DIR. Steve McQueen. STARRING. Chwietel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson
Steve McQueen is a filmmaker who, in a short space of time, has cemented himself as possessing deft, controversial and thought-provoking talent. With films varying from the IRA, sex addiction and now the slave trade, there seems to be little limit to his cinematic eye. And with 12 Years a Slave he once again proves why he is one to watch. Not that you imagine he chose such a film to prove anything at all.
There are some images throughout the history of cinema that upon witnessing stay with you forever. The girl in the red dress in Schindler’s List, the outstretched arms epitomising an unlikely friendship in E.T. and now that of a young African-American girl on a slave plantation being stripped and then severely and repeatedly whipped until her skin is in shreds. 12 Years a Slave does not promise to give you a representation of American history that will be easily digestible, or in fact especially watchable. McQueen’s camera is relentlessly unflinching. But for a subject matter that should never be ignored, it seems that is exactly the point.
12 Years is also intelligent in navigating some of the more ignorant and blasé generalisations that accompany this dark recess of a bygone era. Solomon Northrup is not a man born into slavery, nor shipped over from an indigenous land fit for the purpose of hard labour; he was unscrupulously duped, drugged and yanked from a life of decency, honour and family, awaking to find himself in chains and his existence forever altered. In telling the story of this particular man, 12 Years debunks the ridiculous notion that the slaves were there for a reason (illuminated in his first experience of cotton-picking, which he simply cannot get the hang of) and further drives home the basic truth that no man or woman ought to have been subjected to such delusions of racial superiority, especially not one that had hitherto shared the right of freedom and equality. The injustice is immediately, and heart-breakingly palpable.
The visceral brutality that endures throughout the film is hard-to-watch, but when matched with moments of ephemerality or brief respite (a letter disintegrated to embers, the rotating motion of a boat udder, a gifted violin, and silhouetted trees against the backdrop of a sunset), it creates a world punctuated by cruelty, but perpetuated by hope. Such is the strength of the human spirit.
Arguments have been put forward for the utilisation of shameless shock tactics, or a sensationalised portrayal. But far from being overblown, 12 Years a Slave infuses moments of sadness, of resignation, of helplessness with quiet power. McQueen succeeds in depicting both the degrading physical effects of slavery and its cruel, dehumanising, psychological impact (referring to Solomon as Platt, telling handmaid Eliza it won’t be long before her children are forgotten, slapping the naked bodies of slaves as if meat in a factory), whilst Solomon’s leaving Patsy behind despite her desperate pleading or his acquiescence to being a slave whilst singing ‘Roll Jordan Roll’ are further examples of this muted approach.
Solomon’s near-hanging is exacerbated by the restrain the camera shows. He is depicted in the distance, whilst the other slaves continue with their day-to-day tasks, all the while the diegetic sound emphasising his gagging sounds. McQueen does not strive for close-ups nor extract emotion forcibly, or unnecessarily, the material is enough by itself. Instead, he immerses himself in the landscape, the repetition of punishment and almost how easily it occurs. Solomon’s hanging is treated by the other slaves as if it is the most normal thing in the world, and most poignantly, you expect for them it really was.
The film also manages to depict the varying scale of those involved in slavery; from power-hungry plantation sidekicks seeking thrills from kicking those whilst they’re down, (a sadistic Paul Dano – another string to his bow of creepy characters), full-throttle abolitionists (Brad Pitt to the rescue), reluctant plantation owners – affording tempered kindness but not real help (Benedict Cumberbatch), to the down-right vicious, paranoid and quite frankly insane (Michael Fassbender, on formidable and snarling form). Sarah Paulson (who, after Django Unchained, may have have found her niche as a plantation mistress) is also chilling as Fassbender’s wife, competing for his affections and no less profligate with her issuances of punishment. But without ever seeming to broad-brush or stereotype those involved in this painful history.
But the two actors who most poignantly inhabit their roles are Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o as Solomon and Patsey. Ejiofor projects a quiet resilience and determination, consistently resisting his newfound position as a lower echelon of society and attempting to hold onto his right to be called a man, rather than a slave. It is a committed and exquisite performance, shaded by both tenderness and rage and Solomon becomes a character you give yourself over to rooting for. So much so that watching the film can become an exhaustive process. Equally affecting and truly unbelievable for a big-screen debut is the talent of Nyong’o who pours everything she has, physically and emotionally into this difficult role. She never over-sentimentalises the performance, and Patsey becomes a character whom measures the diverse abuse slaves underwent, but who endures it with a strength and dignity.
For those that are shocked and find it uncomfortable, I would imagine Steve McQueen is resolutely triumphant in being able to elicit this emotion. Surely that is exactly the point of this film: to make us squirm and flinch and want to turn away, but ultimately confront a time when humanity was allowed to commit such atrocities and crimes against justice. This is not horrible, or disgusting, but a harrowing and sobering experience – one should not be repelled but compelled.
The final scene is perhaps the most emotive and tragic, when the accumulated years of Solomon’s suffering manifest themselves tangibly – in the maturation of his two children. Suddenly, when presented with two adults we are made painfully aware of just how long he has undergone these crimes against humanity and what he’s lost. His asking for forgiveness makes it all the worse.
This is not simply a regurgitation of stories already told, but a necessary reappraisal of a history and a cultural memory we must never forget. 12 Years a Slave brings these experiences to the fore with illuminating and affecting visceral power. For me, 12 Years was an immersive and indelible cinematic experience and one that I urge everyone to see.