12 Years a Slave is another knockout effort by Steve McQueen and his equally talented comrades. It’s singularity of one man’s story, fully approached by Ejiofor, achieves a rare beauty in the darkest of places. Though it oppresses, it rewards and the purity at its core radiates.
More than anything it was seeing director Steve McQueen’s first feature film, Hunger, earlier this month for the first time that garnered my immense anticipation for 12 Years a Slave. In terms of direction, preciseness and artful delivery of Hunger steamrolled over me. It won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes back in ’08, the prize given to the best amongst first-time filmmakers. I’ve been racking my mind’s archive if there was a stronger directorial debut than it even in the last decade.
12 Years a Slave bares the true story of Solomon Northup. He’s played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, whose work I now wish I’ve consumed all of, who fully throws himself into Solomon’s shoeless feet, baring his body and his soul during the lengthy titular ordeal. Solomon is a free black man living with his family in New York in 1841. He’s then kidnapped during a brief violin tour in Washington, D.C. and sold into slavery. Solomon’s initial boat ride to the Antebellum South, which was essentially it’s own county (or it’s own world rather) is shown like a decent into the human condition. What happens in these Southlands to the men and women brought it on far bigger boats? What are the hearts of the men and women like who see fellow human beings as mere property? I often criticize films for depicting people as “evil” when I struggle to believe such exist. I found Joshua Oppenheimer’s words before a screening of The Act of Killing most refreshing when he said there are no evil people, just human beings like you and me. That’s saying something for a man who spent years amongst people with genocide fresh on their hands.
But how then can we explain atrocities that occur, especially ones that effect an entire people, whether in Indonesia or the United States? McQueen showed me that men can be monsters who can still yet be men. We’re so often blinded by circumstance, upbringing and our environment. I cannot be an apologist for terrible deeds like I can be for some terrible movies, but I can accept and realize that nothing has endangered our own species as much as our own species and that also nothing has helped our own species as much as our own species. Sitting below deck with two other kidnapped slaves, one of which just told Solomon the key to survival is to essentially keep his head low and to not speak, even of the truths that could set him free, Solomon expresses with all the anguish of a husband and father taken from what he cherishes most, “I don’t want to survive, I want to live!” When he sees another slave stick up for a woman who’s about to be taken up deck in the middle of the night, sees him murdered in front of his eyes, he realizes he must try to survive before he can live again. “12 years a slave,” I reminded myself. This is only the beginning.
The film unfolds in a straightforward fashion with room for a few of Solomon’s memories in its first half. Those all but disappear as the film moves along, surely not because Solomon’s forgotten, but so we have something to remember ourselves in the harrowing scenes that follow. Upon arriving at one plantation, slave driver John Tibeats (played by Paul Dano, who I am convinced only accepts the slimiest roles he’s offered) begins warning against runaway slaves. He gets his forced black audience to clap in unison while he sings, “Run Nigger, Run.” I always knew that slaves had their sing-songs, I never knew their cruel overseers did. The song plays over a montage of manual labor that Solomon and his unfortunate company are bound to. Even during a brief sermon put on by Solomon’s seemingly good-hearted Baptist slave owner, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, you can hear Tibeat’s ever-present song.
I am in the dusk of a horror marathon this month, of which 12 Years was a much needed break from. It opened the window so to speak. That said, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more terrifying film currently in theaters. Like in his previous films, McQueen shows the details of his subject matter, from starvation (Hunger) to sex addiction (Shame) to physical abuse (12 Years). At times the only reminder that there is anything good left in the world is Hans Zimmer’s beautiful theme of rising strings. It peeks through the beaten flesh and meager meals during these twelve years like a sentinel of hope, but it also punctuates the pain in what is one of the more graphic yet restrained portraits of punishment this side of Passion of the Christ. One sequence in particular where Solomon speaks and stands up against a slave driver is followed by a siren-like loop on the film’s score, warning the repercussions about to follow. It’s one of several moments in the film that use the long-take to force us to be bystanders to the matters at hand. “Shy away,” does not appear to be part of McQueen’s directorial vocabulary. Together with his collaborative cinematographer (Sean Bobbitt, who shot another of the year’s very best, The Place Beyond the Pines) they demonstrate a careful consideration to horrific acts: We glimpse them almost always from the point of view of another, which can even change in the middle of a single take. It’s exquisite, which can be said for practically every moment of blocking in the film, and it’s clearly captured carefully.
Ejiofor’s bold performance is both a glimpse into the steadfastness and fear of Solomon Northup. He makes his case when his fellow slaves have given into despair and yet he suffers and trembles to certain requests as any of us would. 12 Years, one of the biggest little films I’ve ever seen, would break on the back of other lead actors. Michael Fassbender plays Edwin Epps, another plantation owner Solomon comes to work for along his journey. He could be close friends with the fantastical Calvin Candie from Django Unchained. He’s a product of the South, a man blindly driven to rule and at times mad and unruly. His favorite patsy is a slave girl called Patsey, this revelatory performance is brought to brutally honest life by Lupita Nyong’o. One crucial scene, though I’m inclined to say that about every scene in this film, has Solomon and Patsey having tea with a slave woman turned mistress. She climbed the rungs of the system and managed to get her tastes of “freedom” the hard way. For Patsey it seems to be the only path to follow. Only a film with this weight could overshadow stars like Paul Giamatti and Brad Pitt, who also appear herein even though I’d entirely forgotten about their involvement.
Expect to hear a lot about 12 Years in the fast-approaching Award season. Expect the film itself, director Steve McQueen, screenwriter John Ridley (who can add this to his resume and maybe erase Undercover Brother), cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, composer Hans Zimmer and editor Joe Walker to be in serious consideration for their respective categories of craft and achievement. Expect Ejiofor, Fassbender and Nyong’o to lead the races amongst their acting divisions. Expect to hear about 12 Years a Slave for the next twelve years and beyond. Expect me to bring it up if we ever discuss film long enough together. Expect me to encourage any to see it who have not yet and expect yourself to do the same.
12 Years a Slave is the type of film you do not get up from until the credits have disappeared and the screen is blank and house lights fade in. It’s the type of film you’ll want to discuss every scene of but words fall adequately short like they always do. It’s the type of film you drive home thinking how most other movies are rather silly in comparison. And when you arrive home you won’t want to watch or read or play anything else. You’ll want to simply be with those you have and those you love more than anything else. You’ll want to remember those you can’t be with. I know of no better consequence of art than this. It’s ultimately what makes me want to live and fills that life with gratitude for what I have.
“I don’t want to survive, I want to live.”
– Solomon Northup
J.S. writes about all things film over on The Film Tome. Enter the tome and you will find reviews, news, trailer analyses, lists, essays, an official podcast and more.