“12 Years a Slave”
Directed by Steve McQueen
Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Quvenzhane Wallis, Sarah Paulson
Biography, Drama, History
12 Years a Slave opens somewhere around a decade into Solomon Northup’s enslavement. He’s mushing blackberries to a paste, attempting to write a letter home using a whittled mulberry stick. Scribbling like a fugitive to the crackle of candlelight, this is the first time he’s put pen to paper in years, and must do so under the cover of night. For all the horrors he’s suffered and witnessed, the most impossible task is keeping his true identity, and intelligence, under wraps. For a learned slave is a troubling slave and a troubling slave is a marked man – a truth he’s seen manifested many times before.
More than a decade gone for something as simple as not being allowed to produce his “free papers,” Solomon’s journey draws empathy from the audience like water from a well. More than just a story of the horrors of slavery, this is the story of a man who knew a better life – he abided the law, owned a house, had a family, and was a respected part of his Saratoga, New York community – and yet, down in the bowels of the hellish South, was stripped of his humanity like tattered clothes from his back.
Director Steve McQueen is a particular type of dark visionary. Employing patience and human degradation as a litmus test of how much we can emotionally bear, McQueen peels back all the curtains of our collective American history, revealing the inky black turmoil stirring in the human soul. But torture is no new game for McQueen.
In his first film, Hunger, McQueen explored a prison-bound hunger strike but his craft was not yet refined, too raw, cold, and indulgent to raise the welt he was hoping for. In Shame, he arm wrestled sex addiction out of romanticized glamor and into a pit of emptiness and human despair. Although fantastic acting and gruesome body horror prevailed, it continued the same dour tendencies that make his films so hard to sit through. In his third go around, he’s perfected his art, making a film that’s both impossible to watch and impossible to look away from.
However difficult 12 Years a Slave may be to watch, it’s absolutely necessary watching. It’s long been positioned that it’s our American duty to process, or at least understand, slavery. As a means to sift the political hand of slavery from those participating in it, McQueen demands you to think long and hard about what you would do in a similar situation. Even the good men in this film, such as Benedict Cumberbatch‘s Ford are stained by the cultural pollution manifest in slavery. It may just be impossible to be a moral man in a land drained of morality, McQueen’s film says.
As Solomon adopts his new name and role as Platt, he holds onto hope – however tucked away in a dark corner it must remain; hope that someday he’ll be reunited with his family, hope that one day he’ll meet a white man who wants more for his than a closed mouth and fast working hands, hope for freedom. In a Kafkaesque metamorphosis, Solomon becomes Platt, his days transformed from living to surviving.
Despite the barbarity of Solomon’s unlawful enslavement, the mentality intact in the age is a scourge most difficult to stomach. Packaged in caravans like sardines, sold stripped nude, and man handled at every turn, there is little to distinguish slaves from live stock.
Chiwetel Ejiofor leads a sensational cast that brings Solomon’s true story to the screen with deadly seriousness. As our guardian through this hellish descent, Ejiofor is stunning from start to finish. His decision to play Solomon as a stone gradually pared by the tide of slavery rather than a thistle bending at the first breeze will cement an Oscar nomination. His final heart-rending scene will secure the win. Michael Fassbender is similarly committed to his role as devilish plantation fiend Edwin Epps. Despite his character’s despicable traits, he’s an equally complex man, torn by his own sinful passion for Lupita Nyong’o‘s Patsey. Expect Oscar nominations, if not wins, all around.
Wowing cinematography from Sean Bobbitt (Shame, The Place Beyond the Pines) is haunting yet beautiful. Gorgeous waterfront properties impose their menacing statue – demonic in their association with America’s great shame. Captured under Bobbitt’s lens, the land itself takes on a stifling quality. No matter how scenic the willows peppering the plantation are, they always seem to weep – graves of the crushed souls haunting the confederate flag-totting South.
12 Years a Slave will make you want to run the retributive justice of Django Unchained but the sad truth is, this is more fact than fiction. Even when freed, American blacks were paid the respect of subhumans. You want Solomon to strap dynamite to his prison, to rip it down to the studs and burn it but you know that it’s not that type of movie. No, it’s too gravely serious for that, for this is an epitaph to American slaves, penned centuries late.