For those of us who’d like to pretend that we live in a post-racial America, director Steve McQueen’s ’12 Years a Slave’ serves as a stark reminder of the horrifying wounds of slavery –wounds that, even 150 years later, still have yet to heal. There have been countless films set during this time period (‘Gone with the Wind’ unfortunately the most prominent), but it’s telling that few if any have ever directly confronted the day-to-day hell endured by African Americans at the height of the Antebellum South. In order to learn from our history, we must fully acknowledge the evils of our past, and this film unapologetically pulls no punches.
’12 Years a Slave’ is a true story based on Solomon Northrop’s 1853 memoir. Northrop (played marvelously by Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free man, living a comfortable life with his family in Saratoga, New York in 1841, until he’s kidnapped by slave traders and smuggled by riverboat to a plantation in Louisiana. Forced to disavow his past life, Solomon is then sold by a despicably entrepreneurial trader (Paul Giamatti), who while separating mothers from children, piously pronounces, “My sentimentality extends the length of a coin.” Northrop winds up on the plantation of William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), an almost decent but hypocritically complicit man who treats human beings as property. After an altercation with Ford’s abusive and half-witted plantation hand Tibeats (Paul Dano), Northrop is sold to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a sadistic, alcoholic psychopath who quotes scripture to justify lashings and frequently rapes his favorite slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). Fassbender’s performance is a fascinating study in restraint. He could have cranked the dial to 11 and played an over-the-top good ol’ boy, but instead strikes a nuanced tone. This is a miserable, self-loathing drunk lashing out at an unhappy marriage and unfulfilled life. I was reminded of Ralph Fiennes performance as Ammon Goethe in ‘Schindler’s List’.
Part of the brilliance of the film is Northrop’s dual perspective. He’s simultaneously a slave and a free man witnessing the horrors of slavery. At first, he can hardly believe what’s happening to him – and neither can we. These horrors are not limited to outbursts of random violence, but extend into the dehumanizing daily routines of life on the plantation: backbreaking work, squalid living conditions and permanent separation from loved ones. We also see the disturbing intimacy that develops between master and slave. Solomon and his fellow prisoners have no choice but to accept their status and hope to curry favor with their owners. This is not the South of ‘Django Unchained’. The evil that permeates every frame is of the banal, day-to-day variety. Many of the slave owners Solomon encounters seem like the kinds of people who would be good citizens and cordial hosts – so long as you don’t happen to belong to them.
As a slave on Solomon’s riverboat tells him, “Survival’s not about certain death. It’s about keeping your head down.” We see this time and time again, as slaves on the plantation have no choice but to look the other way while others are brutalized. In one unforgettable scene, Solomon stands on his tiptoes, hanging from the end of a noose as the other slaves awaken for the day’s work, ignoring his peril and going about their business. Children play in the background. Given the circumstances, what would you do? It’s an uncomfortable question to ask.
Director Steve McQueen’s previous films ‘Hunger‘ and ‘Shame‘ bordered more on the experimental than the narrative. With ’12 Years’, he goes in the opposite direction, retaining his visual fits, but at the same time connecting the audience to Solomon’s ordeal. While McQueen deserves much of that credit, he also owes much to an extraordinary performance by Ejiofor. The actor plays an extraordinary man who must go to great lengths to appear average.
While the film has some weak spots (Brad Pitt’s strange casting as a philosophical farmhand being one), it’s nearly perfect overall. In the end, we’re left with an incredible true story of a man who refused to simply survive, but demanded to live. Yet, while reveling in one man’s story, the film doesn’t ignore its most indelible truth. While Northrop triumphed, countless other slaves were not so fortunate and had their lives erased in the name of greed and racial supremacy.
This is one of the best films of the year.