' Cinema Romantico: 12 Years A Slave

Monday, November 04, 2013

12 Years A Slave

Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black American in 1841 who is lured from New York to Washington D.C., drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery, finds himself on the plantation of Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Having received strong advice from Solomon on a particular task and knowing him to be an accomplished violinist, Ford expresses thanks by gifting Solomon a brand new violin. Solomon’s face is joyous disbelief. Ford’s intent is entirely gregarious, but then he says something. He says that he hopes Solomon will enjoy playing the violin for his many years to come.

Earlier, shackled below deck on a riverboat bound for the deep south, Solomon sits with two other chained black men. They dispense advice to Solomon. Don’t talk. Don’t admit you can read and write. Don’t reveal your real identity. This is the only way to survive. “I don’t want to survive,” Solomon says. “I want to live.” And for a time, he thinks he can. But when Ford references “many years”, Solomon knows he is stuck. We know he is stuck. Ford may very well be a decent person at his core, but he is merely a middle manager in a system of raging injustice that has been the norm for so long everyone in Dixie accepts it as gospel. That is what stings just as much as the gruesome outbursts of violence – the casual racism, its deep roots which at that time in America must have appeared impossible to dig up.


“12 Years A Slave” is based on a true story, which seems unthinkable, until you remember that slavery itself was unthinkable. It is the sort of film I wish would not be viewed in terms of awards and letter grades and Rotten Tomatoes scores and hoopla and backlash. It is the sort of film that simply should be seen and considered. It is a film directed by Englishman Steve McQueen, a stylist of the highest order, an adorer of long takes that work like one sustained, body blow. The violence and horror, and the insistence on the violence and horror, have and will be much discussed, such as an extended unbroken sequence in which Solomon is hung by a noose while other slaves move to and fro in the picture behind him, knowing that to offer aid is to risk their livelihood. It is a shot that would not be out of place in, say, “Gone With The Wind”, evoking the antebellum countryside in soft sunlight creeping through the trees…aside, of course, from that terrible image at the center of the frame. This is what those movies – some of which I like very much – were not showing you, McQueen is saying. Those movies scrubbed out that image at the center of the frame.

The fact that we know going in Solomon will be freed – he has to write the book upon which the film is based – frees up McQueen. Solomon is a free man. To prove he’s free, he needs to get his papers. How will he get his papers? A conventional film would have made this the driving plot point, a thriller with racial injustice as a mere backdrop, but the driving plot point of “12 Years A Slave” is the relentless de-humanizing of its main character. To achieve freedom Solomon must first remain alive and to remain alive he must give in totally to captivity. It is a terrifying juxtaposition.

Solomon’s ability to think for himself, he is convinced, will be an ally, the weapon he can wield to get Ford on his side to plead for freedom. But when Solomon runs afoul of his overseer (Paul Dano) on the plantation, Ford is presented as powerless to stop this overseer from getting his gun and killing Solomon where he stands. Ford may own the plantation, but he answers to the system. Instead Ford “protects” this slave he favors by sending him away to a different plantation, one run by a man named Epps (Michael Fassbender) who is less misguided than delusional. This was the only place, Ford explains, willing to “accept” Solomon. Why? The word Ford uses to explain himself is “exceptional” – Solomon is simply too “exceptional” to be trusted.

Slowly, with Epps cracking his whip and quoting the Bible as a means to enable his own demented mind, Solomon is stripped of his exceptionalism. He is made to be like everyone else, a hand in the field, and even when he is tasked to put bow to violin it is merely in the service of Epps’ own degrading amusement. This is not to suggest Solomon is portrayed as being above his unfairly persecuted comrades, but that ALL black people in slavery-infused America were robbed of their exceptionalism, their individuality.

I thought of Edward Zwick’s “Glory”, the 1989 film about the 54th Massachusetts, the first all-black regiment in the Civil War. Though that was a film that took the tack of so many when trying to aid American in wrapping its mind around slavery by filtering it through the perspective of an idealistic white man in Col. Robert Gould Shaw, it was still strong at what it did and possessed a line in which Gould says of his African-American soldiers: “Their poetry is not yet written.”


That sentiment rang through my head again and again during “12 Years A Slave.” Northrup’s poetry was eventually written, but how many voices that needed and deserved to be heard remained silenced? What of Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), a fellow slave for whom Epps has a grotesque, guilt-ridden eye. He uses and abuses her. Epps’ wife (Sarah Paulson, the most unnerving performance in a film packed with them) despises her. Her life is essentially intolerable. She begs Solomon for help, and in doing so backs Solomon into a frightful moral corner. This shows Solomon to not be simply a Cinematic Object Of Suffering. Here, with Patsey, he is given the chance to re-humanize himself, albeit in a queasily unconventional way.

Solomon only makes it to his cathartic end on account of a carpenter from Canada who comes in the form of Brad Pitt with an Amish beard, a character that briefly challenges Epps’ rote philosophy, a convenient lantern for Solomon. It’s as if he’s a shooting star, almost appearing imaginary to a disbelieving eye, and that feels right. When Solomon’s freedom finally arrives, you can see the oppressive weight lift, and it is only at that moment you truly realize just how much he has gradually given in and lost sense of himself.

This scene, too, calls back to an earlier scene, a moment aboard that ominous riverboat when another prisoner is rescued, leaving Solomon alone and bewildered. This is why the ultimate sequence, our protagonist re-united with his family, carries less happiness than regretful relief. For every slave rescued from bondage, too many were not, and it will forever remain this great nation’s greatest shame.

I am always suspicious of films whose "importance" is touted first, because this overlooks the fact that even an important film needs, above all, to be a good film. And to be clear, "12 Years A Slave" is a great film. Its acting is powerful and multi-dimensional, its writing (by John Ridley) is revelatory, its music (by the normally bombastic Hans Zimmer) highlights and underscores as opposed to consistently overwhelming, and McQueen's assertive directorial style blends perfectly with the material's forceful nature. But beyond that, this great film opens a window that we have too long shuttered cinematically, or, at the very least, obscured by looking through in a white-centric or theoretically repentant way.

"12 Years A Slave" is decidedly brutal, and needs to be that way. Slavery was brutal and untenable and this very necessary film refuses to let us bury our heads in the sand.

6 comments:

Candice Frederick said...

brtal to the nth degree, for sure. it is an important film, but i do agree that important doesn't always equal merit. here it does.

Nick Prigge said...

Well said. Amen.

Alex Withrow said...

Great review, my friend. I love how you mentioned that although a film can be labeled important, it still most definitely needs to be good. Thankfully, 12 Years a Slave is both, and then some. I still can't get this one out of my mind.

Nick Prigge said...

Thanks, man. That is a critical distinction, I think, between important films and quality important films. And yeah, this is definitely the latter.

Between this and "Blue Is The Warmest Color", I've had a lot to ponder in the last couple weeks.

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Moto G 4G LTE Review said...

It is so fluent and so certain -- both in its humanism and its depiction of institutionalized savagery.