While extraordinarily hard on the spirit, Steve McQueen has crafted a brutal masterpiece — and the defining film about American Slavery.
Slavery is an evil that should befall no one.
In 1915, cinema pioneer D.W. Griffith debuted the film The Birth of a Nation, which changed the course of the medium forever through innovative technique and artistry. It focused on two families on either side of the Civil War, and its use of narrative structure (flashbacks, parallel action) and technological advancements (camera movements, color tinting, etc) was well ahead of its time — so much so that one critic described the film as “history written with lightning.”
It was also profoundly racist. Nation is decried today as a ideological disaster, portraying the Ku Klux Klan as heroes and its black characters (white actors in blackface, obviously) as violent brutes. In the years since, other filmmakers have attempted to tell tales of the antebellum South, even with the aim to depict the wickedness of slavery, but have often lacked the courage to follow through and tell the whole truth. The classic 1977 miniseries Roots was bound by the restrictions of broadcast television; Steven Spielberg (who had done profound justice to the Holocaust with Schindler’s List) elected to make Amistad more of a courtroom drama; and others have missed the mark in various ways.
How remarkable that, 98 years after Griffith, it takes an English director (and predominately English cast) to write American history with lightning once more. To call it “the Schindler’s List of slavery films” is reductionist to be sure, but not far off the mark: 12 Years a Slave is a punishing experience, full of horror and shame, but it is unforgettable…and necessary.
The story of Solomon Northup is well-known. An educated, free man (and violinist) living with his wife and children in Saratoga, New York, Northup is kidnapped and sold into a life of slavery in Louisiana. He quickly learns that his only hope of survival is to keep his head down and his mouth shut, and to under no circumstances reveal his true identity and education to his masters. Over the course of 12 years, he moves from owner to owner until, just when he has nearly forgotten who he is, the opportunity for freedom presents itself in the most unlikely of ways.
As Northup (or “Platt” as he is renamed), Chiwitel Ejiofor is a revelation. He carries a deep, soulful strength, while appearing in every single scene. On the other side of the lash, Benedict Cumberbatch plays the “good master” Ford with grace, but not so much that he’ll spare Northup to keep himself out of debt; Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, and other recognizable faces are despicable in small roles, but the second half of the film becomes a sandbox for Michael Fassbender as the violent plantation owner Edwin Epps. (Compared to this monster, the similarly-alliterative Calvin Candie from last year’s Django Unchained is merely a caricature.) Many of the white characters in the film use the Bible to further their agenda, but Epps wields it like a grenade, believing all of his actions — however unspeakable — justified by law and scripture. It’s another fearless performance from an actor who has long been drawn to challenging material, and he’s matched pound for pound by Ejiofor, along with Sarah Paulson as his jealous (and equally cruel) wife.
As Northup gets enveloped in an interminable nightmare, so do we as the audience — but already knowing the ending doesn’t make it any less tortuous to witness. And we are witnesses. Complicit, even. Steve McQueen’s camera makes us so. It’s never clear where we are in the timeline (no helpful “Year 4” title cards here) so longer periods of time pass in an unholy blur, but it’s the single minutes that pass with extreme discomfort. One: Solomon, after (justly) assaulting one of his brutal overseers, hangs from a noose, toes just barely touching the ground, and the shot just keeps us there in real time, watching the other slaves go about their business in the background, too scared to interfere. Two: Northup is forced to whip a female slave, and as he does, instead of cutting away or framing it in a way to spare the audience the worst, the camera moves around the grisly scene uninterrupted. Three: after another slave collapses while picking cotton and dies, a group gathers to sing around his grave, and we hold on Ejiofor’s face for verse after verse, the intensity growing — his despair finally becoming manifest after a decade of suppressing it — until we can’t take any more. He can’t take any more.
The cinematography is subtly marvelous, with many scenes appearing to be lit just by the moon or candlelight. McQueen liberally applies plantation and bayou b-roll as transitional shots between scenes, which creates the troubling juxtaposition of “God’s creations:” the land, beautiful and pristine, and the broken lives of the people that inhabit it. The only questionable mark is Hans Zimmer’s score, which (as usual for him) borrows from his previous films and is often more heavy-handed than necessary.
12 Years is a work of extraordinary craft and vision, a film as much of Big Ideas as of the tiny details. By the time Brad Pitt appears (as a long-haired, idealistic carpenter…sound familiar?) to save the day, we are relieved to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but have been changed by the experience. It’s the throwaway scenes that stick with you the most: Epps brings the slaves in the middle of the night to dance for him while Northup plays, in a scene that would almost be comic in another film; the young girl Patsey (a breakout Lupita Nyong’o) begs Northup to kill her after being made the object of Epps’ affections; and on and on. It’s harrowing, yes; the film puts you through the wringer, but you come out on the other side like Solomon: stronger and, having experienced humanity’s darkest impulses, eager to do something about it.
On a final note — the film doesn’t need Academy Award appreciation to stand the test of time, but it’ll get it anyway. Upon its festival debut some writers were quick to name it the presumptive Best Picture winner (and others quick to immediately chafe at such a declaration), but it’s hard to disagree. There is not a more significant production yet this year, and looking at the calendar there won’t be later. Moreover, it’s not simply a “message film” (though it obviously has one) but clear-eyed history. It has all of the resonance and frayed emotional nerves that last year’s Lincoln, which tackled the same time period at the macro level, was missing. So not only can you mark it down for the top prize, but Best Actor locked for Ejiofor, a guaranteed nomination for Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley, an almost certain one for Fassbender, and probably more. Basically, the race is over. And that’s okay, because when a film is this transcendent, any debate is simply a waste of time.