There is a shot in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave that epitomises his excruciatingly beautiful style and his central character’s complete surrender to forces outside his control. Solomon Northup is hung by his neck after physically engaging an overseer; nothing but his tippy toes are touching the muddy ground. He chokes and swallows for what seems like hours. His master is away on business, and so no one is allowed to cut him loose. McQueen shows this to us in a wide; it’s a shot that lasts for just the right amount of time despite being 30 seconds too long.
It is the same with the entire movie. McQueen specialises in drawing scenes out to their utmost limit and then extends them a bit further. We expect a scene to transition to the next but instead it lingers and lingers until the moment evolves into a memory. 12 Years A Slave seems fitting for McQueen because its subject matter alone has the power to linger in our minds like a memory that is fighting to be erased.
Much of the world is familiar with slavery in the United States. We’ve read about it. We’ve seen documentaries. Many movies in recent years have covered it to varying degrees of success and impact. It is as much ingrained in our consciousness as it is in the consciousness of African Americans. Just the other day I saw and reviewed Lee Daniels’ The Butler. It presented a harsh America, sure, but it was clean and pristine, as if untouched by the decay of human hands. 12 Years A Slave is unclean, repulsive, stained by the decay, but it is gorgeous to look at because every shot is thought through with a love for the subject.
The plot follows Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) as he struggles for freedom after enduring 12 long years as a slave. His story is tragic because he was not born a slave; he was born a free man, complete with house, family, and status. One day he is caught, tricked, and sold into slavery. No farewells. No hugs. No kisses. His family is left stranded, and he is shipped off to the south where a fantastically despicable Paul Giamatti is waiting to sell him off.
His first plantation is owned by William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who takes a liking to him and admires him for his intellect and skilful use of the violin. A skirmish with an overseer lands him in the hanging scene I mentioned earlier, and his actions force William to pass him off to another plantation, where the owner — Edwin Epps (McQueen stalwart, Michael Fassbender) — is more religious and less forgiving.
Every scene in a plantation involves ridicule and hatred towards the black man. More so than in any other movie about slavery, 12 Years reenforces the idea that the white man is of no consequence. The white man is to be despised and spat on by the audience. How else are we meant to react to Edwin’s behaviour? He believes he is supported by the will and power of God. Solomon believes that no salvation awaits him. The slaves might be his property, yes, but they are not benches or wagons; they are human beings with feelings, and when you order a human being to whip the living daylights out of another, there is certainly a sin lying around in there somewhere. I assure you that God’s will and power do not lend themselves to heinous activity.
There can be no spoilers with this movie. The screenplay is based on Solomon’s memoirs, which he no doubt wrote after regaining his freedom in the mid 1800s. His story is altogether heartbreaking and uplifting. Try imagining his ordeal. Try putting yourself in the shoes of a successful man who is brought down to his knees not because of a mistake or a crime, but because his skin colour dictates the trajectory of his life. Imagine that life turning in on itself and regurgitating a horridly scarred shell of a man. All his dignity has been stripped. The wonder of Solomon is not that he regained his freedom; it’s that he stayed alive long enough for his freedom to find him again.
12 Years A Slave, like McQueen’s previous effort, Shame, is not an easy movie to sit through. There are parts of intense physical abuse and violence. There is a shot of skin being ripped off flesh. It is a shot that reminded me a lot of Jesus’ flogging at the hands of relentless Roman soldiers in The Passion Of The Christ. There are scenes of lynching, and of slaps and rape. It is a movie that makes The Butler — and Django Unchained for that matter — look like a TV spot for the Hallmark Channel. It is profoundly moving, and because it is so, it blooms into a spectacular film, beautifully crafted, enforced with Oscar-worthy performances. You will go into this movie knowing what to expect, and yet you will leave with an experience that is unexpected. I had to see this film twice before being able to gather my thoughts into a review. I doubt I’d be able to see it again.
Best Moment | When Solomon regains his freedom.
Worst Moment | Nope.