By Simon Miraudo
January 14, 2014
12 Years a Slave tells the true, too-sad tale of Solomon Northup, a free man kidnapped by travelling charlatans in 1841 and sold into slavery. How could this happen? Why did it keep happening? And why don’t more modern artists address this unthinkably cruel era? Steve McQueen‘s cinematic telling of Solomon’s tragic journey is, predictably, no plucky jaunt, examining the trade of humans as the engine that powered American commerce for far too long. Scripted by John Ridley – who turns the episodic structure into a free-flowing collage of horrors, complete with mannered, period-specific language – 12 Years a Slave is an important document; less a polite request for equality, and more an audacious demand for attention.
The fortuitously named English director and former video artist follows up his previous pictures Hunger and Shame with this similarly pit-of-the-stomach venturing, queasy-making drama, and he’s wrangled a once-in-a-lifetime cast for it. Londoner Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Northup, armed with unshakable poise, and he’s joined by able supporting players Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson, Alfre Woodard, Paul Dano, and Brad Pitt, as well as startlingly-great newcomer Lupita Nyong’o. In a just world, those names alone would entice audiences to see this vital work, ghastly subject matter aside. Sure, esteemed actors have assembled for abominable tripe in the past (and allow me another opportunity to pour cold water over the head of Fassbender’s calamitous, all-star c**k-up The Counselor), but you’ll just have to trust that the whole of 12 Years a Slave is greater than even the sum of its very impressive parts.
Solomon spent the 1840s being traded back and forth between plantation owners good and bad (‘good’ being a relative term here), his wife and two young children left unaware of his fate. William Ford (Cumberbatch) was one of the ‘good’ plantation owners, gifting Solomon with a violin to while away the days. Yet, it’s under Ford’s watch that he and his fellow captives are unduly punished and relentlessly oppressed by literal slave-driver Tibeats (Dano, in prime ‘snivelling weasel’ form). After Northup turns the whip on Tibeats, Ford sends him to the struggling cotton farm of Edwin Epps (Fassbender), a drunk whose buffoonery would be funny if it didn’t often result in such vile abuse. Epps and his equally ferocious wife (a chilly Paulson) make particular sport of alternately attacking poor, eager-to-please Patsey (Nyong’o); a slave who, unlike Solomon, knows no life other than the doomed one she was born into.
One moment stands out for all the wrong reasons, and it’s when producer Brad Pitt appears on the screen bathed in sunlight and radiating with megawatt charm: a movie star, mistakenly teleported to the 19th century. That he should be cast (or did he cast himself?) in the role of sole noble white man – who relieves Solomon of his slave status, no less – makes the moment even more jarring. (The now-infamous Italian posters show Pitt’s gigantic Godhead hovering over Solomon, summoning him to freedom.) The other brief appearances from recognisable performers fare much better, such as Giamatti as an unscrupulous middle-man who rechristens Solomon ‘Platt’ and separates a mother from her two children before selling them off to the highest bidders. Woodard is given just one scene to impress, acting as a refined slave who teaches Patsey how to use her feminine wiles to stay alive. Michael K. Williams and Chris Chalk are excellent as Solomon’s fellow, fearful kidnappees, while Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam are detestable as the figures who shanghaied them in the first place. I could go on.
If McQueen has a signature as a director – besides focusing on the drawn-out physical and emotional decay of a human body and its spirit – it’s the long take. In 12 Years a Slave, a spinning camera tracks around Patsey as she’s tied to a tree and whipped, first by Epps, and then by a reluctant Northup. When the lengthy sequence reaches its crescendo, we finally see Patsey’s back as strips of flesh are torn away with each new strike of the whip. This is new for McQueen; a feat of visual trickery. Not that I thought it at the time. It was the content that shocked me most, not the craft. Only afterwards did I realise his technical achievement, and surely that’s the correct order of acknowledgement.
McQueen’s other major contribution to the art world in 2013 was the painting ‘Lynching Tree’, depicting the now-placid site of countless unspeakable atrocities from the United States’ most barbaric era. (It was used to unsettling effect, oddly, at the MTV VMA awards, where a silhouetted Kanye West performed his brilliant, complicated, ‘Strange Fruit’ sampling ‘Blood on the Leaves’ before it.) That image is echoed in another of 12 Years’ harrowing single-take sequences (captured beautifully by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt): Solomon – his neck in a noose, tiptoes barely saving him from strangulation – silently enduring his torture while plantation life carries on around him. Its sustained cruelty is necessary; not, as some have suggested, a case of a director using inhuman viciousness merely as a template for his artistic prowess.
A small conclave of critics long-ago suggested Northup’s biography – from which Ridley drew – was published in the 19th century as abolitionist propaganda, comprised of varied plantation stories that didn’t entirely belong to its author. Those claims have been snuffed, thanks to detailed verification of Solomon’s journey. Yet, there’s the pervasive sense among some misguided doubters that the plight of enslaved African Americans has been exaggerated, and cinema has done little in its short, 130-odd-year history to suggest otherwise. McQueen knows this. The violence is extreme, and his camera is unblinking, because someone‘s camera has to be. The largely unsentimental 12 Years a Slave, anchored by Ejiofor’s towering performance and complimented by McQueen’s flair for the theatrical (and grotesquely violent) succeeds most as this: a screaming reminder that all of this happened, and the time for blissful, inexcusable ignorance is over.
In 1915, D.W. Griffith practically defined narrative moviemaking with The Birth of a Nation, which proudly celebrated the Ku Klux Klan’s reign over riotous, newly-freed slaves in America’s south. (One year later, he made the penitent Intolerance.) Yet, as far as American cinema’s exploration of this troubled passage goes, we have to look all the way to the second decade of the 21st century for great films on the topic. Django Unchained exploded (literally) one of slavery’s longest lasting and ugliest relics: Uncle Tom. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln thoughtfully explored the political wheeling-and-dealing that led to the Emancipation Proclamation, rather than displaying it as a fit of sudden good-heartedness amongst white men. And now, we have 12 Years a Slave, a parade of brutality that exists largely to exhibit how bad things truly got (so much so, it undercuts a climactic, traditionally heart-warming finale with a pre-credits scroll alluding to Solomon’s fate). All three features are vastly different, and absolutely essential. What they’re not are the final words on the matter. Let’s hope this one, a likely Best Picture winner, and, at the very least, a certified cornea-scorcher that won’t be forgotten by its viewers, kicks the door in.
12 Years a Slave plays the Perth International Arts Festival from January 13-26. It opens in Australian cinemas January 30, 2014.