I dropped the ball on reviews for awhile there. It’s not for a drought in movie-going. But after feeling somewhat uninspired by what I’ve seen lately,* I needed a film especially remarkable; so provoking that it would be impossible—wrong even—to watch it without some written reflection.
12 Years a Slave is undoubtedly that film.
I realize that’s no earth-shattering statement. It’s hardly a surprise that Slave is a picture with profound impact. From director Steve McQueen’s surreal encounter with its published origins to the whopping 134 awards (including a Best Picture Oscar) it has nabbed since its release, the page-to-screen trajectory of ex-slave Solomon Northup’s memoir is exceptional in itself. But it’s the presentation of the material within his account that makes the movie truly unforgettable.
A musician in mid 19thcentury upstate New York who is duped into captivity and sold into servitude, Solomon goes in a single night from a free family man to the shackled property of plantation owners. After a brief stint chopping timber for the relatively kind Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), he is then transferred to the cotton farms of Edward Epps (Michael Fassbender), a famously merciless master with a blazing temper, a whip-wielding hand, and a sadistic obsession with Solomon’s fellow slave Patsey (Lupita N’yongo).
Adapted to script by writer John Ridley, it’s rare to see a film premised on slavery—a topic itself rarely acknowledged in cinema—handled with such unflinching honesty that even now, days later, it’s impossible to leave behind.
Wince in shared embarrassment in a scene where Epps’ slaves, drained but jolted awake in the middle of the night by their drunken master, dutifully dance for his entertainment. In another, Solomon is forced to listen as the particularly vile farmhand Tibeats (Paul Dano), eyes squinted and mouth curled, sings his rendition of “Run N*gger Run.” His taunting refrain bleeds as voiceover into the following scenes, over and over, contemptuous and unrelenting, leaving us squirming for it to end. Later, as Patsey lies bleeding and broken, her back lashed to a gruesome pulp by a maniacally furious Epps, the stinging cut of his whip can almost be felt through our own skin.
There’s nothing overtly sympathetic or sensational about the film, yet its unembellished depictions are more than enough to elicit reactions so visceral. Thanks to Solomon’s real-life reference points, Slave avoids glorifying its subjects and their ordeals, telling them (seemingly) just as they were. His recollections are gut-wrenching as an individual’s experience, and harrowing as a visual reminder that his is but one of countless other similar but unwritten stories.
Breathing even further poignancy into Solomon’s memories are those who recreate them. "Heartbreaking performance" is a phrase thrown around so easily, it may now have lost its luster. And yet, there is no other way to describe what the actors have given here. Ruthless to the brink of inhuman, Fassbender’s portrayal of Epps is as courageous as it is cold-blooded. Equally brave is N’yongo; in her debut feature role as Patsey, she is a revelation well-deserving of the accolades she has received since. But Slave is, unequivocally, Ejiofor’s film. From the droop of his shoulders and the grief in his eyes to his silent but indestructible will to maintain hope, Ejiofor’s Solomon exhibits a quietly magnificent strength. Representing a human endurance that invokes a level of compassion unachieved by anyone on screen in a long time, he leaves an impression that lingers well beyond the film's ending.
The soul of 12 Years a Slave lies in Solomon's determination not just to “survive,” but to live. It is his unwavering faith that he might one day return home that fuels his ability to withstand constant degradation by his master, and to preserve a sense of dignity despite it. As viewers, we struggle to do the same. But McQueen doesn’t make it easy on us. From the inner workings of the trade—captives are stripped bare in front of potential buyers and a little boy is made to perform high-knee jumps in a scene reminiscent of circus animals on display—to the physical and emotional scars borne by the victims as a result of their dehumanization, the director is unafraid to shed light on slavery as an industry and it’s often unbearable to watch.
Still more difficult is the realization that this was once the reality of so many. Set in the plantation countries of Louisiana where much of Solomon’s story actually occurred, the juxtaposition of the breathtaking New Orleans landscape against the barbarous brutality that took place there further cements the story as an unavoidable and humiliating snapshot of history. And for all our sympathy, we will never truly fathom or relieve the anguish of those who lived it all, helpless to the abuse and hopeless for escape. Sitting here, bearing witness centuries later, we are just as defenseless as the slaves themselves to what transpired so many years ago.
What we can do is appreciate McQueen’s undaunted approach as he confronts, head-on, the atrocities of an era that has to date been unceremoniously ignored by a platform as prominent as mainstream Hollywood. It may be somewhat telling that neither the director nor the male lead is American. Then again, the film doesn’t endeavor to be a statement on race relations. A spotlight on the deplorability of a system that may be relatively suppressed today but is by no means nonexistent, 12 Years a Slave is a reminder of our capability as a society to inflict indescribable cruelty on each other, and shines as a story of human tragedy. In rediscovering Solomon’s book and translating it onto screen, McQueen has not only unearthed his odyssey, but has also compelled us to acknowledge the truths, extents, and motivations of our inhumanity.
*which includes more mindless Bollywood than I care to admit.