12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave

Released 2014. Directed by Steve McQueen. Screenplay by John Ridley, based on “Twelve Years a Slave” by Solomon Northup. Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch.

I’ve been trying to write about 12 Years a Slave in an impersonal, methodical way, but I can’t. So strong was my response to this film that I need to bring my background and experience to the surface of my review, so here it is: as a 25-year-old white male who’s never had much to be bullied about, let alone abused, as much as I try to empathise with slaves depicted in media, it’s not a life I know anything about, even tangentially. It’s all too easy for me to observe portrayals of slavery and nod along, intellectually appreciating the cruelty and brutality shown without getting anywhere near an understanding of the hopelessness, the suffering, the human cost. Whenever I see slavery in media, I know what the appropriate response is, and I don’t have any trouble understanding what I’m being told, and it’s not as though I disagree that slavery is evil, but I’ve never truly felt it. The slaves I see live in another world, and are born into their situations. I don’t have any trouble sympathising, but I do have trouble empathising. The slaves I see are not like me.

Solomon Northup’s story is different. I don’t feel detached from it, which is largely because of the specific circumstances of Northup himself (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, he is a real historical figure, upon whose memoir of the same name the film was based). Northup is born a free man. He’s well-educated, a professional violinist. He wears decent clothes, he lives in a large house in Saratoga, he takes strolls in parks. So when he’s drugged, kidnapped, and wakes up chains, I understand. This isn’t a symbol being used to teach me a lesson, something that I observe from a distance. This is a person with whom I can identify. A person like me. As a premise, the fact that Northup is free, rather than born into slavery, almost seems like a gimmick, an unexpected twist on what you’d expect from a slave narrative, novel and nothing more; in practice, it’s at the core of what makes 12 Years a Slave a masterpiece.

It’s an extraordinarily powerful way in to the story. Instead of being introduced to someone who is already a slave, I was forced to contemplate the horror of losing my freedom. Much has been made of the brutality of the slaves’ physical punishments in 12 Years a Slave, but on a practical level what’s shown is no worse than anything you’d see in a slasher flick. Audiences aren’t responding strongly to the physical torture, as awful as it is. They’re responding to what’s behind it: a person having his life ripped from him. What Northup loses overnight isn’t just his family, his home, his clothes; he also loses his ability to resist. He can do nothing about it. His protests are met by beatings; as much as he protests, he eventually can take no more and gives in. He is no longer known as Solomon; his free identity is taken from him and replaced with the name ‘Platt’. He is lined up to be sold at a market, a price demanded for his sale. This sequence of events is shown with an unflinching gaze, and it happens almost too quickly to comprehend. This is true dehumanisation. There is visceral terror in being shown a world in which, but for the colour of my skin, this might have happened to me. Never mind feeling detached and unable to emotionally connect (if anything, my response to 12 Years a Slave is too self-indulgent and solipsistic); I finally feel that I’ve begun to comprehend the appalling monstrousness of slavery.

(Intriguingly, the sequence of Northup waking up in chains is reminiscent of SawHostel, and similar horror films of the last decade that depict kidnapping victims waking up. The room in which he is shackled is bare and starkly lit; at first he awakes slowly, but the sound and sensation of his chains stuns him into alertness; short flashbacks intercut with his wrestling with the chains show us glimpses of how the previous night lead to his capture. Deliberate or not, the sequence is using the visual language of torture porn. Of course, it inspires no titillation or arousal here. In truth, it feels like this imagery, which is genuinely visually striking and emotionally potent, has finally been claimed by a film that deserves to make use of it.)

A fascinating, unexpected and complicating factor in this, however, is that it’s not all perfectly monstrous – at least, not in a tangible, physical way. After the shock of his capture, Northup finds himself owned by William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a plantation owner who is unusually humane, and one of the film’s most interesting characters. Ford is no abolitionist, but he is not abusive of his slaves. We barely see him interact with any slave other than Northup, but the impression that is conveyed is that he is benign. When purchasing a female slave, Eliza (Adepero Oduye), he attempts to prevent separating her from her young daughter, negotiating with Paul Giamatti’s slave trader. It would be foolish to be too positive about Ford, however, as when he is told, “my sentimentality extends the length of a coin”, the expression of guilt on his face does nothing to mitigate the pain he causes the family as he decides to buy Eliza alone, leaving her daughter behind. Upon arriving back at the plantation, he explains to his wife that separating Eliza from her children, “couldn’t be helped” – again, his demeanour and facial expression betray his guilt. There’s no question that Ford understands that he’s caused Eliza severe pain, but he consciously remains part of the system that allows it. Ford can only be described as kind in relative terms: given the system of slavery within which he is embedded, he’s as kind as it gets. It’s no comfort but it’s true.

Ford’s relative kindness might not mask cruel treatment of his slaves, but it is pernicious, engendering a dangerous sense that given Northup’s circumstances, things could be worse, so acceptance of his lot might be reasonable. Early on in the film, it’s impressed upon Northup, by another kidnapping victim, that it’s in his interests to remain silent, pretend to be illiterate, and tell nobody who he really is if he wishes to survive; Northup’s response is, “I don’t want to survive. I want to live.” It’s an attitude that is clear, courageous and compelling, but not immutable, and the film brilliantly, if only briefly, articulates why Ford’s treatment of his slaves is exactly what can erode it. When Northup proposes making use of a waterway for transportation of logs, Ford is encouraging, and when Northup proves the usefulness of his idea in practice, Ford rewards him not just with praise, declaring, “Platt, you are a marvel”, but also with the gift of a violin. When he responds to Ford’s praise with a laugh and genuine gratitude, however, it seems for a fleeting moment that Northup is forgetting that attitude and becoming accustomed to his new identity and new life. It doesn’t last, but it’s a valuable few minutes. While Northup isn’t destined to do so, it’s excruciatingly possible to imagine someone becoming used to, even comfortable with, life under Ford’s ownership.

Further complicating this is the fact that none of this seems calculated by Ford. It’s not at all suggested that he’s cynical, that he understands that considerate handling of his slaves might elicit this kind of response from them. It’s obvious to us today that slavery is built upon a fundamental inhumanity; is it being too generous to Ford to suggest that this is simply something that wasn’t questioned over 150 years ago? I only hesitate to say so because it feels like an excuse for slave ownership, but am convinced because I think it’s exemplary of something worse: Isn’t the greater horror not that of one who uses deceit to exploit an unjust system, but of a world in which that unjust system is so entrenched that it is simply invisible to those who perpetuate it? Knowing right from wrong and choosing to do wrong is wicked, but isn’t it worse to live in such a perverse society that wicked actions are taken under the belief that they are good and just? The only problem I have with this conclusion is not with the logic, and not with the film’s presentation of it. My problem is that it’s so obvious to me that slavery is wrong that I find it impossible to understand the mindset of someone to whom it isn’t. Even when depicted with the even-handedness, steadiness and accessibility of 12 Years a Slave, I feel that I have to take it on little more than trust and an understanding of what evils can be supported by a critical mass of opinion and Biblical text that it’s possible to be so unaware.

While under Ford’s ownership, Northup finds a foe in Tibeats (Paul Dano), a carpenter employed by Ford, and a man who relishes teasing and abusing slaves. Tibeats resents Northup, and despite expressing it through racial insults and violence, it’s clear that it is not racially motivated – at least, no more racially motivated than his abuse of any other slave. He is, rather, a tightly-coiled ball of jealousy. Ford responds to Northup’s work positively, while Tibeats finds himself marginalised. He tries to verbally and physically abuse Northup and in both instances is beaten by the slave. Upon attempting to lynch Northup he is again stopped – not this time by Northup, who is physically shackled, but by the plantation’s foreman, who, defending Ford’s property, aims his gun at Tibeats. His rage is supplanted by confusion, and as he looks from the foreman to Northup and back again, you can see him working out that as superior to Northup as the system defines him to be, in another sense he is quite inferior. His lynching of Northup is theft, the foreman explains, making Tibeats a criminal, and Northup’s life the more valuable. The system of slavery is twisted, but in this case its perversion saves Northup’s life.

Northup might have his life saved, but it is despite an intense and harrowing struggle, which forms perhaps the most shocking and well-crafted scene of the film. Although he drives Tibeats away, the foreman leaves Northup to hang, his toes barely touching the ground. A painful, quiet sequence follows, as Northup clings desperately to his life, his feet pawing at the sodden soil for footing and support, while other slaves slowly go about their work in the background. Northup is being noticed and observed, but ignored: The foreman chooses to do nothing for him and the slaves do not seem to be allowed to intervene (one girl approaches Northup and gives him water, but the haste with which she does so, and the furtive glance she takes over her shoulder at the foreman suggest that she is transgressing a boundary – if for no other reason than she is not working). The sun beats down and children play in the lush vegetation – there is a bittersweet beauty to the visual compositions: The hanging, barely moving body of Northup positioned off-centre and taking up little of the frame amongst the organic richness in some; in others, his close-up, out-of-focus form obscures the otherwise verdant scene. (The film exhibits a constant awareness of its locations’ visual beauty, both infusing it into its aesthetic throughout and occasionally taking a moment to meditate on it, presenting beautiful sunsets and vivid greenery, constructing a world of splendour which heightens the horror of what is enacted within it; no other moment, though, possesses the purpose and intensity of the hanging sequence.) After an eternity, that evening, Ford rushes to Northup and with a swing of a knife severs the rope suspending him and with a weak yelp and a thud, releases him and the audience from the agonising tension.

Following this thematically sophisticated first hour, one could be forgiven for finding Epps (Michael Fassbender), to whom Northup is sold by Ford, too simple and predictable. Indeed, he adheres more closely to the image of a slave owner one might expect: before we meet him, we are told he “prides himself on being a nigger-breaker”; while, like Ford, he reads the Bible to his slaves, unlike Ford, he chooses passages that, with some creative interpretation, back up the extraordinarily violent punishments he administers; not content to leave the slaves to their chains, he regularly enforces his ownership of them with beatings and sexual abuse, sometimes with the express backing of the Bible, at other times purely because, in his words, “A man does how he pleases with his property”. After having been intrigued by the intricate complexity of an unexpectedly mild slave owner in Ford, the predictably cruel Epps might precipitate a drop in how interesting the film is; however, the strength of his characterisation – the sheer force of his authority over his plantation, that he is not just cruel but borderline psychotic, the severity of his temper and the ferocity of his punishments  – makes him truly terrifying. In another stand-out scene, shot in an unbroken 5-minute handheld take, Epps forces Northup to whip Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) for leaving the plantation without permission; Northup has no option but to do so, with the result that the mental torture he is put through in this scene feels as crushing as the physical torture Patsey endures. Admittedly, it is something of a cinematic set-piece, but it is not extravagant. The effect is to justifiably emphasise Northup’s and Patsey’s suffering, and Epps’ increasing fury, over an extended period of time, rather than to simply provide a cinéaste’s water cooler moment. It allows the scene to evolve dramatically, with two periods of steadily shot whipping punctuated by fast camera movement as Epps threatens Northup, growing angry with his reluctance to whip Patsey with any force. It permits the characters’ emotional and physical states to believably change in real time, the scene’s structure and the actors’ performances combining powerfully. The often flamboyant extended single take is here invisible, a servant to the scene, rather than an overpowering, conspicuous cinematic stunt.

It would take an extremely disingenuous or stupid person to argue that the film’s conclusion is simply an example of the white saviour trope, despite it superficially being so. Bass (Brad Pitt), a travelling Canadian temporarily working as a carpenter for Epps, makes his opposition to slavery clear to his employer. Overhearing this, Northup later nervously confides the truth of his identity and past in Bass, who agrees to write to Northup’s friends in Saratoga informing them of his whereabouts; they make the journey to Epps’ plantation and at long last rescue their friend. It is perfectly accurate to say that it is due to Bass, a white man sympathetic to a black man, that Northup’s ordeal comes to an end. It would be slimy to pretend that this is a reversion to a Hollywood trope. (We can disregard the fact that it is an accurate reflection of the historical events as described in Northup’s memoir – although their story is based on true events, the filmmakers can make a change if they deem it appropriate, and made the decision to end the film in this way.) Northup is not able to liberate himself through the legal system, as he is unable to produce his own documentation proving that he is free (whether he did not have it with him when he was kidnapped, or whether it was stolen from him, is not clear: what is clear is that he is not able to contact anybody who could provide it for him). On the few occasions he tries to tell his story to white people in the hope that they will help him, it is at best ignored and at worst used against him (prior to Bass’s arrival, Northup trusts another travelling worker, who instead of helping him, exposes him to Epps – it is only Northup’s intellect, intellect that he keeps concealed, that allows him to convince Epps that the worker is lying). Attempting a spontaneous escape while running an errand, he encounters a mob hanging two slaves who have apparently had the same idea; he is lucky to have been given a tag proving his ownership (as he is off the plantation with permission), as that is the only obstacle to his being murdered there and then. The world established through these events is one that at every juncture systemically prevents Northup from being liberated through any means. Bass choosing to help him is not a Hollywood ending or a deus ex machina; it’s the first chance in twelve years of slavery that Northup has to successfully outmanoeuvre a social, industrial and bureaucratic system that stacks all the cards against him; one that, despite its promise, his experience makes him almost too terrified to take.

It’s true that a kidnapping victim regaining their freedom was far from usual (the film’s closing text says as much), but seeing Northup reunited with his family in a brief final scene does not feel tacky or audience-friendly – one could hardly accuse 12 Years a Slave of courting the feelgood crowd – rather, it is earned. It is reminiscent of the conclusion to The Shawshank Redemption, in which Andy reunites with Red on the beach – an ending that splits opinion, with some wishing that the film ended, as the novella does, with Red on the bus, his future unwritten. In both cases I feel that the catharsis is justified, though perhaps I’m just a sucker for a happy ending – although I think 12 Years a Slave‘s conclusion serves a purpose other than emotional purging, that of briefly reacquainting us with the life Northup lost for over a decade. If so much of the film’s power derives from its use of a free man’s loss of freedom, as I have argued, then a final reminder of the life he used to lead has a legitimate place, vividly reviving in our minds the full context of his slavery as we reflect on the film. And I feel as though I’m having to argue that happy endings are not inherently a bad thing – I suppose the unspoken but widely-accepted theory is that happy endings can be slapped on anything and thus totally trivialise what came before, whereas an ending that in any way does not do so is more honest and true. Can it really be the case that any viewer of 12 Years a Slave will find that Northup’s homecoming is a dismissal of the awful life he lived for twelve years? That it doesn’t matter what he went through because he made it back to his family? In considering this the closest I’ve come to disliking the ending is when thinking that it somehow devalues the experience of the vastly higher proportion of slaves who never regained their freedom or were slaves from the moment they were born. I hope it’s clear that my thoughts on the final scene remain a work in progress, because I’m not convinced by any one interpretation or even by a combination thereof. It intellectually feels absolutely justified and an intelligent way to end the film, but somewhere deep down there’s something that feels tonally off-kilter about it. Perhaps it’s the suddenness with which it occurs following the brutality of the whipping scene (Bass is told Northup’s story in the following scene, and from then the closing credits are quick to arrive). Perhaps it’s that an outpouring of positive emotion is so different to what the film has otherwise been offering, despite the logical soundness of it. Perhaps it is because it does feel so Hollywoodised, and that, as with the previously mentioned kidnapping imagery, 12 Years a Slave is attempting to finally use a happy ending in a film that merits it. Regardless, if this is the film’s biggest flaw, then it effectively is a film with no flaws at all.

(Two other minor niggles I need to get off my chest: The first, that the passing of time is barely if at all noticeable, the only marker being a few grey hairs evident on Northup’s head by the time of his liberation – while there is a tremendous sense of the hardship of his life, there is no sense of it lasting for over a decade; the second, that Brad Pitt, with the best will in the world, is not well cast in the role of Bass, and one does wonder slightly – and admittedly cynically – whether his casting in the role of Northup’s direct route back to freedom and his role as producer are at all related.)

As a response to Django Unchained, I think 12 Years a Slave is critical. It’s not the ‘serious’ counterpoint to the ‘fun’ Wild West version of slavery in Tarantino’s film. It’s much more important than that. It’s the context that should deliver a huge punch in the gut to every single person who found it unproblematic to enjoy Django as an amusing diversion. Me included. Don’t agree? Consider Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino’s previous highly stylised, unserious film set in the environment of a historical horror, that of Nazi Germany (though it leaves the Holocaust alone). Modern culture has a reasonable understanding of Nazi Germany. People don’t hide from the Nazis and the Holocaust, I’d like to think that we’re generally well-educated about these subjects, they’re not taboo to discuss in polite conversation, and they’re well represented in popular media. (If anything, you might argue that World War II suffers from overexposure rather than underexposure.) In ten seconds you can probably think of seven or eight examples of Nazi Germany’s representation in popular culture if not more, many of them concerning a serious examination of the regime to some extent. So when Basterds uses the iconography of Nazism, as Tarantino was fond of explaining, to set up a European Theatre-set Western, the serious and understanding relationship we have with the symbols and the history they represent means that it’s not problematic to enjoy a laid-back, playful romp built upon them. What I’m driving at is: Can’t you imagine having a problem with Inglourious Bastards if it had been released a year prior to the first film that ever really conveyed the horror of Nazi Germany? Isn’t it only okay because we feel like we know Nazi Germany?

This is not the case with slavery, and this is why Django is far more problematic than anybody realised at the time. We might know what it is, but in the UK at any rate, it’s not something children are typically educated about to a significant extent in school. (This is true not just of the USA’s particular history of slavery but all slavery, including that which goes on today.) There are examples of its depiction in popular culture, but it’s rarely much more than scene-setting, and often it’s simply used for short sequences that employ a few easily understood symbols, such as chained up prisoners, black people picking cotton overseen by white masters, large scars on bodies that imply previous brutality. I’m happy to be corrected but I cannot think of a single serious study of slavery in popular media that fully commits to its subject, let alone the great gamut of serious art about the subject as there is of Nazi Germany. We have a visual grammar for understanding American slavery, but not an ability to approach the subject openly and without mitigation. (I can’t vouch for how it is taught in schools in the USA, but the lack of media representation of it seems to speak volumes.) Slavery was perpetuated on American soil and was inextricably related to racism, and that makes people very reluctant to talk about it today, because racism is still culturally and systemically relevant in the modern world and people fear saying things that seem ill-informed, bigoted, ignorant or otherwise revealing and humiliating. Django made it a fun setting, and I don’t want to dismiss it out of hand, but 12 Years a Slave makes me significantly reconsider the positive response I had to it, a response that was partially so positive because I felt like I understood slavery and so could enjoy a stylised, frisky version of it.

12 Years a Slave, therefore, fills a gaping void in mass media art by treating the subject openly and with the absolute seriousness it requires and has failed to receive up until now because everyone’s either been too scared to do anything or has been under the impression that a deep understanding of the terrible reality of slavery was already in our shared cultural consciousness. (Tarantino deserves some praise, I suppose, for being so unafraid, but that praise comes with caveat after caveat.) A jaded viewer might claim the film doesn’t tell you anything you didn’t feel like you already knew. Perhaps so. But it’s even-handed, and steady, and calm, even when it’s depicting absolute barbarity. It’s not shouting at you, it’s not highly stylised. Those moments that do exhibit notable formal and stylistic ambition do so with a clear and achieved purpose. It’s not using brutality as a stylistic tic, a cheap route to apparent seriousness, or a means to an end (criticisms which I think can be aimed at Django, especially the hotbox sequence). Despite its specific setting in the 19th century American South, it’s not about race, at least not to a significant degree. Skin colour is an identifier, and it’s used in insults throughout the film, but only at one point I can recall is there even a fleeting reference to the notion of an underlying biological difference between black and white people. Much of the animosity that white characters have towards black characters is not racially motivated – Tibeats is jealous of Northup being in Ford’s favour; Epps’ wife is driven by sexual jealousy of Patsey – though, it’s true, these are characters who already believe black people to be inferior to them. All things considered, this is the conclusion I have reached:

12 Years a Slave is so utterly necessary.

@Michael_J_Glass

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5 comments

  1. I wrote this about Django: Unchained last year (http://myblogs.informa.com/jvc/2013/02/01/film-review-of-django-unchained-2013/). I think the movie looks far more simplistic than I give it credit here after seeing 12 Years a Slave but I’d still argue it tries to do a lot of the same things. What impresses me more about 12 Years a Slave is how it takes on the Spielberg history movie at its own game rather than offering an exploitation alternative, as Tarantino did.

    1. I think yours is a very perceptive piece and shows that I was perhaps unfair to both Django Unchained and the culture that enjoyed and bestowed awards upon it. As you imply, McQueen’s film puts Tarantino’s into perspective but I’ve been a little too eager to dismiss the value of the latter. The idea that it was in some way ‘too soon’, or overly dominant in a culture that didn’t have enough of an educated and open relationship with slavery, was not something that I considered until seeing 12 Years a Slave.

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