A black woman in tatters is sitting in a cart crying uncontrollably as she pulls up to a luxurious Southern plantation home. A wealthy white woman comes to greet her new “property” and asks her husband why this one is in tears. She’s been separated from her children in the slave trade; it couldn’t be helped, he explains. “Poor woman,” the new master opines, “Your children will soon be forgotten.”
Such coldness despite an occasionally glossy and soothing tone is business as usual in the masterpiece “12 Years a Slave.” Like the stylish but burdensome “Shame” before it, Steve McQueen’s film is by far the heaviest, most difficult film to endure of the year. It should not be taken lightly that this is a film about slavery and all its harsh colors. Such devastating films are usually just about braving it only to learn a history lesson. “12 Years a Slave” is about maintaining your fortitude and still knowing who you are when you come out the other side.
The film is quite simply the story of a free black man living in upstate New York in 1840 who was kidnapped and sold into slavery for 12 years. That the man lived to tell his tale and write the memoir that inspired this film is magnificent enough. But McQueen uses Solomon Northup’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) story to show us what freedom is. It’s not the ability to live in wealth and privilege, to live free of pain or to be allowed to walk where you please. Northup earned his freedom by remembering who he was when the time came. Being strong enough to retain that memory: that’s freedom.
McQueen is a harshly vivid enough director that “12 Years a Slave” never has to say that point. For all its horrors, this movie is not a melodrama, and it doesn’t exploit this grim American history for thrills. McQueen puts his actors and his audience through brutal lashes, and we get the idea that Northup is not alone in witnessing or enduring this trauma.
That commonality of the widespread evil of slavery becomes clear in a scene that is simultaneously beautiful and horrific. A young slave named Patsey (a brilliant newcomer Lupita Nyong’o) has picked over 500 pounds of cotton in a day, way more than any of her male counterparts. She’s let go for the day and builds a doll out of a thick blade of grass and some straw. Patsey plays and hums with tranquility, while in the background her colleagues shriek from being whipped after not meeting their quota.
McQueen’s cinematographer Sean Bobbitt allows his camera to drift and linger in wide takes that last longer than another director would think to hold before cutting to a close-up. The approach works brilliant wonders when Northup is being dangled from a noose, his toes just barely on the ground and dancing so he can stay alive. McQueen holds this full-bodied shot for agonizing minutes, with whites and blacks going about their day as if this was ordinary.
These shots are symbolic and powerful more than they are descriptive. They show us each strike of the whip, but they neglect to provide a sense of time or number of years that might indicate when Northup will finally go free. McQueen’s camera allows us to stare deep into Northup’s eyes and feel every inch of his pain or of his rivalry with his master, but they don’t simply set Northup up for a soliloquy.
This is an intelligent, provocative film not merely because of John Ridley’s eloquent screenplay (one that seamlessly melds 19th Century sophistication with gratuitous N-words) or McQueen’s cold eye, but their willingness to combine them into an honest and true depiction of slavery.
This is by far the bravest acting of the year as well. Ejiofor is not the most pathos filled character in the script, but he earns our trust and compassion with his hardened face and voice full of gravitas. There’s conviction and fear in his eyes. Yet on the other side of the coin, Michael Fassbender steals the show as the ruthless cotton plantation owner with a Biblical entitlement to his human property and a sadistic love of his most prized slave. He demonstrates towering rage aside chilling calm, and in a scene in which Fassbender chases Northup around a barn, McQueen allows Fass’s physical presence to shine as well.
The two are complimented by a sharp-tongued Sarah Paulson as the plantation owner’s wife, Paul Dano as a jealous and sniveling overseer and Paul Giamatti as the most articulately evil salesman you’ll see. His scene belongs to the ages, an almost surreal art house showroom in which nude slaves stand for appraisal as Giamatti admires their features and negotiates their price. In another movie the camera would cut away for humiliating close-ups or display token whites acting spoiled and insensitive. Instead McQueen shoots the moment with dignity and ordinary visual hues. It’s a sign that this sort of horror is nothing unique; evil runs deep in this movie.
One of the worse comparisons making the rounds of the media about “12 Years a Slave” is a likeness to “Schindler’s List.” The claim fits to the extent that this was a human tragedy and this is too important a film to miss.
But better yet, “12 Years a Slave” attains its own identity as something more than the photo-realistic version of American history. That film was about an individual who witnessed these terrors. This is Solomon Northup’s memoir, but it’s the story of African Americans everywhere, each one who went from a person wronged to simply a grim way of life. Their children and their history hasn’t been forgotten. This film provides a devastating beating, but it colors our American ethos and makes us stronger and more in-tune with our identity than any film before.