’12 Years a Slave’ is harrowing, unwavering and absolutely essential cinema

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A man hangs by his neck from a branch of a tree. With his hands tied, the only thing keeping him alive is the desperate dance of his toes on the moist soil below him. Every time he moves, the noose around his neck tightens. Every time he sheds a tear, a trail of humanity deserts him. For Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a minute might as well be an eternity. Standing in the distance are children. They play games with each other. There are adults too. Some are powerless. Some have the power to help him. But they all go about their business, watching him from the back of their heads, playing deaf and dumb to his dance of death.

I use this scene as an entry point into my discussion of director Steve McQueen’s searing 12 Years a Slave not only because it’s one of the pivotal moments in the film but also because it emblemizes the way this country has treated and still treats its barbaric history – by awkwardly sweeping it under the rug. Though there have been plenty of films that have tackled the subject of American slavery, most of them have been overly-sanitized feel-good pictures viewed from the perspective of outsiders – most of them white. Just last year, Quentin Tarantino broached the topic with Django Unchained. But even that film, which was more hyper-stylized comic book revenge fantasy than historical statement, saw its protagonist take a back-seat to the white supporting characters for most of its running time.

McQueen’s film is an entirely different thing. It’s an unflinching and sugar-free take on slavery. An incomparably talented British filmmaker, McQueen is an artist who has built a reputation for crafting raw, uncompromising works that reveal (some would argue, revel in) the ugliness of humanity. Both his previous films, Hunger and Shame, were no-holds barred takes on tough subjects. 12 Years a Slave is no different. Like in those films, McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbit use numerous long takes (McQueen’s modus operandi) to linger on scenes we’d prefer to shield our eyes from. While one could make a convincing case that long, unbroken takes tend to be showy, there’s no staginess to Bobbit’s breathtaking work. A sequence where a slave gets whipped – all in one shot – is so gripping that you don’t even realize it’s all in one take until after the scene has ended. There’s no question that McQueen is an unsubtle filmmaker. But his sensibilities also made him the right filmmaker to bring Solomon Northup’s story to the big screen.

Adapted by screenwriter John Ridley from Solomon Northup’s autobiographical novel, first published in 1853, the film is the story of how Northup, a free and educated black man from Saratoga Springs, NY, was kidnapped and sold into slavery. His story begins in 1841 when his family leaves town on a trip for three weeks. A violinist by trade, Solomon decides to bide time by taking up an invitation from two musicians to travel to Washington, D.C. for a well-paying gig. After a night of festivities in which he has too much to drink, he awakens in a dungeon, his limbs shackled and chained to a wall. When he protests that he is a free man, he is beaten with a bat until it breaks, whipped, and told that he is a runaway slave from Georgia.

Kidnapped and transported to the antebellum South along with other kidnapped free men and women, he is handed over to a cold slave trader (Paul Giamatti) who renames him Platt. Stripped, poked at and humiliated, he is made to stand naked against a wall alongside other slaves at a slave auction in which the trader pitches his “discount rates” and “top quality products” to plantation owners. What’s disarming about this sequence is the way McQueen presents it. There’s no over-acting, no close-ups or swelling music to accompany the drama on screen. It all plays out like the cold precision of a transaction between used car salesman and an unsuspecting first-time car buyer.

Forced to hide his literacy and intelligence to survive, Solomon goes through several owners (including a kind-hearted preacher played by Benedict Cumberbatch) before he lands on a cotton farm owned by Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a sadistic alcoholic who takes pleasure in traumatizing his slaves. Along with his demented wife Mary (a creepy Sarah Paulson), Epps often subjects Solomon and the other slaves, including a beautiful young woman named Patsey (newcomer Lupita Nyong’o in an incredible debut), to savage whippings, beatings, as well as waking them in the middle of the night to dance for his amusement.

As years go by and the punishments become more vicious, Solomon’s will to push on is significantly tested. But even as his physical and mental strength are exhausted, his will to live keep him going. Huge credit belongs to Ejiofor for his revelatory portrayal of Solomon’s slow mental and physical breakdown. As Solomon is our surrogate into this horror-filled “machine” of human suffering, the British actor smartly avoids the big “actorly” moments – choosing instead to use his facial expressions and soulful eyes to convey Solomon’s shock and pain. It’s a work of quiet intensity, one that rings authentic.

Fassbender, a McQueen mainstay, is equally magnificent as the maniacal and wildly unpredictable Epps. Epps is a barbarian but Fassbender is careful not to make him a one-note villain. His performance makes us understand Epps’ insanity as well as his insecurities, delusions, blatant ignorance and the closeted guilt that fuel his atrocious acts. It’s an electrifying performance that calls to mind Ralph Fiennes’ portrayal of Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List.

In fact, Fassbender’s performance is just one of the ways 12 Years to Slave is like Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust epic. Like in that film, a lot of drama is presented in an emotionally detached manner. Just like Spielberg, McQueen uses the story of one man as a gateway to chronicle one of society’s worst crimes. The difference here is that by using Solomon’s story – one of a free man sold into slavery, McQueen is able to make the viewer experience that horror first hand. In the end, it’s this very perspective that distinguishes the film from the many that have come before it.

12 Years a Slave isn’t perfect. I would have liked to see McQueen and Ridley delve more into the lives of the other slaves living at the plantation. Hans Zimmer’s score isn’t very effective, and the appearance of Brad Pitt (the film’s producer) as a pivotal character towards the end of the film is a major distraction in an otherwise captivating experience. But these are minor quibbles in what is an unwavering, unsentimental, often brutal but definitive portrait of this country’s history. Yes, it can be a tough watch but as McQueen has stated in interviews, this is the truth and an absolutely essential piece of filmmaking. Respect it as such.

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