Movie Review: 12 Years a Slave (2013)
If “12 Years a Slave” is the greatest film ever made about the American slave experience it’s partially because it doesn’t have much competition.
What comes to mind? “Amistad”? Meh. “Roots”? TV. “Mandingo”? Please. The very dearth makes one question what so-called liberal Hollywood has been up to for the last 100 years. The Holocaust ended 80 years after slavery but already has its masterpieces: “The Pianist,” “Schindler’s List,” “Nuit et Brouillard,” “Shoah.” American slavery has “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone with the Wind.” Insert rebel yell here.
Is it telling that “12 Years” was directed by a Brit (Steve McQueen), and stars mostly Brits (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch)? Is the story of slavery, in other words, still too close to us even after 150 years? It’s our shame and who wants to broadcast their shame? Plus there are practical questions. How will it sell in the South, for one.
Maybe it’s as simple as this: Slavery is long gone but we’re still working through its consequences. We all agree, give or take, that slavery was wrong, but white Americans still disagree vehemently on racial matters. Black Americans, too. It’s the dialogue we either never really have or never stop having. Both.
All of that is partially why “12 Years” is the greatest film ever made about the American slave experience. It also happens to be a very powerful film. Its power lies in understatement, and stillness, and holding onto the horror rather than flinching away from it or turning it into melodrama—as recent films have done with the Holocaust and the Rape of Nanjing. McQueen shows you a man half-lynched, and holds on it and holds on it. Comedians have a phrase for this—commitment to the bit—but McQueen isn’t demonstrating its tragic side. His camera almost feels non-judgmental. It’s a cold camera, the way Stanley Kubrick’s was a cold camera. The heat, the horror, are up to us to provide.
The worst master
The movie is based upon a true story. Or upon an 1853 book that was based upon a true story.
Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor ) was a free-born African-American living with his wife and family in Saratoga, N.Y., who, in 1841, was traduced, drugged and sold into slavery in Louisiana. There, he had masters both benevolent (Cumberbatch as Ford) and sadistic (Fassbender as Edwin Epps), and the question, going in, and given the title, is how he gets back after 12 years.
Despite the dearth mentioned above, the horrors of slavery in the antebellum South aren’t exactly unfamiliar to us: whippings, lynchings, general inhumanity. But McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley (“Red Tails”; “Three Kings”) still give us unexpected details and subtleties. The slave auction takes place, not outside on the docks, but inside a well-appointed New Orleans home. Half the slaves are naked, and inspected, but there’s little that’s malicious or lascivious about this; they’re inspected the way you would inspect a piece of furniture. They’re commodity. That’s the horror. Not in maliciousness—the sneering and leering lesser filmmakers bring—but in how ordinary it all is.
There’s a surprising freedom within slavery. Solomon, renamed Platt, and passed off as a runaway from Georgia, is allowed to walk to the general store to pick up supplies. He’s allowed to suggest and prove to Ford a means of transporting goods via river raft. He’s allowed to do carpentry work. Then he misunderstands his situation. He talks back to one of the overseers, Tibeats (Paul Dano), and winds up fighting and even whipping Tibeats, who returns with two friends to lynch him. They nearly succeed but for the other overseer, Chapin (J.D. Evermore), who stops them but does nothing to stop Solomon’s pain. He leaves him, half-choking on the rope, and on his toes for hours until Ford arrives and cuts him down.
An argument can be made that the benevolent master, Ford, is actually worse than the sadistic master, Epps, since there is no doubt in Epps’ mind, none at all, that his slaves are anything but his property. So why shouldn’t he treat his property the way he wants? Ford’s different. He knows slavery isn’t right. But he still buys into it. He still purchases Solomon and separates a mother from her children. He may save Solomon from a lynching but when Solomon tells him he’s a free man, illegally brought to the South, he doesn’t help him; he sells him. He has debt, and Platt still has value. That’s what you do in capitalism. You buy low, sell high, and sometimes you cut your losses. He cut Platt.
Solomon makes a few feints at escape. On the first trip to the general store, he ducks into the woods only to come across a lynching. On a subsequent trip, he steals a piece of parchment, uses berry juice as ink, writes a letter to send home. But the man he trusts betrays him and he burns the letter, and, with it, most of his hope.
His demeanor and Latinate vocabulary changes. He avoids eye contact, suffers, ages. One slave, Patsy (Lupita Nyong’o), a source of tension between Epps and his wife (Sarah Paulson) because of Epps’ desire for her, asks Solomon to kill her. He refuses on religious grounds. Later, because she dares get a bar of soap, she is whipped—not by Epps (at least initially) but by Platt. Epps forces him and he has no other choice. This is the key to the movie—the shift from the many options of a free man to the one of a slave—and is brought home immediately in the shabby building on the outskirts of D.C. when Northup awakes in chains for the first time. He stands and tells his enslavers his name is Solomon Northup and he is a free-born man. The men nod and crank the chains down until he is on all fours. Then they whip him. Then they whip him again. Then they take his torn and blood-splattered shirt and give him a slave shirt.
If there’s a fault in the film, a void, it may be Solomon’s isolation within the slave community. I don’t know if this is historically accurate—a result of the fact that Solomon is an educated free man living among uneducated slaves—or if it’s because director Steve McQueen tends deal in isolation. In “Hunger,” Bobby Sands (Fassbender) is physically isolated in a British prison; in “Shame,” Brandon (Fassbender again) is psychologically isolated by his sexual addiction. Now we get Solomon in the South.
With whom does he bond? Initially with two other free-born men sold into slavery: Clemens (Chris Chalk) and Robert (Michael K. Williams). The three plot and discuss their options. But on the voyage to New Orleans, Robert develops smallpox, dies, and is tossed overboard; and at port, Clemens’ white benefactor shows up to free him, and Clemens ignores, or can do nothing about, Solomon’s cries for help. No help is forthcoming. He’s alone.
On the Ford plantation, Solomon bonds mostly with Ford. On the Epps’ plantation, he bonds a bit with Patsy but shares the stage mostly with Epps. The other slaves aren’t even flat characters; they’re stick figures in the background. He and Patsy meet Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard) at another plantation, who, in classic American fashion, has raised herself up from field slave to domestic servant to someone who is now served; but there’s no bond there, either. It’s a one-off. It’s a lesson. During a cottonwood infestation, he’s loaned to Judge Turner (Bryan Batt), where he harvests sugar cane during the day and engages in silent nighttime sex with (Ashley Dyke), but we don’t hear a word from her. During the funeral of a slave, lost in despair, Solomon begins to sing the blues with everyone else. He joins their song. But he doesn’t bond.
Again, I don’t know if this makes the story more historically accurate. It might even make the story better. But it is a void.
Even so, go. Please. “12 Years a Slave” is one of the best movies of the year about the great American tragedy. The movie’s power lies in its restraint. It holds something back for pressure, as Robert Frost said about good poetry. You can feel this restraint, this pressure, in McQueen’s direction, Ejiofor’s performance, and the soundtrack music by Hans Zimmer. You want release and they don’t give it.
In some respects, the standout performance is Fassbender’s. He’s ferocious not just in his sadism but in his righteousness. There’s no doubt in his eyes. These people are his. When the local sheriff, and Solomon’s white benefactor from the North, show up on the plantation to finally free Solomon after 12 long years, we get no cheap thrills, no sense of vindication from a beaten Epps. The opposite. His righteousness grows. Some government functionary is repossessing his property? Even though he paid for it? He’ll see about this. And off he rides to seek restitution. He’s ready to start a civil war over it.
There are no cheap thrills at the end, either. It’s a happy ending but it’s not a Hollywood ending. Solomon greets his family, including his new son-in-law, after 12 years away, with tears of genuine sorrow. “I apologize for my appearance,” he says. “But I have had a difficult time these past several years.”
Producer Bill Pohlad has said of the film, “We felt there's never been a film about slavery that dealt with it in such an unflinching way.”
Now we have one.