[In advance, I apologize for the lengthiness of this article. This is a film that I think really needs to be discussed, so I have done so in my review. I hope it invites conversation on the topics of filmmaking and reality.]
“12 Years a Slave” is a film that transcends our current generation, taking us back to a time not so long ago, to see, feel, and experience (albeit, secondhand) the enduring pain and physiological torment the literal and figurative chains of African-American slavery.
Filmed on location in New Orleans, at the same time of Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained”, director Steve McQueen brings us a more practical–or rather–historical representation of one of the darker periods in the United States. For those familiar with McQueen’s style of filmmaking (e.g. Shame or Hunger) you probably know to some extent what to expect (can you believe he has only directed three films up to this point!). For those hoping for over-the-top action sequences and honeycombs upon honeycombs of delectable, dripping, sweet, sweet dialogue, you would be better off in the land of Tarantino. But, let us turn our focus here.
“12 Years a Slave” follows an African-American freeman turned slave in the pre-civil war era named Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor). He was a man who didn’t know the laborious torture of forced work in the fields. He was a father of two, married to a wonderful woman (Kelsey Scott) who leaves for but a few weeks with the children to make some extra money for the family. Solomon is an expert violinist and within but a couple of days is offered the chance to play violin at a circus of sorts by two eccentric white men. It doesn’t reek of a set up but instead acts as an inciting incident. Solomon is handed plenty of drink to be drunk, and if you blink, you will miss his transition from entertainer to bondage.
Any kind of identity that Solomon once held close to his heart is immediately belt-beaten from his body. As soon as Solomon tries to speak up about the life he once had, a slaver takes joy in putting him back in his place. Actually, throughout “12 Years a Slave”, McQueen shows us that it was not only Solomon who was unable to speak up for himself, but literally any slave who tried to have a mind of their own was either shown a quick death, or brought undesirably close to it. Learned through the film is one of the many horrors of slavery: slaves are born and whipped into the shape and mindset desired by their masters to the point where escape or any outside lifestyle is impossible to imagine or even pursue. Some slaves turn to pleasing their masters sexually—year after year, I might add—in order to be moved up to some pseudo-freedom, like a “house negro”, or something of the sort. It is all a façade, however.
We see various kinds of different approaches to slaves in the film. There are the typical white men who assault the black slaves without mercy, name-dropping whatever filthy title comes first to mind. There are also men who own slaves, and perhaps feel some level of empathy for them, yet fail to do much to end their servitude. It’s a passable empathy. It’s comparable to the homeless person you see on the street corner in Chicago. You may drop a few pennies in their hat, or guitar case (or here, perhaps violin case), but you do nothing to truly help them. This type of character is displayed in one of Solomon’s owners, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Yes, we all have an enormous man crush on the BBC star, but let’s face it… He hardly has nearly enough screen time here, which goes the same for producer Brad Pitt, who also plays Bass. Bass is some kind of strange Lieutenant Aldo Raine Canadian hybrid, but also another slavery viewpoint archetype who sees the wrongs of human bondage and refuses to sit idly by, letting nothing be done. Another type of person here is the slaver who is willing to pick on the slaves, but deep down is too weak in the heart to actually defend themselves when provoked. This is the scummy kind of rat Tibeats (Paul Dano) is. Sure he has a big mouth, but it matters little. In one most effective and jarring scene, Tibeats sings a song charged with racial slurs and subjugation as Ford reads about freedom in Christ from The Holy Bible. The juxtaposition here is absolutely captivating.
Finally, we come to the most distasteful slaver archetype, Edwin Epps, played by Michael Fassbender, who should definitely be able to pick up a Supporting Role Oscar; right behind Ejiofor as Best Actor. Edwin Epps will likely have his picture next to the word “villain” in every newly printed dictionary from this point on. Do I say this because of his complete lack of emotion for the woman he flays over and over again with a whip, rending flesh from back until her spine is exposed? Or perhaps because he at first exists in enough ineptitude to be unable to do it himself, forcing one of his own slaves to do the dirty work? Where Solomon begins to understand his new identity as a slave throughout the film, he is able to eventually experience a mindset moving towards finding freedom. In essence, Solomon is constantly changing throughout the film, where Epps is stuck in some sort of limbo. Epps will cheat on his wife (Sarah Paulson) with the very female slaves he abuses daily, drunk or not, and stand by leisurely as his wife violently flips over her aggression against him towards the increasingly more innocent slaves. Epps holds no regard for human life, so long as it labors for him. He is a paradoxically complex mystery whose mind is always living in a dichotomy with itself, making him extremely unstable and dangerous, able to flip his on and off switch for fatality at any moment.
As you should be able to tell, McQueen has put together an ensemble cast that works incredibly well together, as we will see while awards season inches closer. The beauty of “12 Years a Slave” is not only contained within the acting prowess of the wonderfully chosen cast, but also in McQueen’s close work with cinematographer and BSC, Sean Bobbit (Shame, Hunger, Oldboy). The two do not believe in the current generation of filmmaking’s level of importance on fast cuts, and I’m looking at you, Michael Bay. The power of this film lies in McQueen’s unashamed ability to hold excruciatingly long shots together. Whether it’s yet another heart-crushing, brutal beat down from slaver to slave, or one of the few long close-ups on Solomon, the story is told beautifully before our eyes. In fact, it is in the latter of the two where we likely see the most change in Solomon’s character. He either begins singing with his fellow laborers—or, learning to accept his new identity in servitude—or looks longingly off-camera, as if waiting for the freedom he once knew to rapture him.
“12 Years a Slave” is a masterpiece. It is not for the faint of heart. If the relentless violent content of this film does not affect you deeply, then the subject matter and hopefully personal realization of the depravity of humanity should do you in. This is not a film to enjoy as much as it is a film to digest and dwell upon. Despite the strange uprising in African-American oppression-themed films (Django Unchained, Lee Daniels: The Butler, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom) this is likely the most important one to see. If not to bludgeon your soul, then at least to see a great movie.
Outside of the dark, yet completely necessary themes of “12 Years a Slave”, there is an underlying beacon of hope. After all, freedom is the hope that Solomon clings tightly to. It is his faith that he refuses to give up. By the time he finally does re-enter and grasp tightly the keys of freedom, holding his family close, it is at this moment that we understand his quote from earlier, as he says, “I do not want to survive, I want to live.”