12 Years a Slave
Director: Steve McQueen
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o
There is something very un-Hollywood about Steve McQueen, and god bless for that. In the hands of a typical director, 12 Years a Slave would be precisely the sort of film that I would feel morally obligated to see, appeasing a deep seated sense of American guilt. It would feel like something I had to see, vegetables that accompany my dinner, something rather difficult to swallow yet somehow knowing that it is quote-good for me-unquote. But Steve McQueen is not a typical director, and what could have been a massively heavy handed and overtly melodramatic tale of slavery in the South is instead quiet, even subtle (rarely a word used to describe slavery-slash-Civil War films), but not for a moment lacking the power and anger the subject matter demands.
Based on a true story, Solomon Northup (Ejiofor) is a free black man living in Saratoga, New York, in the early 1840s. He has a wife and two children and a very well-to-do life; that is, until he is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the American South and given the new name of Platt. Passed around from slave auctioneer to foresting plantation to sugar plantation to a particularly brutal cotton plantation run by the brutal Master Epps (Fassbender), he learns that in order to survive, he must keep his head down and his mouth shut. Were word to come to his new masters that he can read and write, he would certainly be killed.
And although I often try not to discuss the ending of a film when I review it, I *will* be mentioning a bit more about the plot than normal, so fair spoiler warning.
The only other film of McQueen’s that I've seen is Shame, and that was a rare film that earned a "perfect" score of ten out of ten on its first go around. I tend not to give films perfect scores after a first viewing; perfect scores are for films that have cultivated a place in my heart, films that I have cherished for a long time. It's not that I don't think new films are good, it's more recognizing the importance of longevity. Shame, on the other hand, demanded I throw that system out the window, so resounding was its power. I mention this because it’s an exception I rarely make, and McQueen, with that film, earned my respect and then some.
I was not entirely interested in seeing 12 Years a Slave originally (even despite the immense ovary-exploding draws of Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Fassbender combined) because of aforementioned sense of "chore." Powerful, undoubtedly, but chore nonetheless. Then I saw that McQueen directed it. And then I was much more interested.
I could not reconcile in my head how a director whose only work I had seen had been a small scale character study, a work that was all about the emotionally damaged lives of two broken people, a film shot with a devotion to long, uncomfortably quiet takes, could take on a period piece about slavery.
And indeed, McQueen delivers as atypical a piece on American slavery as I could possibly imagine. What McQueen does in this film is essentially remove any sort of trope or expectation I associate with "slavery film," while still making a film about slavery. It’s not at all the heavy-handed morality play with swells in plot and soundtrack that are as predictable as dammit. Thank god. And just like Shame, there are long, unbroken takes. Many dialogue sequences are shot in one take, interrupting infrequently, somehow allowing the characters to finish their thoughts. There are a myriad of slow, lingering shots of trees, of swampland, of the sky. The most memorable moment was a quiet close up on Ejiofor towards the end of the film. He speaks no words, simply turns his face towards the camera. The shot is easily thirty seconds long. Does it further the plot in an obvious way? Not in the slightest. But it's a hugely important shot, angry in its quiet, and reminding us that Solomon's life is not at peace, that everything is wrong, that although Solomon has "learned" how to survive, although we have not heard him mention his wife and children since the opening of the film, he has not for a second forgotten them. We don't need an expository scene of Solomon explaining how much he misses his former life, not when an infinitely more lyrical close up will do the trick.
What is also refreshing in 12 Years a Slave is, similar to above, not all characters are pure good or pure evil (a very typical approach when making slavery films and war films alike). There is Master Ford the plantation owner (played by a dreamy Benedict Cumberbatch) who is clearly compassionate but seems unwilling to stick his neck out too far. There is the hard plantation contractor who unexpectedly saves Solomon from a hanging, but then doesn't cut him down, leaving him tied and bound for hours. The white man who ultimately ventures to the south to reclaim Solomon's freedom is portrayed as shady. Yes, there are a few ancillary characters who are allowed to be one-dimensional, but nearly anyone with more than two scenes is given an unexpected depth.
The performances are top-notch. Nominated for three acting Oscars for Ejiofor, Fassbender, and Nyong’o as cotton plantation slave Patsey, everyone is strong. Ejiofor carries the film with a heavy heart, Nyong’o shines playing a character full of strength and spirit who has been depressingly beaten down, but for my money, Fassbender steals every scene he’s in. His Epps is insane in a way not often shown. Clearly the film’s main antagonist, Epps is the “Evil Plantation Owner.” What’s interesting is that Epps is mad, mad with brutality and sexual obsession, but only a little mad. He’s a “believable” mad. I can see how society would let someone like this exist, would let them get on with their lives, would even allow them to come to some prominence because they have money. Fassbender is not off the deep end, but he’s about waist-deep and slowly wading his way over. It’s a very good restrained evil genius.
One of the most interesting aspects of 12 Years a Slave is the theme of guilt, a theme also heavily examined in Shame. We watch Solomon make several choices in the film that are ugly choices but born of necessity. In an early instance, another black woman who has been kidnapped into slavery is sold, while her young children remain to be sold to different owners. Rather than fight to help the mother stay with her children, Solomon takes up a violin and starts playing a jaunty tune in an attempt to drown out the wails. It is this that Ejiofor portrays so painfully well, this sensation of being driven to horrible acts of compliance in order to not be killed and how it eats away at his soul. When the film hits its climax, where Solomon is finally rescued by his friends from the North, there is more of a focus on his abandonment of Patsey and the other slaves on Epps’ plantation rather than the joy or triumph at his wrong being righted. Really, this is what makes this film so fascinating to me. There is no triumphant finale where Solomon cheerfully returns to his home. How can there be? What he has gone through has eaten at his very humanity, least of all because of the hard labor. Although the film certainly celebrates his ultimate return to freedom, it is utterly lacking in pomp. Indeed, Solomon asks for forgiveness upon his return. Forgiveness. The guilt at not always helping, at sometimes turning a blind eye, at abandoning the others on the plantation... Of course he is grateful for his newfound freedom, but this film recognizes that one man’s success is hardly a significant win for making real progress on the issue.
There is still a slight sense of “eating my vegetables” while watching 12 Years a Slave, but it is mostly kept at bay. Smart directing choices by McQueen and standout performances from the cast turn what could have been a meat-fisted over-the-top guilt-fest melodrama into something far more potent, powerful, and inexplicably subtle. I’m pleased that such a complex film is getting the level of attention being heaped on it during this current awards season.
Arbitrary Rating: 9/10