After my screening of 12 Years a Slave, Director Steve McQueen took the stage to discuss his soulful and undiluted window into the West’s greatest sin. “I wanted it to feel like science fiction,” the filmmaker said of his approach towards the abolished American institution whose effects still reverberate in our own time. And in his intended sense, he more than succeeded.
12 Years a Slave is a staggering achievement in moviemaking that not only tells a captivating story, but transports its viewers to a time and place where a distant injustice becomes an agonizing reality. In this adaptation of the life of Solomon Northup, the born-freeman from upstate New York is a tragic hero who must descend into fires deeper than any Hell or Hades—he’s headed to the Antebellum South. And through his perspective, we are forced to recognize the uncomfortable truths about this world anew, feeding anxiety into our own.
The movie opens in 1841 upon a relatively happy and content Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Born in the Northern states, Northup is a proud individualist and family man who takes white men at their word when they say that they’re enchanted by his fiddle playing. Hence after being offered the highest payments and first class treatment for a week’s work in Washington, he mistakenly believes them.
The sequence of Solomon waking up the morning after a night of drunken revelry, chains emerging from the pools of darkness like snakes striking at his limbs, is one of the most disturbing in recent memory. Like Solomon, we rationalize the horror and underhanded evil far too late. As with much of the film, this nightmare is uncoiled in a nonlinear fashion where McQueen and editor Joe Walker intercut between the present and an unseen past, whereupon each “kindness” by the smiling patrons of Hamilton and Brown is simply one more link being etched in the chain. Alone and with no official identification, the quite literally blue-eyed devil (the one feature cinematographer Sean Bobbitt chooses to emphasize) has Solomon’s soul now. And the kidnapper makes sure that Solomon understands this by beating him half-to-death in one unmerciful long shot that concludes with the wooden club shattering on Solomon’s back…and the slaver then grabbing another to continue his good work.
That is only the first 15 minutes. Not a frame is wasted in this confidently paced, and perfectly assembled trip into a true heart of darkness. Despite its nearly two and a half hour running time, this film moves like an efficiently operated vehicle as it peers into the times that tried far too many men’s souls. 12 Years a Slave is a wonderfully emotional experience that exposes many facets of humanity, both good and grimly evil, but it could not be called a sentimental one. Instead, it is an unflinchingly raw portrait of the finely tuned machine that was nigh unstoppable in the United States during the twilight years before the Civil War. Solomon’s despair is so methodically institutionalized that even Hans Zimmer’s score rarely stops in its mechanical hiss toward oblivion. As Solomon is shipped down the river, from the Capitol to New Orleans, he is on his own odyssey that glances many of the elements defining the “slave narrative.”
Within the belly of Louisiana, he meets a variety of masters and foremen, each with a unique style. There is Master William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), the God-fearing gentleman who reluctantly acquiesces himself to the realities of plantation life when he purchases “Platt” (Solomon’s new name) and later separates a mother from her half-white child (too valuable for traders when she grows up). There is also Ford’s overseer John Tibeats (Paul Dano), a simpleton that’s overeager to take off his belt for a slave that is better educated than he. Paul Giamatti, Garret Dillahunt and a multitude of others display varying acts of kindness and cruelty to the “property.” However, the one thing they share in common is a silent acknowledgement that “Platt” is different, and how that may be a threat. Ford, played with genuine empathy by Cumberbatch, may give Solomon a fiddle to entertain, but he and his wife have no more thought about separating a family beyond the condescending words, “Soon, you’ll forget about your children.” At the end of the day, Platt’s obvious awareness is both a mild curiosity and a danger to the extremely comfortable status quo.
However, nothing quite compares to the Epps Plantation, where Solomon finds himself living for the bulk of his trials and tribulations. Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) and his darling wife Mary Epps (Sarah Paulson) rule their home with a pair of iron fists—which they often aim at each other, not caring who gets crushed in the middle. Edwin, a proud “Nigger Breaker,” has his slaves whipped daily if they pick less than 200 pounds of cotton, and is always prepared to unsheathe the knife for a slave who may prove more intelligent than he seems. Yet, his biggest character flaw, which even he is aware of, remains his other weapon that he unsheathes often for his prized slave girl, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). Mary is likewise knowledgeable of her husband’s failings, but she’s no comfort for a group of persons she despises as constant reminders of her miserable marriage. And after Patsey, Solomon is their favorite slave to shower with attention.
12 Years a Slave is unequivocally a great film, but also an undeniable challenge to watch. McQueen, who has made a career studying the many forms of human suffering in his previous two pictures, Hunger and Shame, feels in his purest element when exploring one of the many potential experiences of a slave’s life. Initially unsure of what he exactly had to say of this centuries-old practice, the director pored over a multitude of “slave literature” from the 19th century before he discovered Northup’s relatively obscure memoir. Once a bestselling read among abolitionists calling for the end of bondage in the decade before Fort Sumter, the text offered the most inevasible narrative for a modern audience: A freeman, who is as alien to the context of slavery as many viewers, is ripped from his wife and children and plunged into a horror beyond imagining. And in his cracking of this story, McQueen’s uncompromising direction is as sharp as the lash.
This is not to say that the narrative lacks humanity or warmth. Through beautifully mounted set-ups, McQueen and Bobbit’s camera captures much of the allure of a Southern landscape that becomes a prison, as well as the moments of hopefulness therein. The relationship between Solomon and Patsey is given a special poignancy by the performances and John Ridley’s screenplay, as their kinship allows Solomon the last ounce of pride to stand with the equally tortured souls under Epps’ gaze, though for survival’s sake, standing is all they can afford one another. In Epps, McQueen partners with frequent collaborator Fassbender for a third time to realize one of the best real-life movie villains since Ralph Fiennes stepped into Amon Goeth’s SS uniform. Never less than fascinating on the screen, Fassbender finds a plausibility to the demon that drives the hatred and violence of men like this plantation owner; possibly, because it still persists to this day.
The director also finds yet another muse and partner in his new lead. A fellow Brit of African descent, Ejiofor has long flown under the radar in Hollywood as a nigh untapped acting resource whose reservoirs were only glimpsed in films like Dirty Pretty Things, Children of Men and Geek Classic Serenity. Yet his stature as an underrated talent should be a thing of the past after this tour de force performance, which captures a symbiotic vulnerability and coveted outrage that must be constantly repressed, lest he find himself at the end of Epps’ rope or worse. Solomon’s 12 years of survival are so unendurable that even a knowing audience is fearful of the sincerely sympathetic hand offered by Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt), a Canadian carpenter with no use for leather or shackles.
I do not know how faithful this is to Northup’s actual account, Twelve Years a Slave, but on its own, the film is bluntly honest and inescapably authentic. Indeed, its harrowing storm will likely be too strong for an Academy that prefers a bit more sun in their best pictures come year’s end. But less than three months out from that time, it’s difficult to imagine there being a better one.
Den of Geek Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars