Before the American Civil War, a free black man named Solomon Northup lives in New-York, the north. But in 1841, he is drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery in the south. There in Louisiana he is kept in bondage for 12 years until 1853. The story has been adapted by screenwriter John Ridley (Red Tails) from Solomon Northup’s memoir as told to white abolitionist writer, David Wilson. The autobiography was a moderate hit, selling 30,000 copies in 1853, but then fell into obscurity for years until it was re-discovered by historians and republished in 1968.
There are moments in 12 Years a Slave that are excruciating. Director Steve McQueen’s gaze is unflinching as it lingers over the brutality in long extended takes. The dehumanization of slavery is presented as something for the audience to reflect upon. From the second Northup wakes up chained in a cell, there is no relief from the constant outrage. He is given a new name and sold as if livestock. An accomplished violist, he is reduced to destroy the very instrument he once held so dear. Time and again we see a litany of atrocities–humiliation, beatings, rape–for our evaluation. Northup standing half-strangled in a noose on his tiptoes, hands tied behind his back, is a positively agonizing scene. Though not the most physically bloody example onscreen, and there are several, it is nevertheless, agonizing to watch. The camera persists at a distance in one very long protracted sequence. His feet barely touching the ground, interspersed with his gasps for air, we see slaves in the background: children happily playing and women doing laundry.
12 years a Slave is an influential film. Its depiction has contributed to the ongoing examination of slavery in the U.S. Django Unchained (2012), Beloved (1998), Amistad (1997), Glory (1989), Roots (1977) have all been a part of the canon, but 12 Years a Slave is different. The uncompromising portrayal of the horrors of slavery is its raison d’être. This isn’t an apology, but rather a condemnation. Extreme degradation is represented in unwavering barbarism throughout the entire running time. Much in the way that The Passion of the Christ exhibited the unrelenting gore of the crucifixion. For anyone not aware of the violence, it’s likely to be heralded as a revelation. I almost find praise for the drama’s supposed eye-opening spectacle troublesome, as if one’s complacency has been newly awakened to the perniciousness of slavery. For those who had an epiphany while watching, questions should be asked. How did your opinion of slavery change? What was it before?
Certainly Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance is the essence of the picture. It’s tragic to see a character who has his hope for rescue continually quashed or beaten out of him. His transformation from a carefree and happy family man to the downtrodden of society would be heartbreaking in anyone’s hands. However he maintains the humanity that we so desperately crave amongst the execrable representation of mankind on display. With his expressive eyes and quiet demeanor, he single-handedly commands our attention even amongst more flashy characterizations from his fellow actors. It’s a role that is subtle in its patience. “I don’t want to survive. I want to live,” he professes. His understated work further affirms that he is an actor with exceptional talent.
12 Years a Slave is a significant movie because it just might possibly be the first to truly flaunt the savagery in unexpurgated detail. What the historical epic does well is illustrating the lack of humanity that would cause one man to enslave another. There’s value in wallowing in the mire of its unpleasantness. But is graphic sadism enough to challenge your audience? I find the narrative doesn’t go far enough. There is such unspeakable physical and mental torture, I searched for answers. A great work of art would have dissected the mentality of the monster that could do this to another human being. Even after watching 12 Years a Slave, I am no clearer on why this ugly chapter in American history existed than I was before. There is craft in director Steve McQueen’s brutal reality. No film has done this in quite the same way before. For now, I suppose that‘s enough to add to the discussion of slavery, but the conversation is far from over.