12 Years a Slave is based upon the memoirs of Solomon Northrup, a free man from Saratoga, N.Y. A family man and talented violinist by trade; he is duped into visiting Washington D.C. under the auspices of a large sum of easy money performing in a travelling show. From here he is abducted, sold into slavery and shipped south. In the ensuing two hours we witness the brutality, systematic violence, injustice and unimaginable desperation that he was subjected to for more than a decade. His story is a drop in the ocean, but it is an important one, and one that an audience must suffer with him.
One of the best lecturers I had at university could, and would often, spend an hour or more analysing the opening minutes of a film to show how the first images we see are vital to our understanding of what happens thereafter. For those of you who arrive late to the cinema, buy a bucket of popcorn, a gallon of pop and then proceed to spill this over people who had the decency and organisational skill to arrive on time for the film, whilst blocking their view of the crucial opening seconds, let this be a lesson to you.
There is so much to be said about McQueen’s latest film that it is difficult to know where to begin. So, in honour of old Les, I am going to begin at the beginning.
The film opens with a shot of a group of men who stand in roughly two rows, looking to a point beyond the camera. Their attention is held by a man who instructs them on how to cut sugar cane. The picture above is not necessary for you to envisage the skin colour of the group of men receiving instruction and that of the man giving it. However, this is the first example of a staging that is employed by McQueen at key moments during the film where black characters face white characters across a dividing line; a dividing line of race, slave and master, right and wrong.
Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (who worked on McQueen’s Hunger and Shame) places his camera, and therefore the audience, between these two lines. It is obvious where our moral sympathies lie but we are caught between the two sides of the conflict from the outset.
In the following scene Solomon eats blackberries from a metal plate and sees opportunity. The juice of the fruit could be used for ink to communicate with the outside world; either a liberating or a fatal endeavour. In this film literacy is a two-edged sword. Solomon’s ability to read and write challenges the white man’s preconception of the uneducated and subservient “nigger”. It gives him an advantage over those around him, including many of his masters, but he spends the majority of the film feigning ignorance as he would be killed should he expose his intelligence.
Solomon lies alongside two different women in the film’s opening sequence. In the first of two scenes he and a woman lie on the floor of a dark, crowded room horizontally across the screen. Their actions are intimate but there is no intimacy to their actions and both are left ashamed at their baseness.
We then see him lie on a bed with clean white sheets eye-to-eye with another woman, his wife Anne (Kelsey Scott). They regard and hold each other tenderly as candlelight plays on their faces. They are positioned vertically from the top to the bottom of the screen.
The latter is synonymous with peace and love whilst the former is off-kilter and jarring. They are a visual representation of the harmony of his life in New York and the discord of the South in what can be called the ‘personal’ side of this story. Whilst we must not forget that innumerable others suffered a similar fate to Northrup, a large part of the success of the film is that McQueen gives us a man, his family and his story and attempts to humanise inhumanity.
The first scene mentioned above is uncomfortable but there are many in the film which are unbearable to watch. In his review of McQueen’s film for The Guardian, Mark Kermode draws attention to the director’s use of the long take.
In the example pictured here, Solomon is strung up from a tree after fighting back against the tyrannical Tibeats (Paul Dano). For several minutes he struggles to maintain his tiptoe footing on muddy, unstable ground as daily life continues around him. There is no edit to cut away from this; we are forced to witness his punishment. Just as we are forced to watch Solomon’s captor break a paddle over his back soon after his abduction, Mistress Epps (a callous, jealous and vicious Sarah Paulson) strike Patsey (the impressive Lupita Nyong’o in her first film role) over the head with a glass decanter and Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) whip Patsey to within an inch of her life. The violence in this film is a one-way street that is used to subjugate, control and intimidate. The only instance of retaliation, as we see above, has severe consequences.
If we don’t want to see, then we have to look away, which is precisely the point; it’s high time that people, especially Americans, did see this. This brings about a number of questions. Why have so many films been made about The Holocaust and yet so few the slave trade?
A lot has been said, on both sides of The Pond, about the cast and crew of this film. Why was this film not made by an African-American director? Why are the lead roles played by non-American actors? Steve McQueen is a Londoner of Grenadian descent; Chiwetel Ejiofor was born in Forest Gate, to Nigerian parents; Michael Fassbender is German-Irish.
The Hollywood stars of the film make only cameo appearances.
Paul Giamatti plays Freeman, a slave trader who displays his merchandise with less compassion than a farmer would livestock; offering refreshments as his wealthy white clientele peruse the articles he has on show. His sentimentality “extends the length of a coin” and he has no qualms whatsoever in separating children from their mother if there is profit to be made. His performance is suitably ruthless and uncaring but is soon forgotten.
Brad Pitt (also one of the film’s producers) plays Bass, a carpenter and abolitionist who originated in Canada. Many have criticised Pitt for being as wooden as the structure he builds outside the Epps’ house. Although it may not be his finest performance some of the most profound lines of the film are reserved for his character. It is he that speaks of the “Fearful ill resting upon this nation”. He says this to Epps, and is able to do so without punishment purely because he is white and is not part of the master’s property.
If the performances of the American actors involved in this production are only fleeting, then I can proudly say the European contingent is towering.
Weariness, desperation and grief hang from Ejiofor’s face like shackles. The camera often frames and rests upon his head and shoulders in moments of contemplation; much like a portrait painting. The actor is more than equal to the task. The contrast in his body language, mannerisms and speech between scenes on the plantations and the flashbacks to his life of fatherhood and marriage in the North would suggest that we are not seeing the same man – such is the success in the duality of his performance.
In a featurette on the cast of the film for Contact Music, Steve McQueen alludes to a “sensibility about Benedict” that suited his character. Plantation owner William Ford is caring, but at the same time suffers from a weakness that means he comforms with an institution which he knows to be wrong. A symbol of white hypocrisy, he clearly values “Platt” (the name Solomon is given when traded by Freeman) and affords him a degree of kindness but is unwilling to liberate the ‘free’ man, despite knowing that he is no ordinary slave. He is a moderate and devout man but sadly he does not practise what he preaches.
Notably, Cumberbatch is invested on a personal level in this film, given his own family’s history. The Daily Mail, of all people, ran a story on a plantation in Barbados where ‘almost every single one of the brutal slave masters who held sway here boasted the same, highly-distinctive surname: Cumberbatch.’ We mustn’t forget that the shame of the memory of slavery is not just an American one. Benedict’s participation in this film may represent an attempt at atonement for the sins of his ancestors and whilst this is only a gesture, it is an honourable one.
The introduction of Michael Fassbender’s tyrannical slave master, Edwin Epps, is a further example of white characters positioned opposite black characters. His reading of the Good Book does not express an ounce of the compassion of Ford’s well-intentioned sermons. He delivers a speech from the steps of his home to rows of his “property” which excuses the use of beatings and violence as a means of discipline. Described by his wife as a “filthy, Godless heathen”, Epps is a monstrous brute who abuses his slaves emotionally, physically and in the case of Patsey, sexually.
Epps is truly diabolical. Fassbender achieves this with a drunken brutality and leering smile that is terrifying. Having worked with McQueen on both Hunger and Shame to great acclaim, it is not surprising that Fassbender was chosen to feature again in this film. He embodies the reprehensible characteristics of Freeman, Ford and Tibeats and pushes them yet further. At each stage of the escalation of evil and cruelty in this film it does not seem fathomable that further degradation is possible; however, it reaches its peak with Epps and the culmination of the lust that he feels for Patsey exploding in a fit of rage. It is the actioning of this rage which results in the film’s most devastating image.
In the final scene of the film characters are again positioned opposite one another but on this occasion they break the dividing line and come together. I won’t tell you who they are though…
As the big screen (or small screen) that you watch this film on turns to black and the credits roll you should feel like you’ve been punched in the stomach. Or at least be speechless. Or both. Whether 12 Years A Slave wins a dozen Oscars or not is irrelevant; this film is a landmark and one of the most significant pieces of cinema that I have ever seen.
(All images courtesy of Fox Searchlight pictures)