By Kendra James
Warning: This review contains spoilers, and discussion of abuse, violence, and rape.
Normally, knowing that a story has a “happy ending” helps to ease the burden of getting through something horrific. 12 Years a Slave is not that movie. It can’t be that movie with the way Steve McQueen dispenses of the conventional methods to show the passing of time. This could be 12 months, 12 weeks, or 12 years and we wouldn’t have known; I even lost track of how long I’d been in the theatre. There’s no clear changing of the seasons; no transition from spring to summer or fall, just once the point made that a crop of cotton has been lost.
Time is marked by the passing of violence rather than the passing of seasons, and it blurs and stretches and bunches together in places as it must have for Solomon Northup (a triumphant Chiwetel Ejiofor) himself. By not providing the viewer with any demarcation of time McQueen effectively puts us in his lead character’s position. How long Solomon’s been enslaved doesn’t matter and there’s no concrete end. Just one dehumanising experience to live through after another.
The premise is simple: Solomon Northup is a middle class, respected, even celebrated, freedman living with his family in Saratoga, New York. A gifted violinist, he doesn’t think twice when two men invite him to Washington DC for a series of paid performances. The pay him, drink with him, and in the morning they sell him into slavery. Thus begins Solomon’s 12 Years a Slave.
I left the film feeling meditative rather than confused and angry. Arriving amongst a number of varied media depictions of slavery of late, this is the most is certainly the most visceral and raw. But despite some critiques about the violence, Brad Pitt, and Hans Zimmer of it all, it comes off as remarkably perfect.
The violence is an easy place to draw focus: there’s a lot of it. It’s necessary, however, and effectively used. This is a film that features a whipping worse than Kunta Kinte’s in Roots, and perhaps the most prolonged lynching scene one hopes to ever see on a screen again. It begins immediately (in a scene very paralleled with the aforementioned scene in Roots) after Solomon is kidnapped as he protests his freedom and name to the slaver holding him. It continues as he and others are transported south to be sold in Louisiana. Michael K. Williams appears briefly as captured slave with ideas of mutiny, only to end up stabbed and thrown overboard. When they arrive in the South we watch as mother is ripped away from her children during an auction and Solomon is told to play the violin to cover the screams. The attempted lynching takes place soon after on the first plantation Solomon inhabits, following an encounter with the overseer Tibeats (Paul Dano).
We’re not even half way through the film here, and it’s at this point that it just all gets so much worse.
On The Daily Show Michael Fassbender noted that his character’s name, slave owner and planter Edwin Epps, is still part of the vernacular in the surrounding areas of Louisiana where his farm once stood. “If you’re, like, misbehaving, or acting out of line, they’d say ‘Don’t be an Epps’, which is a bit synonymous with… don’t be a prick.”
As much of an understatement as that is, after watching an hour to 90 minutes of what life was like on the Epps farm, it’s easy to understand why the phrase manages to survive this far into the 21st century.
Epps is cruel and drunk, and it’s impossible for Solomon (or anyone else) to miss his clear obsession with another young slave Patsey (fantastic newcomer, Lupita Nyong’o). His wife (Sarah Paulson, now starring in an actual American horror story) wants her gone, but unable to accomplish that is content in being as vindictive towards Patsey as possible. She goes as far as to deny her soap to bathe with, which leads to arguably the most violent confrontation (between Epps, Patsey, and Solomon) of the film. It’s impossible to compare who has it worse in their interactions with Epps –Patsey or Solomon– but the horror of Patsey’s life is hammered in not just through violence but also through a rather peaceful shot taken as sits alone in a field braiding dolls out of corn husks. It’s stark contrast of young innocence dropped in the midst of forced midnight dances for Mrs. Epps’ entertainment, and rape for Epps himself.
It would be easy to throw around the words “gratuitous violence” and “torture porn,” during Solomon’s time on Epps’ farm. If you’re familiar with McQueen’s other films, Hunger and Shame, then yes, you’re aware that stark visuals are something of a trademark. But the realities of slavery in 12 Years a Slave go far beyond outright physical cruelty. It’s Epps’ glancing touches, and grasps of his slaves that will likely go furthest when Awards season comes knocking. He casually leans against them, treating one boy like an armrest; never hesitates to sling an arm around Solomon’s shoulder while threatening him, or patting a little girl on the head like a dog before picking her up to offer her a treat (out of everything in this film, this moment disturbed me most of all).
In McQueen’s eyes slavery isn’t just about the violence, it’s about these everyday interactions between slaves and their white owners who clearly see them as little more than objects. Fassbender’s performance genuinely sells what slavery was.
Ejiofor, Nyong’o, and Fassbender will deserve every nomination and win thrown their way in the coming months. It’s one of those movies where no one could have possibly been having fun with the role given (at least Leonardo DiCaprio got to work with the faintest hints of camp and humour in Django Unchained), so that they’ve all made it through to the other side and with such a successful piece of film is commendable. Ejiofor talked to Buzzfeed about the post-film experience:
In fact, after shooting the whipping scene, as well as so many other scenes of harrowing cruelty, Ejiofor had to deliberately withdraw from the world to recover. “After we finished shooting it, I took two months to decompress in Brooklyn, where I don’t know that many people. But I did live there when I was in my mid-20s. So I know enough people that if I need to go out and have contact, I can. But I’m not surrounded by people, and nobody’s going to think I’m crazy. ‘He’s disappeared!’ or ‘He’s babbling at dinner about man’s inhumanity to man!’ … We had to go to all of those places and to feel all of those things. What you’re holding onto is the fact that you want to tell this story, so you’re prepared to go there in the hope that two months later you come out the other side and you’re all OK.”
Similarly, if you’re anything like me, it’s going to take you a moment to recover from watching 12 Years a Slave. Forget just movies, this is the first visual depiction of slavery I can recall seeing anywhere that hasn’t been altered in some way to assuage the viewer’s sense of comfort. Bluntly, this was not made taking the sensibilities of a white American audience into consideration. Funny how it takes a British director and an international cast to spend even just two hours looking at the truth of our own past.
Brad Pitt was the only flaw I could find in a cast stocked with actors in unexpected turns (like Saturday Night Live’s Taran Killam or Mad Men’s Bryan Bratt). Pitt appears briefly as a transient worker, Bass, who becomes the key player in getting Northup out of slavery and back to his family. Whereas everyone else seamlessly falls into their character, I keep wanting to refer to Bass as, “Kindly Transient Worker Brad Pitt”. It’s almost as if he wandered in from somewhere else and just decided to hang out for a scene or two because George Clooney was too busy promoting Gravity to hang out with him.
But on that note: It should be noted that Fassbender excels in this role to the extent where I’m going to need about a month and 30 viewings of X-Men: First Class before I’ll be able to look at him in the same way again.
Overseer Tibeats sings a disturbing, offensive earworm of a song that frames a very well shot montage of events. Unfortunately, I couldn’t scrub the song from my brain until about 3 hours after the fact. We’ll see if any version of it makes its way onto the soundtrack.
Edwin Epps’ home appears to have been nowhere near as grand as it was depicted in the film, where it looked like a very typical large Hollywood plantation house. The actual Epps House is a historical landmark in Louisiana due to Solomon’s memoir, and isn’t even half as impressive.
Solomon Northup’s story was first told on PBS in 1984 in the made for TV movie starring Avery Brooks and directed by Gordon Parks called 12 Years A Slave: Solomon Northup’s Odyssey. It can be seen online here. Interestingly, one of the more unique stories of slavery has been twice tackled by Black directors. Between needing to read the original memoir and watching the first movie, my journey with Solomon Northup is only just beginning.