12 Years A Slave: Movie of the Year

13 January 2014

It’s harrowing to be sure, but Steve McQueen’s film 12 Years A Slave is a magnificent film: clear-eyed, passionate and humane. It’s my film of the year.

After months of build-up in the press, rapturous receptions at film festivals and reports of en masse weepathons in American cinemas, 12 Years A Slave, Steve McQueen’s movie about American slavery, arrives in the UK, weighed down by what seem like insurmountable expectations. Fortunately, it’s more than equal to the hype: it’s a big, serious, weighty and profound movie about a difficult subject, and delivers a powerful, near knock-out viewing experience.

McQueen’s first two films, Hunger and Shame, were austere and self-consciously arty films about physical and psychological incarceration – Hunger about the dying IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, played by an emaciated Michael Fassbender, and Shame about a modern day sex addict (also played by Fassbender). I’d been a cautious fan of both films, admiring McQueen for the seriousness and rigorousness with which he approached his subjects and his technical mastery of filmmaking, but wondering whether they were anything more than beautifully filmed finger-wagging lessons by yet another portentous artiste on a mission to punish the bourgeoisie.

All the trademark McQueen touches appear in 12 Years A Slave – an interest in entrapment (this time in the most literal and historically well-recognised sense), extended portrait-style shots where the camera does not move, and a near-fetishistic obsession with the body as the repository of human suffering and transformation. What’s surprising is how 12 Years manages to be a Steve McQueen film and also something bigger than that, expansive and generous and deeply felt. It’s a harrowing film, and difficult to watch in places, but for the first time McQueen’s visual and narrative approach goes beyond cool composition and punishing observation, and creates something genuinely cathartic and beautiful. Finally, he seems to have found a subject that’s big and dramatic enough to match his creative muscularity as a filmmaker. The result is what I’m happy to hail as, hands down, the best film of the year.

12 Years is a mostly faithful rendering of an extraordinary true-life narrative by Solomon Northup (played by the wonderful Chiwetel Ejiofor), a freeborn African-American musician who was kidnapped by slave traders, savagely beaten to prevent him escaping, and transported to Louisiana, where he was renamed Platt and sold and resold as a slave, before his rescue 12 years later.

As Manohla Dargis points out in her excellent New York Times review, Northup’s perspective as a free-born man who becomes a slave gives his account a critical perspective lacking in other slave stories, snce he has a much happier life to compare his experiences to. The movie version of Solomon becomes, almost immediately, the ideal surrogate for a modern audience, viewing slavery with unfamiliarity and horror, and experiencing the worst kind of “What if it happened to me?” nightmare. This is heightened by McQueen’s decision to show everything from Solomon’s perspective, and keeping Ejiofor in nearly every shot. Aided by Ejiofor’s emotionally transparent performance, we’re able to register every modulation of Solomon’s disbelief, anger and humiliation and feel every lash of the whip in his 12 year ordeal.

Much has been made in the American press of the dearth of films about the American slave trade, and there’s been a bit of red-faced shuffling of feet as Hollywood recognises that its own masterworks like Birth Of A Nation and Gone With the Wind operated at best as evasions from an uncomfortable truth, and at worst as excuses for slavery, preferring to look away from the slave fields and into the comfortable houses of the slave owners and their pretty wives. McQueen has been fairly up front about wanting to make a film that represented slavery clearly and fully. 12 Years still keeps the handsome plantation house and the pretty slave owner’s wife (more on her later), but his film stands as a powerful corrective to all the self-serving clichés about the slave-era South that have festered away in America’s narrative about itself, and shows slavery for what it was: a prosperous and highly profitable economic system built on the emotional and physical torture and degradation of black Americans.

Though the film seldom feels like a history lesson, McQueen takes his time to establish the language and imagery of slavery. Early in the film, he employs disturbing mechanical noises and shots of the water wheel on the boat transporting Solomon south to show slavery literally as a functioning machine, too big and powerful for one man like Solomon to conquer alone. As deeply disturbing as it is to watch a slave trader’s market, in which fully dressed slave owners walk among naked slave families being inspected like cattle and sold off to separate owners, it feels utterly necessary to see this, not as torture porn, but as an integral part of understanding how slavery operated as an accepted part of day-to-day commerce. The banality of commerce is recalled chillingly later in the film, where Solomon remembers going into a store with his wife to buy a new valise, exuding the same kind of nonchalant privilege as his eventual owners.

McQueen’s stationary observational camera, so showy a part of Hunger and Shame, is employed powerfully here to show Solomon’s near-lynching at the hands of a resentful overseer (Paul Dano, one of many white actors who fearlessly embodies a revolting, unredeemable character). Strangled nearly to death, Solomon is left to hang until his owner comes to cut him down again. McQueen holds the shot for five or six minutes to show life on the plantation continuing around Solomon – the slave owner’s wife observes him and then walks away, children play in the fields, adult slaves work around him, and only one slave woman risks her safety to give Solomon some water. Some audiences and critics have found the sequence self-indulgent and evidence of McQueen’s wish to garrotte his audience into submission. The scene works, I think, in completely the other direction. By observing the passage of time, we’re taken directly and viscerally into Solomon’s experience. We’re also reminded that in the working system that was slavery, Solomon was no more than property.

Like Northup’s narrative, most of McQueen’s film focuses on Solomon’s time with his longest and final owner, a sadist and near madman, Edwin Epps (McQueen’s regular body horror specialist, Michael Fassbender), who prides himself on being a “nigger breaker” and quotes the Bible as evidence of his divine right to keep and abuse slaves. In the darkest and most disturbing permutation of the narrative, Solomon stumbles into an ugly love triangle between Epps, a young slave called Patsey (the sensationally good Lupita Nyong’o) who is Epps’ star cotton picker and sexual plaything, and Epp’s quietly furious wife (the excellent Sarah Paulson).

Fassbender is amazing in his scenes: domineering, capricious, and utterly terrifying. It would’ve been an easy role to showboat in and be the sexy-yet-evil villain, but McQueen and Fassbender keep a controlled grip on the role. Epps is a man literally eaten up by desire and rotting from the inside out from his own moral corruption. There’s a moment towards the end of the film where Fassbender registers simultaneously the confusion of his love for Patsey, his desire to destroy his desire by abusing her, and his own cowardice as he chickens out and commands Solomon to do his dirty work for him. Epps ends as he begins the film, despicable and unredeemed, yet the audience leaves understanding his motivation if not quite forgiving him. It’s a performance balanced on an exceptionally thin tightrope, and Fassbender dances across the terrain fearlessly.

In another long-overdue correction to the historical narrative, McQueen expands on Northup’s story and delves deeper into the role of Mrs Epps, challenging the notion that all Southern women were sweet and humane creatures. In Gone With the Wind, benevolent Melanie fusses over the downtrodden like a saint, while feisty-but-loveable Scarlett remonstrates amusingly with her adoring house slaves. By contrast, Mrs Epps feels more akin to Lady Macbeth, and her household looks like the banqueting scene from Pasolini’s Salo: 121 Days of Sodom. The slaves are woken in the middle of the night and made to dance to Northup’s violin playing for the Epps’ entertainment, while Mrs Epps cheerily passes out biscuits. She turns her rage and humiliation at her husband’s infidelity into random and savage acts of violence against Patsey that are among the film’s most hair-raising moments. I commend McQueen and Paulson for treating Mrs Epps with the same unsentimentality and clear-eyed precision as Fassbender’s character. Mrs Epps is revealed to be a monster, and in her way is as irredeemable as her husband, but we’re allowed to see the social conditions that made her that way.

Though it’s primarily Solomon’s story, McQueen manages to find a number of openings into other fascinating narrative strands. There’s Master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), Solomon’s first owner, who prides himself on being an enlightened master, treating Solomon kindly and making him a gift of a violin. Like everyone in the film, Ford is portrayed with depth and complexity, but McQueen makes sure that the argument goes both ways. Ford is still a slave owner who is responsible for separating a mother from her children, and he sells Solomon on when he becomes an inconvenience. We’re left to judge whether Ford’s liberalism makes him better or worse than someone like Epps, who’s a slug but at least unapologetic about it. Alfre Woodard has a single electrifying scene as a former slave who has married her owner and been elevated to Lady of the House. In an especially surreal moment, she refers to Solomon as “Nigger Platt” and insists on him taking tea with her and Patsey, who she encourages to continue sleeping with Epps in the hope that it will afford her a similar escape. These moments feel precious, because they give weight and perspective to the diaspora of slavery. Human nature being what it is, there’s no single narrative to be told, and there are bizarre exceptions to every rule.

But the film remains Solomon’s story, grounded by a magnificent and deeply moving performance by Ejiofor. The notion of a character holding onto his dignity in difficult circumstances is something of a Hollywood movie cliché, but there’s something startlingly fresh and visceral in the way Ejiofor reacts to each situation, repressing his anger, trying to find a way to survive, and occasionally sinking into despair. In one scene, Solomon stands at a makeshift gravesite for a fellow slave, listening to the others singing a spiritual. In a sustained take, we catch him silently absorbing the meaning of the song and finding a point of connection with its melancholy rhythms and tale of sorrow. He starts to sing as if his life depended on it, embodying its pain and its thin whisper of a prayer for a better life. In terms of the narrative it’s a small scene, but it’s a stunning moment, providing the audience with a track line into Solomon’s tortured soul.

Like many viewers, I was reluctant to go to 12 Years because I didn’t think I’d be able to handle the graphic depictions of violence. I was also worried that they’d be held out as a macho challenge to an audience, as Mel Gibson did in his whip-happy Jesus movie The Passion of the Christ. 12 Years is certainly difficult to watch: McQueen insists on representing the violence centre screen and spares the audience very little, and the film’s slow pace and episodic structure moves us out of our comfort zone by failing to hit the usual beats of an uplifting Hollywood-style narrative. Things get progressively worse, not better, as the story goes on, and there’s a randomness to the violence which is deeply unsettling: one minute Patsey is sipping tea, and the next she’s being raped by Epps or beaten half to death for attempting to procure soap to wash herself with. It’s no wonder that audiences have found this alarming, but I would argue that this isn’t sadism so much as a conscious strategy on McQueen’s part to bring the audience into the world of slavery. For the two and a half hours that we’re in the cinema, we suffer something of the sense of helplessness as Solomon did, completely at the mercy of the caprices of his owners and never knowing when the next bout of random violence will strike.

Despite this, McQueen’s strategy is to keep audiences in the theatre rather than drive them away screaming. He carefully modulates the narrative so that by the time we reach the ninth circle of hell – where Patsey is tied to a post and whipped nearly to death – we’re so deeply involved in each character’s story and motivations that it’s impossible to look away, as unbearable a scene as it is.

Fortunately, for Solomon and for us, there is a ray of hope at the end of 12 Years (the clue is in the title), though it’s qualified. The scenes of Solomon’s deliverance are played not as a Hollywood-style triumph, but with the full recognition of the suffering that’s been caused and the lives near-destroyed in the process. As Solomon is reunited with his family, his first words are, heartbreakingly, “I’m sorry”. We’re also reminded in the closing credits that even the victory of Solomon’s freedom had its limits – as a black man, Solomon was legally unable to testify against his kidnappers and so they were never brought to justice, and he was one of only a very few kidnapped man who made it to freedom in the North. The circumstances of Solomon’s death remain unknown, and there was a strong suspicion at the time that he had been kidnapped again and sold into slavery, or killed by anti-Abolitionists who were made angry by his activism work. McQueen wisely leaves us to ponder the injustice of that legacy as the end credits roll.

I was expected to be appalled by McQueen’s movie, but what I wasn’t expecting was to be moved as profoundly as I was. 12 Years belongs to a very small number of films that take you on a harrowing journey but manage to connect with a deep sense of humanity – Solomon’s humanity, and our own – and somehow manage to ennoble our perspective by helping us understand our history. I have no doubt that it will also anger audiences, or revolt them, or depress them, or even send a few running to the cinema doors. These seem like reasonable reactions, given the subject matter. But I would encourage everyone who’s interested to see this film. It’s difficult to watch (but then, why shouldn’t it be, given its subject?) but it gives its audience much much more than it takes. For all its brutality and darkness, it’s a piece of art that soars with extraordinary grace.

Postscript: The day after I saw 12 Years, I received an email flyer from Amnesty International encouraging me to email Uganda’s President Museveni and urge him to veto a new bill which will criminalise homosexuality in his country. It took me back to the flashback scene in 12 Years where Solomon remembers shopping with his family. They’re followed into the store by a haunted looking black man, who remains silent. A white man, presumably his owner, comes in and shoos the man out angrily, as if telling a dog to get off a piece of expensive furniture, while Solomon looks away awkwardly. It’s a moment I especially treasure, as it shows that Solomon, like all men, wasn’t a saint, and had moments of moral complacency in his free life, choosing to ignore an uncomfortable truth in front of him. Though 12 Years doesn’t ask anything explicitly of its audience in terms of activism, the fact of the film thows down a challenge to audiences who are fortunate enough to live in the free world to take note of slavery in all its forms and act on it. The Amnesty petition has my signature. I hope it gets yours too.

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