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Film Review: 12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave (2013; Directed by Steve McQueen)

A British arthouse director made the greatest film about American slavery by encapsulating as many of the different species of horror and degradation as could be reasonably contained in a single feature-length cinematic narrative. Physical pain, corporeal mutilation, psychological torment, verbal abuse, emotional agony, sexual objectification and assault, severing of family bonds, moral and intellectual debasement, curtailment of freedoms, and the constant, unpredictable possibility of immient, punitive death; 12 Years a Slave finds the time and space for all of the dominant cruelties of the antebellum slave order. Most impressively, it neither over-aestheticizes slavery’s horrors nor renders them with a pitiless affect that numbs its audience’s empathetic muscles. This is a relentless film, but its trials purify rather than punish.

Director Steve McQueen (the Caribbean-Briton video artist, not the 1970s actor, who is quite dead) and his screenwriter John Ridley draw from a fairly conventional slave narrative memoir for their quietly, searingly revolutionary film material. Solomon Northrup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free African-American living with his wife and two children in Saratoga, New York in the 1840s. He works as a violinist and has friendly relations with his fellow (mostly white) citizens. Persuaded by a pair of purported circus agents (Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam) to join them in Washington, D.C. on a two-week paying gig, Northrup awakes from a night of excessive dining and drink to find himself in chains in a cell. He is not in prison, but rather has been captured into slavery. He is shipped and sold south of the Mason-Dixon Line, and spends more than a decade of his life as a slave on several different Southern plantations before gaining his freedom again in fortuitous circumstances.

Northrup’s story hardly seems extraordinary to students of this particular American literary genre, nor are its harrowing details radically new to anyone familiar with antebellum history and the slave system’s terrible particulars. But the mass audience of American and worldwide moviegoers who made 12 Years a Slave an undeniable commercial success are neither of those things. Indeed, concepts like the kidnapping of free blacks to be sold as slaves, slave auctions (Paul Giamatti runs the sale of Northrup and of a female slave who is a mother of two), and lynchings may be new to these masses, and if not, have certainly not previously been glimpsed being performed by movie stars in a major prestige picture.

McQueen presents slavery’s horrors as intractable realities, and the truly tremendous Ejiofor is his conduit of simultaneous corporeal, psychological, and moral alarm and suffering. The corporeal, it must be said, dominates his approach. McQueen’s vision of pre-Civil War America is one of recurring, persistent mutilation of bodies of all kinds: trees and sugarcane felled and carved up by axes, machetes, and saws, rivers churned violently by turbulent paddlewheels, and, of course, the backs of Negro slaves criss-crossed by the open, suppurating wounds inflicted by the master’s lash. Beaten down in existential despair by his enslaved plight, Northrup even tears his violin to pieces, its discarded shreds left on the ground like the scant shards of his human dignity stripped and smashed by the slavery system that has entrapped him.

This has been a common trajectory in discursive texts to the overwhelming set of problematic implications that African-American slavery manifests, to emphasize the bodily oppression of a system that reduces people to property to synecdochize its myriad other oppressions. But where most texts can’t proceed beyond the shock value of the chains and whips, 12 Years a Slave utilizes the violence meted out on black bodies as the preamble of its conversation on slavery. McQueen and Ridley never fall to sermonizing, but demonstrate in natural, successive moments the panoply of degradations to Northrup’s self and to his liberty.

They also reveal the differentiated costs of slavery on his fellow slaves: one (Michael Kenneth Williams) is killed before even reaching auction, another (Adepero Oduye) is consumed by grief at being torn from her children, another (the memorable Lupita Nyong’o) is used as a sex object by her mean drunk of a white master (Michael Fassbender) and violently resented by his wife (Sarah Paulson) in a way which can only lead to her suffering.

Inverted costs consume the slavers: Northrup’s first master, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) is relatively kind and appreciative of Northrup’s intelligence and abilities, but cannot protect him from a vindictive overseer (Paul Dano) and sells him on to the aforementioned cruel Epps (Fassbender). Epps is played by Fassbender as a man whose very soul is absent, eaten away inside of him by the epidemic parasite of slave ownership and the related assumptions of masculine strength, godliness, and white superiority that he clings to in order to sustain some illusion of its legitimacy. Mrs. Epps, located above her slaves with an agency proscribed in ways distinct from them, despises this shell of a man but preserves hegemonic social assumptions by displacing her resentment onto his object of desire, Nyong’o’s Patsey. Even Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt), a Canadian opposed to slavery on principle, is hesitant to help Northrup deliver a letter to friends in the North lest it cost him paid employment in the South.

I’ve prefaced this review by characterizing 12 Years a Slave as a something of a holy fire, burning away the lingering sins of American slavery by exposing them unflinchingly to the blazing flame of aesthetic openness. Nowhere in the film does this flame burn more brightly or with more harrowing portent than in its unforgettable sequence of searing exposure of a historical horror. Northrup is snatched by Dano’s Tibeats, who intends to lynch the slave for defying his fickle authority. Another overseer chases off Tibeats and his confederates before they can finish the hanging, but Northrup is left strung by the neck over the branch of an old tree in full view of the plantation house, standing on strained toes to prevent his own suffocation. Many witness his plight, though only a fellow slave’s offer of water relieves him in any way. McQueen holds on the image of Northrup’s partial lynching for long inexorable minutes as our discomfort grows in relation to that of the victim (though it can never be more than a shadow of its shadow). The only sounds are Northrup’s choking and the pastoral hum of a gorgeous Southern plantation summer’s day around him. It’s a scene of discomfort that seems like it will never end, that stretches on towards eternity. It’s a representative tableau of the remarkable 12 Years a Slave as a whole: moral ugliness illuminated by aesthetic beauty, oppressive cruelty shown in all of its immutable awfulness, but with a serious, steadfast refusal to look away, even for a second.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews
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