Midway through Steve McQueen’s masterpiece 12 Years a Slave, I began consoling myself that at least I am descended from the good whites in the north. I don’t have a drop of southern blood in me, unless you count my Australian mother, but in that case I too am descended from slaves, in a sense. What the founders of Australia endured just in the transportation from Britain to the colonies Down Under, often for the pettiest of crimes (if they were guilty of them in the first place), was as arduous as and far longer than the journey from Africa.
After seeing Peter Weir’s Gallipoli (1981) in London, my maternal grandmother stood up and shouted at the audience, “You see what you did, you pommy bastards?” (That film was about the British using Australian troops as cannon fodder in a battle during World War I.) I fully expected a similar reaction after 12 Years a Slave from any African-American in the audience, but no doubt everyone was as stunned numb as I was. For the entire two hours and thirteen minutes of the film nobody even coughed, so frozen were we by the horror and the mesmerizing effect of McQueen’s singular filmmaking style.
Based on the autobiography by violinist Solomon Northop, 12 Years chronicles the relentless misfortunes of a free black man from Saratoga, NY who is lured to Washington, drugged, and sold into slavery to toil in the plantations along the backwaters of Louisiana. According to an article today in The Daily Beast, which I would encourage you to read after you’ve seen the film, the actual events were far worse than are portrayed in the film. It would seem that it was really twelve years in Auschwitz — Northop is lucky to have survived.
McQueen and his scriptwriter John Ridley plunge us visually and metaphorically into hell shortly after Northop (Chiwetel Ejiofor) wakes up to find himself in chains after a night out with two men who enticed him to the Capital with the promise of employment in a circus. He is transported south on a paddleboat that serves as a symbol for Charon’s boat across the River Styx into the underworld. It is at this juncture that the industrial sound design combined with Hans Zimmer’s score deftly shifts the tone of the film into an unrelenting sense of pure dread. This visceral soundscape juxtaposed with cinematographer Sean Bobbitt’s painterly compositions and the brutality of the action is what makes the experience of 12 Years a Slave as surreal as it is devastating.
It is McQueen’s filmmaking style, a hypnotic luring of the viewer into the director’s particular reality through turbid yet lyrical sounds and images that are as languid as they are shocking, that sets him apart and above almost every filmmaker working today. It is also the reason everyone is saying 12 Years is like no other slave movie ever made: all the others are simply two-dimensional and removed by comparison. For those two hours and thirteen minutes your emotions and senses are beaten and tortured — you are Northop, you are his suffering, his hopes, his fears, his determination never to give up and slip into “melancholia,” his bewilderment at the senseless, insane cruelty of which certain men and cultures are capable.
Adding to the surreal quality is the nineteenth-century language of the dialogue, and the performativity of mannerisms that were particular to Western society in that era. Normally a filmmaker will try to bridge the oddness of the way people really behaved and spoke in those days to make it more relatable for modern viewers, but McQueen and Ridley ignore the stiltedness to weave this authenticity into their tapestry of a world that seems so distant and still so immediate, a warped mirror of who we are now. Among the many thoughts this film leaves for you to chew on is the fact this happened only yesterday in historical terms — my grandparents grew up with people who fought in or experienced the Civil War, and I grew up around my grandparents. And the descendants of those white brutes continue to plague this country, our evil Siamese twin with whom we cannot reason and must always battle.
There is a reason Michael Fassbender has starred in all three of McQueen’s films (the others are Hunger, about Bobby Sands, and Shame, about a sex addict who can find no satisfaction, which I found to be exploitative and pointless). McQueen’s guidance of performance, often captured in a single long take, imbues some sequences with the dramatic nuances of the finest live theater. Both Fassbender and Ejiofor — and many others in the cast — are accomplished performers, but what McQueen draws out of them is beyond what they can expect from other directors, other films. It pays to remember while you are watching 12 Years a Slave that McQueen was a renowned fine artist before he transitioned into feature films. The way the actors are blocked and move through a particular sequence, notably a scene when Northop is almost lynched and left dangling for a day while life on the plantation continues as normal around him, is deliberately evocative of live-action painting. (Other compositions appear to be nods to the Romantic art that reached its zenith at the time the story took place.)
Fassbender plays Epps, a demonic slave owner in the deepest circle of Northop’s hellish journey, a man who might be diagnosed with borderline personality disorder if he were alive today. A capricious drunkard, he alternately idolizes and demonizes one of his female slaves, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), who is there as a searing reminder to Northop that things could always be worse: He could be a woman.
Sarah Paulson, who killed it last year in American Horror Story: Asylum, deserves special mention as Epps’ estranged, bitter yet complicit wife. Paulson is one of those woefully underused actors who will now see a surge in offers after this film. Paul Dano also makes an appearance as Tibeats, but I preferred him in Prisoners — I wasn’t convinced he was a sadistic overseer, although I bought his cowardly aspect completely. The weakest point of cast is Brad Pitt, but that’s a minor irritant because his is a minor role. Still, there are half a dozen other actors who would have rounded out the cast in his place and made it flawless (but none with the wattage of Pitt’s Plan B as a production company to get this difficult project made, so hats off to Good Guy Brad).
I never reviewed Django Unchained because it reduced such a gaping wound in American history to pop-culture silliness. I just didn’t get the point. The same goes for Inglourious Basterds. Out of all the thousands of stories out there to tell about slavery and the Holocaust, why invent shit and slap it up there as “homage” to B-movie nonsense? After the experience of 12 Years a Slave, Tarantino is further downgraded in my estimation, to a slightly higher level than Michael Bay, but only because of the crackling dialogue he writes. (Okay, okay, maybe that was a bit of an overstatement.)
I was filled with trepidation before I saw 12 Years a Slave — honestly, I really didn’t want to see it; yeah, I can be a pussy — and I was right. It’s not in the least entertaining, but it is essential, which seems to be what McQueen has been striving for as a fine artist currently working with narrative film as a medium. This film feels like an apotheosis of that striving for essentiality, perhaps the resolution of a period in his brilliant career. It will be interesting to see where he goes next — nothing has been announced as yet — but my instinct is it will be a departure from what we have seen so far.
I don’t know what awards this will win — probably Best Actor for Ejiofor, maybe Best Supporting Actor for Fassbender, definitely a Best Director nom for McQueen — but that’s irrelevant. I can see why Fassbender is refusing to campaign — it almost seems disrespectful to the film. Oscars are entertainment that celebrates entertainment, and as such they are too crass for the likes of what McQueen has achieved. His is a monument to every inhuman, suppressive act humans have committed against each other, and continue to commit. It is the only film I can think of that is both a narrative and a somber memorial that stands on its own as a landmark life experience for the viewer.