The Horror is in the History: Steve McQueen’s 12 YEAR’S A SLAVE

Editor’s note: This review contains spoilers.

About halfway into director Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave there is a moment of profound serenity: the Louisiana bayou is seen on a stunning, bright day; wind rustles through the willows along the quiet waters, and you can almost feel the warmth of the sun on your face. It is a place of exquisite natural beauty that is nothing short of breathtaking– and a necessary respite from the intensity of the previous 60 minutes leading up to it. Because, as McQueen stated in a recent interview with Kathryn Bigelow, the most horrific things happen in the most beautiful places. This jarring juxtaposition is the crux of the film’s aesthetic–a film every inch as beautiful as it is brutal.

By now, with the film swimming in Oscar buzz, you’re probably aware that the film is based on the 1853 memoir 12 Years A Slave, written by Solomon Northup: a free black man who is kidnapped and sold South into slavery. Whereas in last year’s Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino sensationalized slavery into highly entertaining, shockingly bloody Western fare, Steve McQueen understands there is no need for sensationalism:  the horror is in the history.

He presents us a view of history most are unfamiliar with, the free African American community in the North during the 20 years before the Civil War. Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor in a charged, poignant performance that has “Oscar“ written all over it) is a prosperous free black man with a beautiful family and enough money to afford such indulgences as top-priced handbags. The Northups dress richly, are a dignified presence in the Saratoga black community, and white merchants are always happy to have them in their store. McQueen also indulges in a bit of historical license by including a scene in a restaurant where it is quite easy to see white and black dining together in the same room. Considering the fact that such a scene was uncommon as recent as 50 years ago, let alone in 1841, McQueen is simply emphasizing the stark moral contrasts between certain communities in the North and the world in which Solomon will soon find himself, along with the cruel realization that “freedom” for a black man was in fact a false security.

Mandatory Credit: Jaap Buitendijk/©Fox Searchlight Pictures
Mandatory Credit: Jaap Buitendijk/©Fox Searchlight Pictures

Solomon is a gifted musician, and his talent with the violin keeps his work steady and sought after. Unfortunately, it also catches the attention of a pair of con-men which is where 12 Years takes off. They lure Solomon to Washington D.C. under the pretense of a job offer, get him drunk, and he wakes up in the morning with more than a hangover: he is bound in chains in a jail. McQueen pans up from the jail cell, in which Solomon is screaming for help, as Capitol building looms above it in the distance. This is the first blow to the head for the viewer–the first of many emotional lashings–that there will be no help from anyone. Least of all from Washington. (The current president, John Tyler, will become a Secessionist.) For all of Solomon’s privilege, the fact of the matter is his skin is black. And in 1841, where freedom was a matter of state law and not constitutional law, the color of skin is, ultimately, all that matters.

Solomon is stripped of his freedom and identity, accused of being a runaway slave, and is sold at auction–Paul Giamatti is the unfathomably callous slave trader–to William Ford: a Baptist preacher and Louisiana plantation owner played by Benedict Cumberbatch. (The main three leads here are not Americans, including the director. The fact they have such a keen introspection into our heritage is another conversation unto itself). Solomon is quickly schooled on the rules of the game by his fellow captives: He must feign illiteracy and stupidity to survive. McQueen makes this point quite clear from the beginning: life is no longer about living, but surviving.

Solomon and the genial Ford have about as amicable a relationship as possible under the circumstances. Ford soon treasures the exceptional Solomon as his prize slave (that is, possession) and favors upon him a measure of dignity and trust.  But Ford’s plantation overseer Tibeats (a solid Paul Dano) is another story. Intimidated by Solomons intellect, and jealous of his favor with Ford, he pushes Solomon to breaking point.

Solomon at last retaliates with frustrated violence–an act that leads to an attempted lynching, which is perhaps the most harrowing sequence in an unrelentingly harrowing film. Ford’s foreman puts a stop to the hanging, but allows Solomon to suffer a lesson: his hands remain bound, the noose tight against his neck, with only his feet to keep him alive. The tips of his toes scarcely reach the ground, and they dance upon the mud, skimming the surface just enough to keep him alive. McQueen frames the scene like a painting from the old masters: Solomon’s half-dead body dangles from the tree in the foreground, while plantation life goes on quietly in the background as the servants dare not cut the suffering Solomon free for fear of their own lives. Where other directors would look away, McQueen holds the take. And holds. And holds. It is a fearless stretch of filmmaking, and is the moment that surely will lead to McQueen’s Academy nomination as Best Director.

Solomon is no longer safe at the plantation, and the only way Ford can save Solomon’s life is by selling him to the only other plantation owner that will take him. Mr. Epps (a ferocious Michael Fassbender), is a mean drunk and a notorious “N***r breaker.”

The shred of decency afforded to Solomon by Ford is obliterated with Epps in whom the true horrors of slavery become wholly and fully manifested, along with his wickedly cruel wife (Sarah Paulson) who proves to be just as much a villain as Epps. The Epps, in fact, are probably the strongest villains to have appeared in a mainstream film in recent years–certainly the most frightening. Their world is terrifyingly perverted: Epps a vicious king over his slaves, and his wife the cold, imperious queen. And since his slaves are his property, they are also there for his enjoyment in addition to their labor. He drunkenly pulls them from sleep late at night to have them dance a reel for him in his parlor–forcing Solomon to do the playing. They are also for his physical enjoyment, Epps favoring a beautiful young woman named Patsey much to the simmering anger of Mrs. Epps who, at one point, unable to control her anger with her husband’s unbridled lust, brutally hurls a glass decanter directly into the girl’s face. Played by Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o, Patsey is in many ways the most remarkable performance of the film–not to mention of the year. Epps’ passion for her proves nearly fatal, culminating in his nearly killing her by whipping– a scene of psychological terror in which he it is obvious Epps knows the only way to destroy his love for her is to destroy her completely.

Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures

As tension on the plantation escalates (along with Epps’ drinking), Solomon’s determination to escape becomes all consuming. McQueen intercuts with shots of Solomon trying, in vain, to fashion a quill from hollow reeds, and ink from boysenberry juice– a life-threatening gamble that he is willing to take in order to write to his white friends in the North to state his case and produce his freedom papers. Such moments are careful brush strokes on McQueen’s darkly beautiful canvas.

Eventually salvation does arrive, in the form a work-for-hire carpenter (Brad Pitt, one of the film’s executive producers) taking a few day’s work on the Epps plantation. As a Canadian, he has an inherent abhorrence to slavery, and eventually agrees to convey Solomon’s letter to the postmaster. When Solomon is at last liberated by  old friends from the North, and reunited with his family, the emotional thrust is considerable–but feels in no way manipulative as it would with a lesser filmmaker.

I’ve often compared Steve McQueen’s films to being something like a dog with a toy: no matter how hard the owner tries to pull the toy away, the dog is all the more determined to keep it in its clenched jaw. It is his toy. You are at his mercy. Granted, it’s a silly metaphor, but I simply can’t put the experience of McQueen’s films any other way. Whether it’s the grim turmoil of his prison drama Hunger, or the graphic, underground world of sex addiction in Shame. We are at McQueen’s mercy–something he grants us only through the sheer beauty of his compositions. The harder the viewer tries to pull away, the harder McQueen fights to keep us right there with him. It’s uncomfortable, it’s hard, it’s unrelenting.

Is the film flawed? You bet. But is it unnecessarily graphic? Absolutely not. Anything else would have made the audience more comfortable, and therefore would have been fundamentally false–and there’s not a false bone in McQueen’s work. (Something that the like of the Armond White and his arrogant snark-mongers would do well to realize.)

12 Years is a shoe in for Oscar noms, not just for McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, but for the powerhouse performances from Ejiofor, Fassbender and Nyong’o. Expect to see and hear much more of it as Awards season gets underway.

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