When a movie hits the film festival circuit with such unanimous acclaim as Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave did earlier this year, anointed a shoo-in for the Best Picture Academy Award long months before most folks got so much as a peek at it, there’s a tendency for smaller-market reviewers like Yours Truly to back off a bit and look for reasons to find fault, however trivial, with the consensus. We don’t like being stampeded, and we don’t like being told what’s good for us. Plus, who knows how much we’re going to fall in love with some other film that hasn’t been released yet? 2013 still has two months left in it, and the big Hollywood studios tend to save their heaviest Oscar ammo for the holiday season.
But in the present case, such quibbles seem mean-spirited and foolish. So I won’t equivocate: Yes, 12 Years a Slave is every bit as impressive as everyone has been saying, and yes, it will blow the competition out of the water at awards time. It’s a fairly safe bet that Chiwetel Ejiofor will cop the Best Actor laurels for his depiction of the abducted freeman Solomon Northup as well – and no one will begrudge him.
It’s also as true as everyone has been saying that 12 Years a Slave is very hard to watch – not because it’s any sort of slow, talky, dry-as-dust history movie, but because its depiction of slavery in the American South is so unflinching. The inhumanity of the institution is not confined to a few moments of peak cinematic intensity, as in Django Unchained; it’s relentless. And it takes many forms: Scenes where slaves are inexplicably rousted out of bed in the middle of the night, forced to dance and simulate gaiety at their masters’ whim, carry just as much weight of psychological cruelty as the horrific whipping scenes do of physical torture. More than any cinematic treatment of chattel slavery before seen, 12 Years a Slave brings home just how incredibly twisted it is. If you have a heart at all, you will weep more than once before this movie is done.
And yet there is heartbreaking beauty to be found in the film as well. Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography is exquisite, powerfully contrasting scenes of deep darkness in a cellar or the hold of a boat with sunbleached vistas of sugarcane and cottonfields. A nearly abstract shot through the blades of a moving paddlewheel at sunset lingers as vividly in the memory as a gory close-up of a flogging victim’s shredded back. Every frame seems carefully composed, yet the narrative flow never noticeably pauses in deference to the visual. Considering how convincingly the movie makes us feel, at a gut level, the grim, slow passage of Northup’s 12-year nightmare, the fact that its propulsive pace never falters seems a minor miracle.
Part of what makes that flow succeed is the way in which Northup’s captivity is punctuated with moments of hope, as the educated Northerner impresses his captors with his creativity, talents and drive, even when he is trying very hard not to attract attention to himself, and is occasionally rewarded with extra trust – or even, in the case of his first owner, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a fiddle to play. But such hopes are repeatedly dashed, and the sudden arbitrariness of punishment – especially after he has been sold off to the sadistic loose cannon Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) and his jealous wife Mary (Sarah Paulson) – keeps Northup and his fellow slaves in a perpetual state of crazymaking anxiety. The life of a slave, it seems, is not so much a numbing, predictable grind as it is like being a mouse toyed with by a bored cat: the inevitable result of a system in which humans may be viewed as possessions by other humans.
If 12 Years a Slave falls short of the pinnacle of what a cinematic treatment of antebellum American slavery might achieve, the weakness lies in the fact that its protagonist – a real-life free New Yorker, recruited in Saratoga in 1841 to play fiddle in a traveling circus, then drugged in Washington, DC and sold in Louisiana – is, we are repeatedly shown, not a “typical” slave. The movie often falls prey to the tendency of Hollywood storytellers to lean too heavily on the myth of the exceptional individual, the leader, the maverick who resists the unjust system while other, weaker souls capitulate. While he is careful to conceal the fact that he can read and write, at times it’s Northup’s intelligence, his musical training or his canal-building experience that helps him survive. And there are others amongst the slaves who achieve some sort of preferential treatment by learning to play the master’s game – but at a high cost, especially for the women who are expected to make themselves sexually available.
Ejiofor brilliantly captures the extremes of his character, who is so suave, affable and articulate in his Northern home but must learn to keep his mouth shut and endure endless humiliations in captivity without losing his sanity or his humanity. His character growth lies not in the endurance, however, but in his slowly growing consciousness that the injustice done to him as a freeborn man is no worse than that inflicted upon his comrades who were born into slavery.
There’s a key moment at the burial of a fellow slave when his reluctance to join in the singing of the spiritual “Roll, Jordan, Roll” melts away, as the former professional musician – who has since smashed his gift fiddle as an act of protest – realizes that this is one time when the enslaved can make music on their own volition and for their own uplift, not at the master’s behest. Not a word is spoken, only sung; what’s going on in his mind is all clearly etched on the actor’s face and in his supremely expressive eyes. It’s the moment when the struggle becomes not just Northup’s struggle, but that of all the enslaved, whatever their circumstances of birth.
Sadly, the sense of solidarity cannot be sustained. Northup eventually crosses paths with an itinerant Canadian carpenter with Abolitionist views (Brad Pitt), who agrees to smuggle a letter out to alert Northup’s Saratoga friends and family of his whereabouts. When he is finally freed, he can’t take anyone else with him – not even the fiercely spirited Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), with whom he has formed a bond forged in blood. He goes on to write his memoirs in 1853, and tours the Northeast lecture circuit advocating for abolition, we are told; but those left behind remain mired in the barbarity of slavery.
So much for leadership by exceptional individuals: In the real world, it tends to get steamrollered by the larger forces of history. The ones who wield the power rarely have to give it up. It’s a sobering lesson, and a weighty responsibility for those of us who actually do exercise control over our own destinies. Hopefully many who see these movie will come back out into the light of day remembering that human trafficking is by no means a thing of the past, and that it will take a whole lot of pushing, by a whole lot of people working together, for it to end up in the dustbin of history.