If questioned, most people would say that they went to the cinema in order to be entertained, and to laugh; or thrilled, and to be amazed or tricked into thinking that one outcome would occur in a story and then be pleasantly surprised when it turns out that an alternate outcome is more satisfying. The new film from Turner prizewinning director Steve McQueen tells the harrowing and brutal true story of Solomon Northup, a free man sold into slavery in 1840s America.
Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a lower-middle class carpenter living with his wife and children in Saratoga New York. Here he one day meets two travelling musicians who convince him to go to Washington to earn some money in a circus as he is a skilled fiddle player. Here he is drugged, beaten and forced into slavery under the name ‘Platt’ and is transported down river to the South to be mercilessly sold.
At first he is bought by the relatively (!) sympathetic slaveholder ‘Master’ Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and forced to work with his carpentry skills. Here he meets the stupid and sadistic Tibeats (Paul Dano) who humiliates him at every opportunity. When an argument leads to Tibeats bringing some men to try and lynch Solomon, Ford is forced to transfer him to the drunken and violent Edwin Epps’ plantation where he has to pick cotton for years in an atmosphere of random violence and cruelty. He is finally rescued with the help of a white Canadian worker (Brad Pitt) who manages to send a letter to Solomon’s family and friends in the North, who travel down to rescue him.
At times the film contains unwatchable violence and racism, but never does the content feel gratuitous. Unlike the whipping scenes in the laughable Passion Of The Christ that are brutal in order for you to empathise, and therefore to strengthen your relationship with, Jesus Christ; the violence in 12 Years makes you detest the culture and practice of slavery instead of trying to highlight the plight of just one victim. Few cinematic experiences have left me feeling so appalled and ashamed at our collective history than this one.
On the plantation Solomon meets the beautiful female slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) who has become the sexual plaything of Epps. Over the years Patsey begs Solomon to end her life due to the violence and rape that she is subjected to, and becomes the embodiment of the injustice and savagery that is perpetrated by white America around this time.
Solomon is told early on by another slave that the best way to survive is by keeping his head down and saying as little as possible. This offends him intensely as he was a free man only a few days earlier, he does not just want to survive he wants to live. Yet he soon learns that he must do exactly that in order to minimize the violence to him and others around him by his actions.
Due to McQueen’s artistic heritage, the film is masterfully constructed. The cinematography is beautiful – even in moments of heinous violence the action is framed beautifully. There is a scene where Solomon is about to be lynched, but an overseer who demands that the slave’s owner be contacted interrupts the act. Solomon is left hanging, barely able to stand on the tips of his toes in the mud, until Ford arrives. The scene is filmed from afar and without score and lingers onscreen for a number of minutes, the other slaves slowly building up the courage to go about their business after witnessing the incident. All of them are too scared to help him and have learned to ignore the violence – even children play in the background over his shoulder. The scene, seen in a cinema, felt like an important moment in cinema history; an instant classic that profoundly disturbed the audience – the cinema was whisper quiet.
The film will no doubt deservedly sweep up over the award season, but the one award that I felt it most deserved on first viewing was that of Best Sound Mixing. There are some haunting transitions where the sound from two scenes overlapped to create painful metaphors: One scene of a slave women crying over the loss of her children cuts to a makeshift outdoor church where a slaveowner is preaching to his property about morality, yet the cries from the woman continue over the sermon. Another scene has Solomon playing the fiddle for the twisted amusement of his owners, yet as the camera tracks in to his face for a close-up the film score creeps in (discordantly at first) to replace the fiddle music and highlight the painful absurdity of the situation.
Music plays an important role throughout the film. The slaves often sing beautiful gospel songs to show solidarity and to make the grueling work more tolerable. There is also a scene where a number of slaves bump into a collection of Native Americans – and the first thing they do is sit around and sing and dance. It is hard to enjoy these songs given their tragic inception, but they are undeniably powerful scenes.
A particularly heartbreaking moment near the end of the film shows the slaves singing a song at an impromptu funeral for a worker who died due to exhaustion from the heat. As they sing, the camera tracks into Solomon’s drained face as he begins reluctantly join them in song – a painful instant as he begins to resign to his fate on the farm…
The film deserves mainstream success as well as fawning critical compliments and should be seen by as many people as possible. It is an unspoken truth that slavery still exists around the world today, and not just in far away “third world” places. This film should become a tipping point for a global discussion about modern slavery, as well as opening avenues to discuss the dark legacy of British slavery. It should also be a reminder to anyone who uses the word nigger of where the word comes from and what it really means.
The Nazi holocaust is often viewed as an abhorrent travesty of modern industrial genocide. Yet the efficient legal justifications and practice employed to market and trade the lives of slaves (especially the children who are sold in terms of future strength or to be used as sex slaves) seems as coldly bureaucratic and cruel. It is pointless to try and quantitatively compare historic atrocities, but 12 Years A Slave should definitely silence some of the reverse-racism confederate apologists who exist today in modern America.