12 Years a Slave
Steve McQueen’s third feature has been garlanded with praise from every quarter, so much so that its instant classic status seems unassailable. Tackling weighty subject matter (such as slavery, or the Holocaust) sometimes seems to invoke pre-programmed critical plaudits, so it’s as well that 12 Years a Slave deserves them. Yet I’m not sure it’s the groundbreaking film the kudos suggest. Perhaps what surprised me the most, given the director’s previous work, is how classical in structure and direct in manner it is.
I say that because McQueen’s great strength seems to be creating atmosphere and resonance that reverberates from the interior, close-quarter emotions of his protagonists (is it a nod to his reputation that the film begins with a Shame–summoning attempt at sexual congress?) And that element is consistently the strongest feature of 12 Years, as embodied by Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Solomon Northup. Solomon is a man whose reality is upturned, and whose grip on his own humanity is gradually eroded by continued exposure to his masters’ lack of the same. Early on in his captivity he pronounces “I don’t want to survive. I want to live” but it is exactly survival at which he becomes proficient, and it chips way at him.
John Ridley adapted Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir of the same name, in which Northup related his experiences as a free black tricked and sold into slavery in 1841. He was transported from Washington to New Orleans where he encountered a succession of owners of varying degrees of brutality, either directly or indirectly.
Trader Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti) sells him to William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), the owner of a plantation. Ford, who bears a kinder disposition than most of the whites he will encounter, favours Solomon. But he is an exception even in his own household. We see that his wife (Liza J Bennett) lacks his feeling, walking by unfazed as Solomon hangs from a noose on the brink of expiration. When Solomon first arrives at the plantation, she numbly tells the grieving Eliza (Adepero Odoye) to get some food and rest; her children “will soon be forgotten”.
Ford’s attitudes are a primer to the sickness of a society built on the possession and exploitation of fellow human beings. It is simply not possible to remain untainted; even if one does not favour mistreatment, tacit support of the status quo inevitably corrupts. When Solomon finally pleads with Ford to help him, explaining his true status, Ford shuts his ears. Solomon’s past is a threat to the bedrock of the South, and any complicity from Ford would endanger his own well-being. Ford is unable to recognise the injustice of slavery. And if all else fails in justifying one’s actions, simple economics is sufficient; he has a debt he must pay. It’s this sliding scale of inhumanity that, in time, will also inveigle Solomon.
But, during the early stages of the film, it is easier to see lines. Ford is relatively well meaning, whereas Tibeats (Paul Dano, exuding an air of inbred weaselry to outdo even his own impressive screen record), a carpenter working on the plantation, relishes the cruelty and debasement he can inflict.
Once Solomon is sold to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), McQueen and Ridley allow greater complexity to surface. Epps routinely beats those slaves who fail to fulfil their daily cotton-picking quota and sermonises at them with “proof” of their scripturally endorsed inferiority. Yet he is also a man who betrays a mass of conflicts. Frequently drunk and debauched, he earns the enmity of his disgusted wife (Sarah Paulson) as he attends to his lust for female slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). Epps regularly rapes Patsey, and is seized by an uncontrollable obsession with her. If Epps sounds irredeemable, he is. But unlike Tibeats, he is imbued with surprising depth, which serves to make him more than a simple moustache-twirling movie villain. With Epps, McQueen overcomes the impulse to indulge in the snarling caricature of Spielberg’s Amon Goeth; he affords his monsters the understanding that they sorely lack in respect of others.
Another layer is seen in Armsby (Gareth Dilllahunt), the former slave overseer reduced to labouring in the fields as a consequence of his drink habit. Armsby says all the right things, and it’s entirely understandable that Solomon should be seduced into asking for his help. Armsby claims he turned to drink to block out the truth of the evils he inflicted on slaves, saying that the only other alternative would be to lie to oneself that such behaviour was acceptable and warranted. Precisely why Armsby enacts such an about face is unclear (it happens off screen; perhaps Solomon is correct in his explanation) but he betrays Solomon and it is only through quick cunning that the latter survives Epps’ interrogation. In a sense it feels like another hoodwinking, the like of which lured Solomon to Washington and severe misfortune.
And then there is Brad Pitt’s wonderfully enlightened Canadian carpenter with an Amish beard, Bass. He arrives to provide Solomon with hope when all seems lost. Echoing Ford's fears, it’s telling that even Bass, openly debating Epps’ distasteful dogma with him, has pause when Solomon requests that he deliver a message that might also endanger his, Bass’, life. I was amenable to Pitt’s performance in a way some reviewers don’t appear to have been, but there is a cumulative feeling that 12 Years is only so far from becoming “Solomon’s’ encounters with a succession of white movie stars”.
By the pointBass arrives on the scene we have become more than accustomed to the pervading fear of this world. There is a point early in his captivity with Epps where Solomon runs away, or at least sets out to do so. Yet we desperately want him to stay put, fearful of the punishment that awaits him if (when) he gets caught. His advance through the shrub, only to happen across a lynch mob, serves to reconfirm that the only course of action is to keep your head down and be compliant. Likewise, we question his infrequent decisions to reveal his background to those he hopes will understand or care. He has been told at the outset that his learning will result in certain death if he tells his masters. And this warning is reiterated during the course of the film. McQueen’s achievement is that he ensures we too want Solomon only to survive, not to live.
As I implied above, it’s curious to observe how Solomon’s world is continually positioned in contrast to the white masters he meets. Which is to say, they are the characters whom McQueen chooses to define Northup by, rather than his mostly anonymous fellow slaves (with the exception of Patsey).
McQueen was surely aware of this. One might be cynical of the star quotient cachet, by which such performers punctuate the plot with purple pirouettes. But it is also the case that the monstrous distortions in their moral complexion, the absence of essential empathy, demonstrates this environment as much as the suffering. The slave who advises Solomon to keep schtum doesn’t even look back at him, as Northup desperately calls his name, when his master retrieves him. There is no greater good to look towards; if one is seen only as an object there is only self-preservation.
Over the fullness of time, Solomon’s leaking sense of self is close to reaching the same place of rejection. When he too is rescued, he turns back to bid the distraught Patsey farewell. And then he leaves forever. He doesn’t make the same choice as his predecessor, but he also takes the relief waiting for him. It is particularly potent that Patsey, who begs him to kill her and end this continued abuse, should be subjected to the film’s most horrific sustained beating at the reluctant Solomon’s hands (and then those of Epps). When she asks him to end her life, Solomon rebukes her (the sin would earn him eternal damnation), but in the moment where he is reduced to whipping her he afflicts his soul in a much more profound manner (Epps' threat to begin killing slaves if Solomon refuses seems like a rather extreme ante-upper; it would make no financial sense for Epps to make good on that, no matter how agitated he was). Instead of killing Patsey, Solomon “merely” brutalises her. Another striking scene of loss follows soon after, in which the usually stoic Solomon emotionally collapses as he joins in with the Negro spiritual songs that announce the slave experience; it is an expression of despair, desperation and release. This may be the explanation for his limited interaction with his fellow slaves. Solomon doesn’t see them as his fellows; he’s not really a slave.
Whether or not that is the case, there’s often a tangential, on the outside looking-in, quality to this experience. Solomon wasn’t a slave and then he was, and he spends his most sustained interactions with his owners. As astonishing and moving as Nyong’o’s performance is, hers is not a fully rounded character; Patsey is there as the brunt of mutilation and torture. We get to know her abuser so much better.
The ability to justify slavery occasionally becomes a slightly rote tail wagging the narrative dog. McQueen has little need to preach; the horror of a flagellation speaks a thousand words (and in due deference to him, McQueen knows to use the beatings sparingly so as to yield maximum impact and not lose his audience through a relentless assault). Still, the Pitt scene comes perilously close to spoon-feeding an audience that should know better; having superstar Brad deliver such wisdom feels distractingly calculated. In contrast, while the ever-looming spectre of religion as the backbone of slavery may seem blatant (and this was not the perspective of Northup, a Christian) it deserves calling out as a key means of endorsing and perpetuating the system.
In the final captions, we learn that Solomon become an abolitionist, unsuccessfully attempting to prosecute his captors. The nature of his demise is stated as unknown; while this suggest murky goings-on, it appears the simple truth is that no one knows his fate for sure. But this absence highlights that there are other aspects of Solomon’s life where we are left uncertain. The early scenes of freedom (and flashbacks, accompanied by an idyllically-hued Hans Zimmer score – Zimmer is never one to go for the subtle) won’t really be drawn on Solomon’s perspective on his daily life. He was fortunate enough to be surrounded by appreciative white friends, but was he living a life of respectfully not rocking the boat? The scene in the New York shop, where a slave intrudes and his master fetches him back, suggests much; the apologetic master, who blanches when Solomon tells him there is nothing to apologise for.
Where 12 Years doesn’t quite pay off is in the formal limitations presented by a tight linear narrative. McQueen seems to be pushing at these restraints constantly, never quite at ease with them. Indeed, the structure of the story is so approachable you could imagine Spielberg getting behind it for another Oscar bid (he would no doubt do his best, never quite smart enough to breathe understanding into each frame as McQueen can and layering the emotional beats with treacle). The episodic design is perhaps not McQueen’s best fit. And it’s odd that, for a film whose very title lays the groundwork of its span, you’d be hard-pressed to gauge the passage of time. The only real signal is the flecks of grey in Solomon’s hair (and Patsey’s child with Epps). There is no sense of passing years, or his time with either of his owners; I wouldn’t have realised he spent almost 10 years with Epps.
That may be because McQueen’ presents his characters in the moment. Part of this is down to the meditative visual tone he strikes. There is a constant contradiction between the close-up beauty of the natural world and the horror and ugliness of Solomon’s life. I was put in mind slightly of the sensibility Malick brought to The Thin Red Line, in which the devastation of war is in sharp contrast to the environment on which it intrudes. Unlike Malick, McQueen doesn’t need a voiceover to express Solomon’s inner world. Ejiofor ‘s deep, pained eyes translate his every thought. His might be the performance of the year, so much so that it towers over the tale itself.
It scarcely matters whether 12 Years a Slave takes the Best Picture Oscar in March. I suspect, if it does, it will be seen as a vague anti-climax; the reverential reportage would surely write itself. It wouldn’t be exciting or surprising enough, because they always give the Oscar to issues based-dramas; don’t they? Perhaps the main thing counting against it is that it is in essence, a very traditional picture (coming from a 160 year old book, that probably shouldn’t be all that surprising). Where McQueen succeeds most is with character, rather than his story. So if I were to put money on anyone here, it would be Chiwetel (and Lupita) winning.