no difference if they don’t have documentation proving they are free (these days we call that documentation a birth certificate), and they are bought and sold like cattle. This is, of course, a true story, and McQueen treats the material with respect and a stunning sense of authenticity. The locations seem real, the work seems grueling, and I think with this account of the era it gives a certain understanding (understanding, not condoning) of the practicality and financial aspects of these plantations, and how these slaves were not cheap, and despite what may be depicted in other movies and the most horrific pages of the history books, it was in the best interest of the owners to keep them alive and healthy enough to maintain profitability, and that for monetary reasons slaves may find themselves going from plantation to plantation, as Northup does. He gives way to this kind of understanding, and even excuses his owner (played by Benedict Cumberatch), as a good man, “under the circumstances.” This does not sound like the reasoning of a slave in the 1840s. It’s as if he’s distancing himself from his own reality, as if it’s a nightmare from which he will soon wake. He speaks and acts like he usually would — under the circumstances. He still plays the violin, like it’s a piece of his old life that he can grasp to, like his soul cannot be bound by chains.
It’s Chiwitel Ejiofor’s remarkable performance that drives the film, and his pitch-perfect subtleties of resistance against the nightmarish situation and his acquiescence into the role of how a slave should be, should talk, and should act that display his struggle. The most interesting section of the film is when Northup is sold into a plantation owned by Edwin Epps, portrayed by McQueen regular Michael Fassbender. The two enter a chess match of wills, vying for power over the other. Epps knows, though not explicitly so, Northup’s secret, and sees it as an obligation to his race to break him. Fassbender, showcasing engrossing dimension as an actor, channels a very human type of evil that’s reminiscent of Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List- he’s a low man, but a man nonetheless, with his own conflicts, guilt and craving for penance all the same. He loves a slave girl on the plantation, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), though refuses to admit it to himself, and hates himself for it, and hates her. His association and affection for a black woman would make him no better than a black himself, and this disgusts him. Northup knows his secret.
I would not presume, nor would I have any right to presume, anything about Northup as a character or his real-life counterpart. This isn’t something as close-minded as saying he was living a nice, “white” life, which was wrong for him to do, as if the whole experience was some “lesson” for him to learn about what it means to be black. This is a 12-year test of character and will to survive that no one should have had to endure. But the gods have a strange sense of irony, and if it was fate that brought these two men, Northup and Epps, together in a struggle to face their own commonalities in a time when difference between white and black meant the difference between human and inhuman, then this is a complex rivalry that is heart-stopping to watch unfold.
This is not a “slavery is bad” morality lecture, it’s a lot more crucial than that. Slavery is an evil cloud looming over America’s history that cannot be cleared, there are white men depicted here who do unspeakable evil, then again there are those who do unspeakable good (Brad Pitt, obviously). In the film’s most cathartic and brutal scene, Epps is in a heated confrontation with Patsey, and aims to whip her. Instead, he forces Northup to do it at gun-point. Little of the violence is actually shown but it is traumatic all the same. If up until his kidnapping he was leading this “white” life, with everything good and pure and free about it, then here at this point, Northup finds himself clutching the very opposite and evil and blood-soaked side of this life in his hand. In the next scene, he destroys his violin: he does not smash it- he takes it apart piece by piece. The next scenes after that begin his journey to freedom.
12 Years a Slave is one of finest achievements of film in 2013. Steve Mcqueen has created a film that does not flinch in the face of a dark period in history, nor does it exploit, done with the filmmaking eye of a master - with the aid of Sean Bobbitt’s detailed and lively cinematography that captures epic and small moments indiscriminately. But it achieves more than style and authenticity, with its complex aspects to the characters that are as involving as they are truly challenging, and revealing. It continues the themes explored previously by McQueen, with the main character suffering unimaginable turmoil, thrust into it overnight, having it become very real, and surviving. It is a prayer for understanding, and yes, penance. 12 years of living first-hand accounts of the atrocities of slavery, once abstract, now a painful past, and Solomon’s words to his family are “Forgive me.”
Based on Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup