12 Years a Slave is Brutal and Beautiful at the Same Time

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Steve McQueen is quickly becoming one of my favorite directors…and he’s only made three full-length movies. I’ve only seen two of the three, Shame, which came out in 2011 about one New York City man’s addiction to sex, and recently 12 Years a Slave. McQueen’s movies are highlighted by an intense focus on the body and the physical, as well as stories that have gone untold, such as his first debut Hunger, which focused on a prison strike by IRA inmates in Northern Ireland.

The camera work of his films is incredibly interesting, artsy even, the shots long, and the detachment visceral. 12 Years a Slave is no different. It follows the trials of Solomon Northrup (played heroically by Chiwetel Ejiofor) a free black man who is duped and drugged by two frauds, and awakes to find himself in Washington D.C. in chains. His new captors tell him that he is no longer a free man, but a slave from Georgia, and mercilessly beat him till he agrees, or at least stops talking. As the camera pans up we see we are not but a few blocks from the capitol of the United State of America.

Northrup is then shuffled off to Louisiana where he has a relatively kind master, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) before being transferred to the manic cruel servitude of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Along the way he must keep his reading and writing skills a secret lest they get him in trouble, as they must assuredly do throughout the course of the movie. Northrup is smart, too smart for his own good, and finds his education, status, and name all but worthless in the bayous and plantations of Louisiana. He is merely the “property” of another human being.

12 Years is complex in that it refuses to generalize or demarcate its characters. Some of the white people are good (well only a few), some utterly evil. And yet there is almost the sense that within the “masters” of the plantation, the guilty consciences over their treatment of others in fact spurs even more violence, violence to cover guilt in an endless circle. Michael Fassbender is insane in this movie and I mean it in both the bad way and the good. 

12 Years also draws our attention to the fact that some of the greatest evil was in fact imposed by the hands of fellow slaves at the behest of their masters. How much crueler can a whipping get? By having the perpetrator (themselves a victim) perpetrate the violence upon another victim. Was race-on-race violence a form of oppression and suffering devised at the hands of the white elite unknowingly years ago? I might say so. 

 Of course Brad Pitt gets to be the good Canadian abolitionist in the end, his speech and opinions coming so late in the movie it feels as if he is from another planet, but who can resist Brad Pitt? Actresses Lupita Nyong’o, Alfre Woodard, and Adepero Oduye are incredible and even surpass the heroism of Northrup, especially Patsey (Nyong’o). Each portrays a different version of how women handled their situation with grace and perseverance, and yet not without a few tears, or scars.

McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbit let the camera linger on scenes of 12 Years for extended periods of time, as if McQueen is forcing us to look when other filmmakers would cut or the average person avert their eyes.

“Look!” the entire film seems to scream out.

In what is perhaps the most infamous scene of the film, Northrup is disciplined by standing on his tiptoes with a noose around his neck for an entire afternoon as plantation life continues on around him. Some images, particularly Ejiofor’s burning of a compromised letter, are stark and say more than words can. Certain critics have complained that this “artsy” camera work takes advantage of Northrup’s story and allows McQueen to showcase his talent of imagery and beauty at the expense of the story. To that I say, “Pssht.” No way. It makes the film.

Detachment is a huge theme in all of McQueen’s movies and while 12 Years is a deeply heartfelt and passionate experience, there is something about it that leaves you numb and void of emotion, or perhaps so overcome by emotion that you have nothing left. Even though the film recreates the South and experience of slavery in a way that is so real and visceral, it also lacks a hearty psychological interior. I see this detachment as the only experience of emotion left to feel at the end of such horrific events. It is the absence of feeling, anti-attachment, that visually recreates experiences such as slavery or addiction in ways you can’t otherwise. To be addicted is to be utterly overcome with desire, and yet completely numb. I can’t speak for slavery but there is something about the way in which Northrup must categorize his servitude and refuse to give in to despair that requires a certain amount of stoicism or even ignorance on his part.

McQueen is able to take a story and historical experience shown or written about thousands of times and make it feel fresh, deeply important, and utterly terrifying. One friend I was with remarked that the entire feeling of the film felt more like a horror film than historical narrative. My body was tense from the minute the first image drifted on screen to the moment the credits started rolling. So, be prepared when you see the movie, but the result is breathless. Breathless in beauty. Breathless in terror. Breathless in acting and directing. If this movie isn’t the best of the year I will be personally offended. 

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