Directed By: Steve McQueen
Written By: John Ridley (Based on the book by Solomon Northup)
Starring: Steve McQueen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael K. Williams, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti
So I’m gonna get the narrative business of this review done quick and easy so we can get on to the less organized thoughts I have about the movie in general. Sound good? Great. 12 Years A Slave is an achievement. Steve McQueen’s rendition of the tragedy that befell Solomon Northup (played with an astonishing range by Chiwetel Ejiofor who deserves seven or eight Oscars for the work he does here) is intense in a way few movies even strive for, and only a tiny percentage have ever achieved. Northup was a free black man in Saratoga, New York living with a loving family when he was tricked into going south under the pretense of making some money playing his fiddle. At the end of his trip, he was drugged and robbed of his freeman papers rendering his identity a moot question. Without those papers, he became a runaway slave known simply as Platte. He was quickly sold into slavery and moves from plantation to plantation for twelve years until he was finally freed and able to write the book on which the movie was based (that’s not a spoiler, dude wrote a book).
One thing about the film that makes it so incredibly powerful is the use of music. Not just Hans Zimmer’s score (which is fantastic) but the smaller moments of song throughout the film. At one point, Paul Dano’s Tibeats (one of the overseers on a plantation owned by Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch whom we’ll talk about at length later)) sings a gruesome and offensive song with an incredibly upbeat cheerful tone, which is used to provide a soundtrack to images of slaves performing backbreaking labor. Later in the film the primary antagonist (aside from the cultural prevalence of white supremacy) Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) calls all of the slaves into his home because it’s “time for a dance.” He demands that Solomon provide the musical accompaniment (Solomon is an excellent violinist) for the whole affair. The dance is nothing more than a crowd of black people moving in a sad rhythm with the music. It is one of the most joyless and painful scenes in the film, and one that feels remarkably timely.
After the Miley Cyrus twerking incident at the VMAs many people neglected to discuss her use of black, female backup dancers who really only appeared to be props for Miley to play off of, I couldn’t help but think about that moment as I watched this scene and afterwards couldn’t shake the dirty feeling that the music industry that I invest so much in is in some way deeply related to that exploitative moment. Lastly there is perhaps the most heartbreaking scene in the movie (there are more brutal moments, but violence doesn’t kill me like emotional destruction). Solomon begins to sing a spiritual along with his fellow slaves, but unlike the common notion that these songs were celebratory, this is more of a funeral dirge both for the man they are burying and for Solomon’s sense of identity as he fades more and more into the role of Platte.
That is one of the most extraordinary elements of McQueen’s work. Instead of having our protagonist grow, we watch him shrink. He begins as a joyful, powerful, commanding figure, and by the end he is hopeless and broken. The contrast between Solomon and Platte serves as the basis for the movies many arguments about racial violence in America. McQueen’s ability to pack so much meaning into a single image comes in handy when trying to create these moments of intense anguish. Beyond the pain on Solomon’s face, the setting of each shot conveys so much. There is a much talked about moment during which Solomon hangs from a tree, just low enough not to choke while, in the background, the rest of the plantation goes about its business. The normalization of horrific violence is the true horror story of this film, and it is a devastating one.
It is compounded by the various types of plantation owners and workers we meet. First we get Paul Giamatti’s Freeman (LOL) a slave trader who couldn’t care less about the people in whom he deals. His only interest is in the acquisition of coin. His cold-hearted use of the N word and numerous other casually racist moments sent shivers down my spine and set the tone for the rest of the film. Following that we are introduced to Mr. Ford. Ford is an ostensibly kind man. He listens to Solomon’s suggestions and at one point even gives him a violin as a present. All of the kindness in the world cannot make up for the fact that Ford is apparently totally ok with the idea of slavery and its inherent violence. Unfortunately, he is by far the kindest master that Solomon serves.
After his time with Ford he is sold to Edwin Epps. Fassbender’s portrayal of the hot tempered, malevolent slave owner is unbelievable. He loses himself in the role and plays the part to perfection. I can understand his reticence to engage the Oscar race after this film, however. I wouldn’t be able to ask people to vote for my performance as Epps either. I can’t imagine asking for a reward after that. None of these characters are over the top and cartoonish like Calvin Candie in Django Unchained. Instead, they are all deeply, disturbingly human. These are people like any other of their time. That humanity makes their behavior even more odious, and painful to watch.
Solomon isn’t the only victim of Epps’ violence. Obviously there are other slaves on the plantation, and one of them is Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). Holy bones! Her performance is out of this world. She is the object of Epps’ simultaneous lust and scorn. Nyong’o plays Patsey with eyes wide. Her suffering is clear and powerful, but never overstated (the acting in this movie is just incredible). Patsey is forced to reckon not only with Epps, but with his wife (Sarah Paulson). It’s almost impossible to watch Nyong’o endure the treatment she does and not feel your heartbreak. She is able to communicate the kind, bright soul of Patsey almost exclusively with her eyes.
I don’t really have much of an angle on this movie. A lot of the ones I thought of were already written or discussed, but the more I think about it the more I’m ok with that. I don’t think you need an angle on this film it speaks for itself more clearly than any reviewer possibly could. McQueen’s background as a painter is on full display. He is able to construct images that show, with painful clarity, just how brutal the reality of slavery was. I don’t think this was a perfect movie. It had some flaws (I never at any point knew how much time had past until the end, when I could safely assume twelve years), but it didn’t have to be perfect. It was able to convey its incredibly poignant message just the way it was. This is an important film, and not only do I sincerely request that everyone see it. I think you’re doing yourself a disservice if you choose not to. This movie will be relevant decades from now. It should supplant, Amistad, Glory, Roots, or any other similar film as the movie high school and college students watch when discussing slavery in class. It’s a teaching device of extraordinary proportions.