I’ll be honest, I was only too eager to write this film off. In a year that’s already included 42 and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, I was hesitant to see yet another hollow awards-bait film loaded with two-dimensional characters, transparently designed for the African-American demographic. I was already bored enough with films preaching the obvious message that slavery and inequality are bad, how many more do we need in this day and age?
Still, the film came highly recommended by a variety of critics and news outlets. The cast is also outstanding, but that goes without saying. No, what finally brought me over was director Steve McQueen, who previously made a bold little NC-17 movie called Shame in 2011. Sure enough, McQueen did not disappoint.
To take it from the top, this film dramatizes the true life story of Solomon Northup, here immortalized masterfully by Chiwetel Ejiofor. Northup lived in Saratoga as a free man until he was tricked into going to Washington on a business venture. He was then drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery. Without any form of identification, he was forced to endure twelve years of living as a common slave in the south until he was finally discovered and rescued.
Two things here. First, this film takes place in the antebellum south, when black people could still be treated as property. Slaveowners were free to abuse, torture, rape, and kill their slaves at their leisure with no fear of repercussion. At least during the Civil Rights Movement, those things were technically against the law.
Secondly, the film was directed by Steve McQueen. This is the same guy who made an NC-17 movie only two years ago, so you know he’s not squeamish or afraid to push his audience.
Put these two facts together and you’re in for one brutal film.
Sure, the story ends with Solomon going home (though his kidnappers were able to avoid prosecution), so at least the story has a happy ending. But that’s not the focus of the movie. No, this movie focuses squarely on the living conditions of antebellum slaves and the abhorrent acts of their owners. McQueen’s camera is there to show every beating, every lynching, and every sexual disgrace in unflinching detail. For God’s sake, there’s something like a five-minute scene of Solomon hanging by his neck from a tree, supporting himself on his toes for dear life, and we sit through every moment as no one goes to help him. The audiences is there to sit back and bear witness to the unspeakable cruelties built into America’s heritage.
So basically, it’s like Django Unchained, but without any of the cathartic violence. In fact, there’s nary a drop of catharsis to be found in this picture. Remember the “hotbox” scene in that movie, and the part where Django is forced to hang upside down completely naked? Imagine those two scenes repeating for two hours and you’d be getting close. Also, it’s based on a true story, so we don’t have the “revenge fantasy” buffer zone to fall back on.
As long as I’m comparing films, let’s talk for a moment about Gone with the Wind. A cinematic classic by any measure, and the biggest box-office earner in history by a wide margin (adjusting for inflation). It occurs to me that Gone with the Wind did a lot to sugar-coat the antebellum south, particularly with regard to slavery practices. I’m not saying that the film directly caused us to gloss over that particular era of American history, but it was definitely a clear symptom. Then again, Gone with the Wind was made while many Confederate soldiers still lived to tell stories about the Civil War, and the Civil Rights Movement was still a good two decades away.
The point being that maybe now, at this exact moment in time, the Civil War is no longer “too soon.” We’re finally in a place where we can look back with a more honest perspective about the atrocities that the antebellum south — nay, the whole country — was built on. Of course, it certainly helps that we have such bold filmmakers as Quentin Tarantino and Steve McQueen to address the subject without fear of controversy.
Getting back to the film, I was astounded to see that McQueen managed to find some nuance in the issue of black slavery. And of course, pretty much all of it hinges on Solomon and his plight. All through the film, Solomon has to find that balance between compliance and defiance. He needs to stay alive, but he also needs to keep looking for an escape. In the process of finding that balance, Solomon proves that he can take a lot of degradation, but there’s always a limit to what he’ll do. And so much of the drama in this film comes from watching Solomon draw and redraw that line.
Then we have Solomon’s interactions with his fellow slaves. There’s Eliza (Adepero Oduye), who incessantly cries after being separated from her children because crying is all she can do. We’ve also got Patsey (newcomer Lupita Nyong’o), who’s subjected to no end of cruelty after attracting the lustful eye of her master (more on him later). Both of these women have completely given up. Solomon may tell them not to give in to despair, but they’ll just reply that there’s no hope to be found. And it’s hard to argue that. Solomon argues that God will grant them salvation, and they reply that there’s no just or loving God at those plantations. It’s hard to argue that, as well.
Conversely, Michael K. Williams briefly appears as a slave who advocates revolution. Yet Solomon doesn’t take that extreme either. He’d rather play it smart and wait it out. Like I said, this character walks quite a few tightropes.
Ejiofor plays his role like a champ, and Lupita Nyong’o proves herself to be an extraordinary new talent. Unfortunately, the transitory nature of Solomon’s journey means that characters tend to drift through the story. As such, most of the big-name awards-bait actors are pretty much wasted on bit parts. Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt (who also exec-produces through his Plan B company), Scoot McNairy, Taran Killam, Garrett Dillahunt, and Alfre Woodard are all in this movie for maybe one or two scenes apiece and barely deserve mention. Paul Dano plays a more considerable role in the plot, though his talents are wasted on a two-dimensional violent racist scumbag.
However, there are some other characters and actors who merit further discussion. One of them is Master Ford, played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Ford is an unusual case in that he’s sympathetic to his black slaves, but not to the point where he’s willing to stick his own neck out. He’s sort of like Thomas Jefferson, the hypocrite who never got around to freeing his hundreds of slaves even as he vehemently fought against the slave trade. It’s a tough ambiguity to portray, though of course Cumberbatch handles it wonderfully. All the more shameful that his southern accent was so inconsistent, however. That accent is a notable problem for everyone in the cast, but Cumberbatch is the worst case in point.
I’d also like to note that Ford uses scripture in an uplifting way, reading from the Bible as a means of bringing his slaves together and boosting their morale. Compare that to Edwin Epps, who uses his Christian beliefs as justification for his sadism.
It’s my understanding that Epps (here played by Michael Fassbender) was such an impossibly evil man that in some parts of Louisiana, people still use his name in much the same way that anyone else would invoke Hitler. Though I can’t speak for the real-life Epps, I know that Fassbender portrays him as a violent, alcoholic, womanizing, sadistic, great big ball of psychosis. Epps isn’t just dangerous, he’s unpredictably dangerous. The man is so addled by alcohol and his own ephemeral desires that there’s no telling who will feel the brunt of his anger or in what way.
His wife is nearly as big a problem. Mary Epps (Sarah Paulson) is every bit the racist scumbag her husband is, but she’s also ridiculously vain and paranoid to boot. She seems to delight in making up excuses for beating Patsey, because she seems to think that Edwin is sleeping with Patsey on the side. He is, of course, but Patsey herself hardly has any say in the matter. It was always fun watching Edwin and Mary square off, because I was eager to see which brand of crazy would ultimately win out.
The movie is fine on a technical level, though McQueen occasionally shows a preference for close-up shots that seemed unnecessary in my opinion. The score is also kind of schmaltzy when it comes in, but those moments without score are made way more tense for it.
Overall, 12 Years a Slave is merely okay on a technical level. The actors all do wonderful jobs, though they’re undercut by inconsistent southern accents and characters who are little more than cameos. Even so, the lead actors in this film are uniformly incredible to watch. Far more importantly, the film excels because of its unflinching depiction of antebellum slave practices. There’s a lot of ugliness and violence there, and it’s all laid out for us to see. For better or worse, this is our heritage and we have to make our peace with it.
If you’re looking for a feel-good Oscar drama, look elsewhere. But if you’ve got the stomach to see black people getting beaten, lynched, and raped with only the faintest hint of sugar-coating, definitely give this film a watch.