Gary Raymond reviews the captivating and sobering 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyongo’o, and Benedict Cumberbatch.
Perhaps the most significant ingredient to Steve McQueen’s much-lauded third film is not its apparent water-tight historical veracity, its directorial assuredness and artfulness, nor the weighty performances it holds within the frame from its leads, but it is the richness of the title it retains from the book by Solomon Northrup. 12 Years a Slave is Northrup’s story, kidnapped by slave-traders while visiting Washington D.C. in 1841; but it is also, clearly, the story of America, and by association the story of modern western history. America subsumed millions of Europeans looking for freedom, be it religious or economic (both sadly tightly connected to exploitation of and by those searchers), and then after a post-Wilsonian epiphany, they came back out, stretching their legs across the globe, but sadly without a change in ideal. The story of America is conjoined in utero with the story of the last two hundred and fifty years of Judaeo-Christian evolution, and much of it is extremely ugly. McQueen’s wonderful essay on American slavery, as good as anything written, performed, or visualised on the subject before now, does more than just tug at the hem of even bigger subjects, even bigger questions. It is a decisive and accurate statement on the nature of this historical age, and the notions that span out of the age across human time.
By the end of the film, ‘12 Years a Slave’ is a title that groans with darkest insinuations for the rest of us. McQueen knows exactly what he is doing. He is presenting to us a film about a man who had slavery visited upon him, where so many others – millions through generations – knew life only by these terms from the first wail to the final breath. We can visit Northrup’s misery and suffering, educated and literate as we are; it is, after all, the suffering of an educated and literate man. We understand his pain, because there for the grace of God go we. But we cannot really visit with the true slave, the one who has been created an animal by generations of inhumane treatment and regard. Other kidnapees have no respect for the ‘niggers’, we find out on the slave ship. ‘They have no stomach for a fight,’ says Michael K Williams’ Robert. We learn pointedly and brutally the crystal clear meaning of the word ‘nigger’, and it is simply not a word used to refer to a human being, in any context, by anyone. It means the race, the ‘subspecies’ of black slaves purposely fashioned by the white landowners. What McQueen says here is that if art has strived to do its best to come to terms with the Holocaust (as the most potent example), a catastrophe where a group of people stole another group of people from their lives, enslaved and slaughtered them, art has not yet done its utmost to understand the slavery of Africans or African Americans. ‘12 Years a Slave’ is a title that throbs with tragedy, throbs with the truth that Northrup’s tragedy was enhanced by his knowingness, and even more so by the lack of knowingness of so many around him on the plantations. The question is which is worse? Twelve years or a lifetime? These are the depths the questions of McQueen’s film reach. To consider the awfulness of 12 years in those conditions is taxing enough for our clean and privileged minds, what we cannot consider is being born into that universe, not to be merely stripped of human dignity, but to have never been afforded it in the first place; for not one moment to experience or understand notions of humanity as something that should be available, never mind taken for granted. What those involved in slavery did was something the Nazis could have only dreamed; they created indigenous slaves; humans born into it, died out of it, and not for one moment did they know anything else other than the life of livestock.
There are moments in the film where this is profoundly clear. Michael Fassbender’s cruel plantation owner Epps often leans on his slaves when giving a speech as if they are furniture, positioned to take the strain from his day. This is not affectation; there is not a hint of it in Fassbender’s performance. His relationship to his slaves is almost entirely proprietorial. Even his conflicted relationship with Patsey, the slave girl whom he beats and rapes and longs for and then flogs (in one of the film’s most startlingly memorably scenes), is the conflict of a man disgusted by his human feelings toward to a thing that is not human to him. Fassbender’s performance is astonishing. Whenever he comes to the edge of the frame it is difficult not to tense up just as the slaves do who suffer under his sadistic rule. He is unpredictable and vicious and cowardly and his self-loathing emits from him like a gas.
Offered up as an example of a different kind of plantation owner, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Ford is ‘compassionate’ and ‘humane’, a ‘good man given circumstance’ as Northrup says of him (in a moment where Northrup, unbeknownst to him in his state of grief and despair, dips his toe in the waters of Uncle Tom). But Ford is not compassionate or humane, is he? He is even more culpable than the semi-psychotic Epps, sodden in soul-deadening liquor for most of the film, moving through his life in a haze of hatred and depression. Ford is cloaked in the blistering hypocrisy of the religious indignation that oozes throughout the film. God is conspicuous in his ghostly presence. This is no absentee landlord. When Patsey pleads with Northrup to kill her it is because suicide is a sin. ‘But killing is a sin,’ Northrup objects. ‘But God is merciful, and you will be showing me mercy,’ Patsey desperately argues. Godliness excuses the slavers their sins and traps the slaves in theirs. Every crime needs a context, and in 12 Years a Slave religious hypocrisy is as much the adherent in the fabric of the wrongs of society as any notion of evil is. McQueen needs us to understand this was not a universe apart from ours; it was fabricated and set up on stilts like any other, and religion (explicitly in this film) has given as many excuses for evil acts as it has provided the inspiration for good ones.
This film is bold, it is brutal, and it is artful without being arty (it never drifts into Malick territory where you think it could have so easily done) – there are lingering shots, wandering lenses, and long one-take scenes that play out like Pinter in the bowels of a suffocating Hell. We are not sure what the breeze in the trees is supposed to be a metaphor for as it sometimes briefly slips through the cloying heat of the bayou, but there is a strong suggestion it is the mockery of the God who watches over all of this and lands on the side of the slaver every time.
The debate about the significance of this film has been going on since its showing at Cannes last year. Much has been made of the fact that as far as western cinema goes, America’s slave history is a largely untold story. This is true. Hollywood gets very queasy when presented with taboo subjects. But it is reaching back. Philadelphia looked at the ‘eighties disease’ AIDS in the early nineties; Schindler’s List broke the mainstream only some fifty years after the liberation of the camps. Now 12 Years a Slave could be the film that cinema decides can make slight people seem weighty as they discuss it around dinner tables as a final word on a terrible subject. But this film is not that. Spielberg slapped us with his story of a hero in the middle of such degradation, the profiteer with a conscience, Oskar Schindler. People can be good, Spielberg said. There is good, and it will win, at any cost. Well, of course good exists and people can be good. But the huge sweeping patterns of human history are not philanthropic, they are catastrophic. Mainstream cinema can make up for bunkum by shooting in black and white as much as it likes, but there is no art in dishonesty. 12 Years a Slave is as deeply honest a film as I have ever seen.
McQueen will not allow us, the audience, to feel redemption at the end of the film – Northrup returns to his family, but those who wronged him are not brought to justice, and the final words of text on the screen remind us that Northrup’s story was only unusual in that he made it home at all. The overwhelming majority of freemen who were kidnapped and sold into slavery were never heard from again. McQueen is a man with considerable social conscience, perhaps his skill behind the camera is the only thing to match it. Here we are not subjected to the comic-book puerility of Tarantino or the untrustworthiness of a director like Lars Von Trier (although there is something to be said for the argument that 12 Years a Slave would not have been made had comparative nonsense like Django Unchained and Mandalay paved the way for producers and audiences alike). McQueen’s film is historically solid (no matter how unlikely some moments may seem), and it has been commented on just how much worse many plantations were for their slave communities. 12 Years a Slave is an essay that has found a body for its backbone in the form of a sweeping and compelling dramatic narrative. It is utterly uncompromising. It could be the finest piece of cinema in a generation. But the overall feeling having seen the film is just how effectively McQueen has managed to touch on us a subject that is unfathomable in its awfulness. Slavery is a subject that stains us all because the remnants are everywhere. Cheap labour is now slavery, and is regarded as better than slavery by some employers, as it removes the cost of board and food of the labour force from the ledger. The exploitation of people is part of the human condition, McQueen convincingly argues. There is no redemption at the end of 12 Years a Slave because it would have been dishonest to have ended it that way.