In a two hour movie brimming with finely calibrated, impeccably composed images that capture the brutal realities of America’s antebellum slave culture, a single shot of our nation’s looming capitol proves the most provocative. 12 Years a Slave, for all of its remarkable qualities, should be identified most of all as the rare movie that dares to tackle the sins of our country’s history while contextualizing them through a modern lens; if the film’s purpose is to remind us of the horrors of slavery, it refuses to do so gently or to assuage our shock and grief before the credits start rolling. This is art specifically designed to confront, rather than comfort.
That makes plenty of sense considering the source. Steve McQueen isn’t a man known to coddle his audience, whether in his capacity as a London gallery artist or as filmmaker, a role he stepped into with 2008’s masterful Hunger and continued exploring in 2011 with the far less successful Shame. These films each present portraits of human suffering in various forms; perhaps by happy accident, they’re mirrors to one another, respectively depicting the preservation of soul at the cost of body and the body at the cost of soul. With 12 Years a Slave, the British auteur showcases the wholesale destruction of both by relaying to us the true life account of Solomon Northup, whose memoirs serve as the foundation for McQueen’s work.
Northup’s tale is so appalling that it can only find its basis in reality: a black man born free in New York, he fell into a kidnapping plot in 1841 that saw him whisked away from his family and unceremoniously sold as property to Southern slavers. Queue a decade and change of torment and degradation at the hands of a cadre of owners and masters, ranging from the good – William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch, 2013’s most ubiquitous actor), conscientious of his slaves’ well-being – to the bad – John Tibeats (Paul Dano, a man born to be beaten up on the big screen), Ford’s overseer – to the worst – Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender, McQueen’s go-to principal actor), a man made deranged by his sexual desires and the sadistic whims of his harridan wife (Sarah Paulson). There’s a grand cast of characters filling in the cracks between them, of course, but it’s Northup’s interactions with them in particular that makes up the meat of 12 Years a Slave‘s running time.
This means that much of the focal burden rests on the shoulders of McQueen’s leading man, none other than the incredibly gifted Chiwetel Ejiofor (also British). There’s scarcely a frame in the movie that he doesn’t appear in; he supplies it with a thrumming heart, and becomes the recipient of the brunt of its many abuses, both direct and indirect. When he’s not being subject to acts of barbarism himself, he’s forced to play the part of witness to similar atrocities inflicted upon people just like him; he watches helplessly, and each stroke of cruelty peels away a thin layer of his humanity as he desperately clings to his own dwindling chances for survival. He’s a victim in all scenarios, in other words, and that’s clearly part of McQueen’s design.
Put bluntly, slavery dehumanizes everybody who strays upon its path, though it need be said that some make that choice for themselves while others have it made for them. If we accept this as 12 Years a Slave‘s core message – or one of them – then we still spend more time making the acquaintance of people in the former category than the latter. That’s a tactical decision on McQueen’s part; this is, after all, Solomon’s story. He persists in the foreground while other slaves mostly hang around the periphery, with only a few exceptions – notably Patsey (newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, who carries the weight of her character’s anguish with stunning grace), another slave on Epps’ plantation and the object of his lust and hatred.
By now it may be clear that 12 Years a Slave is an ugly movie; if not, then, well, spoiler alert. McQueen has never sought a reputation as a forgiving filmmaker, and this movie is more emblematic of his disinclination toward mercy better than his previous two. He captures graphic, occasionally stomach-churning moments of physical punishment with his trademark style of cool precision, showcasing some truly legendary suffering in unflinching detail; even for someone as talented as McQueen, this is a step forward in craft. That it happens to be so unsettling and heart-wrenching is besides the point, though for viewers with more delicate dispositions, individual mileage may vary.
But the contrast struck between the harsh extremities of slavery, the caliber of performance (particularly those of Ejiofor, Fassbender, and Nyong’o), and the raw, unfettered beauty of McQueen’s aesthetic sensibilities makes the journey worthwhile. The camera lingers on a burning letter as it lights up Ejiofor’s expressive face before snuffing out, the embers crawling across a black screen like neon caterpillars; a plate of food becomes a painter’s palette in the eyes of the filmmaker. 12 Years a Slave doesn’t dabble in the feel-good vibes of movies like Lincoln or the cartoonish exploitation of Django Unchained (though you will find yourself wishing for Jamie Foxx to pop up guns blazing), but the repulsion we feel at staring America’s past head-on relents with each perfectly, gorgeously filmed scene – at least for a while.
Catharsis, in other words, isn’t a mirage here; 12 Years a Slave ends on the appropriate note, one that gives us the relief we need while also succinctly articulating the impact Northup’s dreadful ordeal had on him. Northup sacrificed his spirit and bore unimaginable trauma to make it home, and he never even won the slightest justice for his agonies. Americans may think that the book on the US’s slave institution is closed – it’s been more than a century and a half, for crying out loud! – but as Solomon calls out for help while imprisoned in the shadow of Capitol Hill, that belief deserves to be called into question. Nothing to forgive, indeed.