12 Years A Slave – 2013
Director Steve McQueen
Actors Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard
Writer John Ridley based on the book by Solomon Northup
I have owned a copy of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ for 10 years, and have yet to watch the film. In my heart, it is easy to understand the sacrifice made on my behalf 2000 years ago, and my mind can go through the details of his life, death and resurrection. Still, to watch the hands with a hammer and spike, drive through the flesh of his wrists…seems too big a task for me to endure. Slavery occupies the same place in my mind. One can know that it happened, in the U.S., in Rome, in Egypt, and yet still want to steer clear of seeing it first hand, in its rawest form.
Steve McQueen, a British director of African descent, has created perhaps the most riveting depiction of slavery in the United States in cinematic history. His slogging through the kidnapping, torture, attempted brainwashing and bondage of Solomon Northup is startling, agonizing, stark and nearly without hope. The performances are stunning, without exception.
The most remarkable thing about 12 Years a Slave is how relatable it is. From the moment I first see Solomon Northrup (Ejiofor) with his wife and 2 children, I am brought to mind to my wife, and my own kids. I see my happiness in concert with his. It is a right and just state that every human should be able to experience. In the space of 15 cinematic minutes, his life, his family and his freedom have slipped from his reach. Just like that, in my mind, I am down the rabbit hole with him. It’s the literal beginning of a nightmare and it nearly brings me to tears just to imagine it just now.
Northup is brought from Washington D.C. to New Orleans, where he, with other “property” is sold to plantation owners into servitude. The complete irony within these and future moments is Northup’s skill as a fiddle player. Solomon is made to play his instrument against the wailing of children being separated from their mother and in the middle of the night, when he and other slaves are awoken on the whim of their owner and made to dance, if for no other reason than amusement of the captor. The fiddle becomes another form of torture for Solomon and it’s significance as a symbol is profoundly displayed by director, writer and actor.
Ejiofor is remarkable. His eyes portray such a depth of feeling and emotion, it is impossible to not feel the agony that he feels as his life takes this detour through hell. The sounds of his wailing while being beaten will stay with me until my last day. His whole person is so accessible to the viewer. We know every thought, whether it be joy, hope or despair. Especially resonant are the moments when he decides that he is not going to take beatings, whether by the deplorable character Tibeats (could it be anyone else than Paul Dano) or bottle of hell Edwin Epps (Fassbender, who is as brilliant as ever). While not telling you what happens, I don’t mind sharing that he takes the same actions that I would have tried. His past work has always been enjoyable, especially his wise turn as The Operative in Serenity. This, though, is the role of a lifetime, and it should bring him to the forefront of actors for some time.
Nyong’o is harrowing as Patsy, a remarkably hardworking woman who easily doubles the output of her male counterparts. She is cursed to be under the watchful eyes of Epps and his wife Mary (Paulson). Epps ritually rapes Patsy. Mary, thinking that Patsy has some sort of design on her husband, beats, scratches and otherwise tortures Patsy. The cruelty of this absurd situation shows just another horrifying facet of slavery, and why there is no logic in the world, much more the misread Word of God, that could ever sustain its practice. Call them property, lust after them like humans, and attack them like rivals.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays against type quite beautifully as a man of religious conviction who allows those convictions to be compromised by the conditions of the time. His is a character that is somewhat relatable in any context. Anyone who sees themselves as good, but allows bad things to happen (even in their name) can see themselves when they see William Ford. A few have complained that Ford was portrayed as uncharacteristically harsh in the film. After watching it twice, I still can’t see it. He seemed humane, but flawed by his inability to live as he preached. Who doesn’t battle with this every day?
The heart, led by the mind, wants to believe we are beyond events as they are shown in this film. McQueen works the material to such tight frenzy, even through such seemingly innocuous sounds as crickets, the scratching of chords on a fiddle and even children playing, the story feels like it could exist at any time. For me, it serves as a reminder that it is happening even today. It could be in this country, when you consider migrant labor, or the rampant underground of sexual slavery in Eastern Europe, Israel and Southeast Asia, in Moldova and Laos in particular. The practice of slavery beyond absurd, is beneath humanity, and hopefully, through art like this, will someday be eradicated from the face of the Earth. This film is required viewing, for this reason, but not this alone.
(***** out of *****)