For such a deep-rooted and important subject, the issue of slavery and the economics of power that resided in America pre-1860, have not before been approached in such a brutal, honest fashion in the filmic medium. Maybe the ghosts of the past linger still, invading the thoughts of many and eliciting guilt trips based on former generations, but surely in the context of film, one would have expected this topic to have been further discussed. Yet, outside of Amistad, Roots and perhaps Glory, it hasn’t and it falls to Steve McQueen to retell this unfortunate period of history.
What ensues is a sequence of events in the life of Solomon Northup, each progressively more unnerving than the last. McQueen specifically dedicates space to informing us that 12 Years a Slave is based on true events. In normal practice, that standard falls away in place of dramatic license, but not here. What is most special is that we are perpetually induced into a state where this seems far too real. It is dangerously authentic and rightly so, because maintaining the sense of depravity of this historical era from both an African-American and world perspective is imperative to the success and vision of the film.
Northup, a former free man, sold into slavery by those wanting to make money in the most depressing ways mentionable, is brought to being by Chiwetel Ejiofor, in what is the stand-out performance of his career. Indeed, this will perhaps be his most important film of all, despite his relative newness to the industry. An outstanding and often excruciatingly pertinent portrayal, Ejiofor manages to come about as close to the mindset of Northup as is possible, willing himself into physical and mental situations that might be too much for certain actors. That he himself recognised the sheer dizziness of taking on such a character speaks volumes; coming from that position, he is able to take great care with the way Solomon acts and reacts, something that he perfectly recreates for the screen. He balances a vulnerability with a determinedness, both providing us with the opportunity to analyse the human condition and appreciate man’s clawing willingness to fight for life and loved ones.
Almost immediately into the film, Solomon is sold to white slavers. Awakened to the sound of clinking metal, he sees his wrists encased in iron. Days ago he had been playing violin at his employer’s party, happily immersed in an acceptant attitude that wasn’t mirrored further south. To be shown the pureness of Solomon and his family, working with white folk as opposed to against them, certainly defines this somewhat conflicting historical time line. It gives you much needed, yet brief, unobtrusive exposition that works harmoniously – ironically so, given what is to come – with the rest of the story to deliver reasoning as to his continual fight for survival. Although, as he points out to a fellow slave in assertive fashion, “I don’t want to survive. I want to live.”
McQueen has been renowned in past projects for using incredible claustrophobia as a means of exploring the tenacity and resolve of specific individuals. In Hunger, he closes off almost each room, until it visibly seems smaller, in order to highlight the plight of Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) volunteer Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender). Similarly, in Shame, he uses the invasion of privacy that comes from the sister of Brandon (Fassbender, once again) to further highlight the inadequacies of his fervent sexual desires. In 12 Years a Slave, McQueen certainly uses staple techniques; unrelentingly long camera shots distinguish the ineptitude of goings-on. Where he evolves this previous design is the way in which he expands upon basic claustrophobia. Initially, we experience a boat full of African-American slaves, squashed into the underbelly of a large tin can. Yet, later, this sense of space matures.
McQueen focuses at one point on the squelching mud underneath Solomon’s feet, deteriorating beneath his toes, as it starts to sink and disappear. An unnerving scene for many reasons, with much credit being given to cinematographer, Sean Bobbitt. Alongside his director, they allow the lens to linger just slightly longer than anticipated in order to elicit a reaction from the audience that would fall under any synonym of the word sickening.
Alongside Northup are both captors and captives. His relationships with everyone that he comes across define the film in many ways. However, two specific characters stand out, both representing different conditions of human cruelty. Michael Fassbender plays land-owner Edwin Epps, tyrannical in this, his small version of Ancient Rome, where he rules and does whatever pleases him the most. Lupita Nyong’o portrays Patsy, Solomon’s fellow slave and suicidally inclined, in no small part due to the torment of her captor. Their interactions demonstrate that Solomon, despite being the focal point of the film, is just one of millions subjugated against and tormented.
Fassbender’s cruel, shark-like smile cuts across the screen mercilessly;his infatuation for this young girl is a mixture of things; that she makes him the most money out picking cotton in the fields is arguably equalled by the fascination that she presents to him sexually. Either way, Epps is the most devilish master one could image and that Patsy is his favourite serves him and no-one else. Her open cuts and bruises depict someone deeply resented rather than favoured, such is the skewed moral codex of this unstable man.
Although Fassbender’s Epps is a constant source of terror to his slaves, it’s wise to note that this is not a film outwardly decrying white people as inherently evil. This is a film about humanity and how, at whatever end of the scale, almost every slave-owner at the time felt vindicated in their assertion of slavery. Epps’ obsession with Patsy epitomises someone unsure of his beliefs, choosing to take it out on his slaves as a way of reconfirming his, and society’s hatred of African-Americans. McQueen has mentioned this previously, but it’s important to make it noticeable, as it’s integral to the magnitude of the film. This historical period was atrocious, it was unjust, unfair, but it’s also inequitable to simply reduce all people to good and evil; that this was a period of social misunderstanding is vital to a whole understanding of why people do such despicable acts.
The majority of white folk in the film are loathsome, but they are determined by a horribly vindictive moral codex. They use the Bible to justify their hideous crimes; they use money and capitalism as an excuse; some even claim apathy as to their nonchalant attitudes. They are all wrong in their actions and dictated by the sensibilities of a nonsense societal chain.However, to call them evil is to evade the intrinsic problems of the period and that’s an injustice to those who suffered.
A supreme film, 12 Years a Slave continually upsets the sensibilities of its audience in an attempt to convey the severity of the historical period. Its actors all exude a real understanding for not only their respective characters but for the inter-connected relationships that exist in such an intense and chaotic environment. Steve McQueen’s impressive catalogue of films continues to shine, as step-by-step, he has used all that he’s learnt to teach us the values of the free man, Solomon Northup.