12 Years a Slave
10th January 2014
27th January 2014
Quentin Tarantino caused more than a few raised eyebrows when he lauded Django Unchained last year for bringing the slave debate back to the table but it’s hard to deny it didn’t get a discussion going. A year on, Steve McQueen brings us an infinitely more serious take on the subject.
Multi-award nominated in just about every award ceremony this year, 12 Years a Slave not only comes with heavy expectations from that, it also has a recently respected book to live up to, not to mention presumably some of Solomon Northrop’s relatives. I say recently respected, that’s probably not entirely fair. Having spent the best part of a century in obscurity, Northrop’s book was re-discovered in the 1960’s, it sold well on its initial run back in 1853.
Brought to the screen by a man not phased by difficult subjects, it’s starting to become easy to forget that Steve McQueen has only directed three feature length movies, so high is his standing. The movie follows Northrop (Chiwetel Ejiofor) as he enjoys life in the northern states, playing the violin and generally having a very nice family life with his wife and kids. His wife goes travelling with the kids for a few weeks and not wanting to be idle, Northrop accepts the apparently genuine offer to go fiddle for a circus with a couple of upstanding gents in Washington DC. The gents of course are nothing of the sort and after an apparently successful time, they drug Northrop and sell him down the river. Northrop is initially sold to ‘benevolent’ plantation owner Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), leading to confrontation with other slaves as he is favoured by Ford. This doesn’t last though and soon Paul Dano’s vile Tibeats is on the prowl seeking to do away with Northrop. For his own protection (and rather than freeing him), Ford sells Northrop on to ‘slave-breaker’ Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Favour is less well found with Epps though….
To say that 12 Years a Slave is one of the more emotionally complex films I’ve seen recently is probably a substantial understatement. Whilst on the surface it should be infinitely easy to paint this film as morally black and white, there is far more going on here, all of it channelled through the outstanding (another substantial understatement) Ejiofor. Bruce Dern and Ejiofor must be ruing the day that their films were made in 2013 because only McConaughey playing a red-neck AIDS victim could bump them off the top of the Academy’s list. Ejiofor’s Northrop is a study of confused, battered pride throughout the entire movie. His initial hesitation at attempting escape is painful to watch as he tries to reconcile what is happening to him against the immediate action a fellow kidnapped man is suggesting. He then gets dragged into a horrific cycle of degradation, acceptance, rebellion and despair. All painted so visibly in Ejiofor’s permanently knitted eyebrows.
And it’s this cycle that so completely ruins us emotionally as the audience. We find ourselves desperately wishing Northrop’s escape, then mentally imploring him to keep on the good side of Ford, then wishing him rebel against the horrific Epps. This makes us entirely complicit in the full horror of the slave trade, we believe that Ford is a ‘good’ man, because he is less horrific than the others, only to have this spat in our faces as Ford protects Northrop only long enough to protect his investment. At the same time we are made aware of the side of slavery less well thought about, that is, the entire cotton market predicated on it. Ford protects Northrop because he is terrified for his livelihood and the mortgage he has taken out to buy him, the implication of course being that anyone wanting to deal in cotton at this time would have been put out of business if they hadn’t dealt in slavery, thus highlighting just how complicit everybody was in the trade. And we’re dealing with all this, after having just witnessed one of the most unwatchable scenes I’ve witnessed in a cinema for a long time. It’s gruelling, horrifying stuff. Exactly as it should be.
McQueen’s long takes on suffering have been a theme in his work so far and 12 Years a Slave takes this up another notch. The hanging and the flogging scenes are of course the most horrific and we are spared none of the details. Even Tarantino made us look away when the cop’s ear was severed, no such relief here. Every horrific blow visited on Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o with a deserved Oscar nomination) is felt by the audience, we get as little respite as she does. But the long take as Northrop is finally liberated is just as painful. As we focus on his face in the foreground, we glimpse Patsey collapsing as she is left behind with no hope of such liberation. Between all this, McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt frame the deep south with sultry beauty.
The entire cast acquit themselves well, even in the small parts. Dano is onscreen in only a few short, violent bursts but his hateful Tipeat is one of his best roles. Paul Giamatti gets only a couple of scenes but his casual outburst of violence sets the trend for most of what follows and, as mentioned above, Nyong’o is richly deserving of the Oscar nod. Her Patsey crumbles before us as she initially takes the advice of another woman who ultimately found favour with a plantation owner, only to have everything fall apart when Mistress Epps figures out the lustful look in her husband’s eyes. Michael Fassbender puts in an impressive performance as the scripture spewing Epps and only Brad Pitt underwhelms in what is to be honest, an underwhelming part as eventual saviour Bass.
12 Years a Slave is a difficult, uncomfortable watch which is exactly what is intended. McQueen drags us through the mill and nearly every time relief is offered, it is just as quickly snatched away. Even Northrop’s eventual salvation is tempered by the onscreen captions that follow, highlighting just how few people were rescued from situations similar to his (arguably an unnecessary point, given how abhorrent the entire situation was). In truth, the opening scenes of Northrop's happy life are a little twee but that's very minor issue with a truly impressive movie.
Check out the trailer here.