by Paul Deines
Watching 12 Years a Slave is like watching a blurry image come into focus. As an artistic achievement and a moral/political statement, it finds a heretofore unattained clarity illuminating the great original sin of the United States. It also provides a worthy showcase for artists whose talents need to be recognized.
One of these talents is director Steve McQueen. An English video artist, his first commercial feature is my pick for the best film of last decade: 2008’s Hunger. The story of Bobby Sands’ Maze Prison hunger strike, it was a wrenching and beautiful depiction of political struggle at its most corporeal. Filth and spirit coalesced and – with a fine script by playwright Enda Walsh and a star-making performance from Michael Fassbender – formed a series of indelible images. His second film, 2011’s Shame (also starring Fassbender), was a ridiculous mess dealing with the agony of being attractive, rich, and sex-addicted in New York. Again, McQueen sculpted amazing cinematic moments, but they added up to a laughable nothing.
12 Years a Slave is a return to form, and its subject – like Hunger’s – is important. I don’t think all films (even all great films) must be about some grand theme, but if you have McQueen’s gravity of form, it helps.
The film is an adaptation of the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York who was kidnapped and transported to Louisiana as a slave. The narrative centers on Northup’s journey through several masters, beginning with a relatively civil Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and ending on the plantation of the monstrous Edwin Epps (Fassbender, again). Through one man’s story of resilience, McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley create a portrait of American slavery as an institution. We are reprieved with a marginally happy ending but feel we’ve experienced the countless lost lives (which has drawn comparison to Schindler’s List).
How, then, does one come to be acquainted with the organism slavery in the film?
Through McQueen’s lens, slavery is an unceasing violence – verbal, physical, and psychological – channeled through a laborer’s existence and a million tiny degradations. The repetition of the narrative is hypnotic and exhausting: slaves working, slaves standing at attention, slaves walking exhaustedly along dusty roads, summary whippings, dancing with blank stares.
Slavery is also an industry, efficiently processing humanity into pure labor. Early in the narrative, Northup is beaten with an oar as an act of acclimation. That is the last time he protests his situation for a long stretch. Minutes later, an officious purveyor played by Paul Giamatti is assigning him the name Platt and forcing him to play violin at a slave auction. The tracking-shot sequence of this auction shows the balanced attention McQueen pays to white and black characters. It depicts the anguish of a mother (Adepero Oduye of Pariah) being separated from her child from the point of view of Cumberbatch’s mortified purchaser. His Ford shows many kindnesses to his slaves but nonetheless avails himself of their labor (until, with Northup, he finds he cannot get a return on his investment and sells him to Epps).
For slavery, in this film, universally dehumanizes. Northup eventually transforms himself into Platt, hiding his education, particularly his ability to read. Fassbender’s Epps, meanwhile, is a brutal and sanctimonious tyrant, who quotes scripture to justify his tyrannical nature. He also drinks constantly and preys on his favorite field slave Patsey (newcomer Lupita Nyong'o, who seems to embody the millions who, unlike Northup, did not escape shackles), and we understand that the system he represents – he was an overseer before owning his plantation – has corroded his soul. He cannot conceive of himself except in relation to those he controls. Fassbender is terrifying, but also deeply pathetic.
Nyong’o and Fassbender are fantastic, but the film belongs to Chiwetel Ejiofor, one of those ace-in-the-hole supporting players (his credits include Children of Men and Serenity) who’s been destined for an award-turn for a while. Much of the time, his Northup reacts to the atrocities committed to and around him, but without broad moments or words. You might be inclined to call the performance stoic, but Ejiofor quietly projects a desperation, a defiance, and a nervous containment. All this explodes in a stirring sequence in which Northup hesitantly joins in a funerary spiritual. The camera locks onto his face (a gambit McQueen used earlier with Carey Mulligan in Shame) as his soul gushes forth and a decade’s worth of degradation is howled against in one verse.
The film does have its faults, though. It’s depiction of Saratoga, where Northup lived as a free man, rings false. Every white character seems a bit too deferential, though I can imagine these scenes – presented as flashbacks – are intended to have the same rose-tint of Northup’s memory.
More aggravating is the proliferation of cameos. Some are eerily effective, like SNL’s Taran Killim as one of the conspirators to Northup’s kidnapping and Sarah Paulson as Mrs. Epps, a monster nearly equal to her husband. Truly distracting, through, are Paul Dano, and Brad Pitt (who also produced). Dano, simpering and gnashing teeth, is committed but grating. Pitt’s scenes are worse. From a mystifying Tennessee accent (his character is Canadian) to the distracting smirk and swagger, his presence is just distracting.
You could play a drinking game looking for clutch character actors in five-line roles: Scoot McNairy, Quvenzhané Wallis, Michael K. Williams, Alfre Woodard, Bryan Batt, Garrett Dillahunt, and on and on.
Yet as with Hunger, I loved this film despite its excesses, was moved by its narrative and shocked by its images. The Louisiana landscape is rendered as beautiful – warm, rich tones – but hauntingly still. Never has flickering candlelight against a human face seemed so fraught with danger, or the crispness of fresh paper seemed so full of hope and peril. I’m inclined to re-watch Gone with the Wind again just to see if some of the leisure and pomp in that film is altered by this experience.
As with Hunger, also, I’ve struggled to explain to friends why they should see it, why it is worth the pain or watching. It’s beautifully rendered and thrillingly paced, yes, but is it really worth the tears?
The reason to see 12 Years a Slave is as a treatment for the chronic sickness of our nation: know-nothingism. It’s a contagion we’re all susceptible to and I’ve noticed a symptom of it in the popular resurgence of a disgusting phrase: politically correct. Applied to anyone who dislikes, say, the Washington football team’s nickname or Sarah Palin’s likening our national debt to slavery, this term implies that simple empathy with another culture is lily-liveredness precipitated by liberal guilt. It equates retrograde thinking – xenophobia, misogyny, classism – with intellectual authenticity.
The truth is that all movements that have improved society, from Christianity to civil rights to marriage equality, began with fealty to one’s fellow man. Empathy is a skill that has to be learned, a muscle that must be exercised. You cannot live a worthwhile life without this ability. Seeing this movie is not being politically correct. It is a step towards reckoning with the catalyst of our nation’s race problem. McQueen’s film reminds us that any institution that relies on human suffering degrades slave and master alike. The society that thrived on this institution should not be romanticized. It should be mourned, studied and revisited in works of art as excellent as this. 12 Years a Slave may or may not be the best film I’ve seen this year, but it’s certainly the most essential.