12 Years A Slave
There is an interesting scene early in 12 Years A Slave. A group of black slaves are struggling home after a gruelling days labour when they meet a small posse of seemingly vagabond Native Americans on the road ahead. It is a tense moment, as the two groups stare at each other. Then they break out the instruments, sing and dance, temporarily forgoing their own dire circumstances and the larger situation of their respective races. It is all they can do. They are the twin victims of the United States of America’s adolescence.
There are few subjects in history with as much consequence combined with so little treatment by modern media than that of slavery in 19th century America. I find that somewhat incredible really. The sin that was African slavery was such a terrible mark on the history of America, one matched only by their genocidal approach to the First Nations. It is an unforgettable blot in the history of the United States, a crime for which there can be no legitimate justification. And yet, despite the overwhelming effect the practice had upon America, film has not caught up (just as, in many ways, it has not caught up with the plight of Native Americans).
There’s the very good Amistad of course and 2012 saw the release of Tarantino’s Django Unchained, which had occasional depth and intelligence, but did not really approach the issue of slavery with the attitude of seriousness that it requires. But it was probably still as good as it got with Hollywood. Now, director Steve McQueen’s examination of the “trade” through this adaptation of the famous memoir, does just that.
Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a “free man”, an African-American living with his family in 1841 New York, noted as a fine violin player. Tricked by a sinister duo, he finds himself abducted and sold into slavery in the South, abandoned in an environment of unrelenting cruelty. Forced to hide who he really is in order to survive, Northup encounters a variety of personalities during his ordeal – the kindly yet spineless slaver William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), the conniving and vicious overseer Tibeats (Paul Dano), the psychopathic “nigger-breaker” Epps (Michael Fassbender) and the Canadian abolitionist Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt).
More in-depth discussion, with spoilers, from here on out. My shorter, spoiler-free, review can be accessed on The Write Club.
The opening of 12 Years A Slave sets the scene completely. In medias res, we are shown Northup cutting sugar cane plants in the hot sun, overseen by preening white slave-owners. That night, he struggles to write a letter using only the juice of blackberries and a wood carved pen: the failure of these devices produces a tantrum of frustration. Later, huddled in the dark amid his fellow slaves, he simply stares passively on as his hands are used by the woman next to him for a quick bout of sexual gratification, which afterwards leaves her embarrassed, ashamed and tearful.
This is a film about the dehumanisation of an entire race, men and women who are left without dignity, respect, education or the ability to communicate to the full; who are left to take what pleasures there are in life in as animalistic and degrading a manner as possible.
12 Years A Slave is a good film, a great one even. But it is not a film that you enjoy. No, it is a film, and a story, that you must simply endure. It is a tale of misery piled atop misery: of a man denied his freedom by an uncaring system that has long since stopped caring about the people it claims as property beyond their monetary and labour value. From there he see’s and suffers a constant series of tortures, both physical and mental. There are infrequent kindnesses that keep him going, a continuing belief that he might one day see his family and his home again. But in-between it is nothing but pain and suffering. Which, for a film showing us slavery in such painful detail, is how it should be.
But that can make 12 Years A Slave a very tough film to watch. At times you want to turn away – in fact, you just might do that during some of the more brutal moments, most notably a whipping in the third act. But this is an important film, one that should be watched, so we can truly understand the terrible sin that was the slave trade, what it did to its victims and how it framed the nation that embraced it. Northup is at first presented as a man who has had a great injustice inflicted upon him; by the end, it has been made clear that his status as a free man is somewhat meaningless, as no person, not Northup or any of the men and women he shares his bondage with, deserve their fate.
Because slavery was an undoubted evil, as we see throughout 12 Years A Slave. It was an ugly, reprehensible institution, one that has the bile rising to the top of your throat as you watch the fearful reality of it play out. It was far more than just labour in bondage. It was the attempted destruction of a segment of humanity based along racial lines. It was beatings, whippings, sexual assault, the fraying of families and the murder of so many, done almost without a care, save for the loss in the pocket.
Northup is a free man, with a wife and family. The scenes set in New York might come off an overly idyllic at times – there was plenty of racism even in such a situation – but they portray a man happy with his lot in life.
Then he is tricked, drugged and kidnapped. And the terribleness begins. The vast majority of 12 Years A Slave is misery, misery, misery, as McQueen and Ejiofor take their slow, sweet time in illustrating to the audience just what Northup’s experience entailed, how the physical tortures were matched with mental ones. There are shocking moments of violence, with fist, board and lash. There are insidiously creeping moments of psychological distress, with every insult, poor treatment and destruction of hope. There are betrayals and abuses of trust. There is hypocrisy from the kind and terrorism from the insane. Northup must endure it all, just as the audience of today must sit and endure it all.
But if the film was going to be made about slavery, and about the people who were tied by that bondage, then this is the type of film it has to be. It is not torture porn or a quasi-snuff film: it the painful, shocking reality of what the black race in America went through, for the want of a free workforce. It has to be that kind of film, it has to show us every blow and every moment of emotional torment. It wraps it all around this extraordinary man and his extraordinary trials, which is also important, to give direction and purpose. But 12 Years A Slave is about far more than Solomon Northup. This is the film about slavery, what it actually did and what it actually meant, that Hollywood should have made a long time ago. Seeing all of that suffering really brings it home to the audience, in a way that books or documentaries can frequently fail to do. That’s why 12 Years A Slave is such a good movie, above some of its weaker elements: it’s the modern window, through film, on a time that too many would rather forget (and it helps that the separate parts of the production are astounding).
12 Years A Slave does have a pretty unique plot structure, one that eschews traditional acts in a very large way. Not counting a few flashbacks that occur throughout in small doses, the set-up is undertaken and done in a very short amount of time, barely ten minutes. Northup’s reunion with his family is little more than four or five minutes at the conclusion. Everything else is his experience with slavery, but that gigantic section, easily two hours long, is patchworked and episodic. I mean that in the sense that rather than having one continuing and connected narrative during the huge slavery section, instead it is simply a series of slightly linked moments and situations, some of which have little bearing on what followed or preceded, with only Northup remaining at the centre of all. It isn’t a bad thing at all, and actually fits into the memoir-type adaptation as through Northup’s eyes we see different facets and elements of the slave experience with only that one really strong central connection. Northup’s journey takes us through all of those scenarios but plenty of other characters stick around only for one half (or less) of the film, without any firm resolution to their own fates.
If the first act is Northup being sold into slavery and the third act is, being generous, everything once Pitt’s Bass turns up, then that makes for a truly giant, overwhelming second act. It’s that second act that contains the misery and suffering, and it’s that second act that is the one that must be endured. I don’t think this lop-sided structure is a gigantic problem, but because of some story choices elsewhere, especially an almost anti-climactic final act, it does give the audience a rather flat sense when thinking back to the majority of the film. McQueen’s structure challenges some pre-conceptions about how we might think a movie like this would go, especially in its last 20 or so minutes (also more about that in a minute). For now it suffices to say that by the conclusion of 12 Years A Slave you might not quite find the catharsis you were expecting due to the slightly rushed ending, after so much time and effort was put into the in-depth look at slavery. But, it may well be that this is McQueen’s entire aim, and he wants the audience to go out of the theatre still uncomfortable and horrified, rather than completely uplifted by the outwardly happy ending. Northup escapes but many, many others did not.
Connected to that is the character journey that Northup goes on. The movie is, of course, overwhelmingly about him and his experience but I cannot really say that he went on a great inward journey. Again, this is connected to some of the choices in the last act. Overall, I would say that Northup’s journey is a battle between accepting his new way of life –abandoning all hope of rescue – and retaining a hold of that small kernel of aspiration that he might one day escape from his circumstances. But this is, by and large, an unspoken battle, that we must see through only occasional bits of dialogue and then just the look on Northup’s’ face. And a good job is done there, but I found that most of the material related to this character journey could only be seen in the last half of the movie – Northup’s seems to give up on his chances of getting home very fast, while in the “care” of Ford and fluctuates a bit towards the end depending on how close a very dagger-like betrayal was. Part of that problem might just be the lax way that time passing is presented in the course of 12 Years A Slave, with no indication of how long Northup spent under Ford before he was sold off to Epps and how long he was in the “nigger-breaker’s” service. There’s 12 years in there somewhere, but the transition is not marked. McQueen obviously preferred it this way and it’s a minor gripe I will admit. But I feel it would have helped the audience understand the nature of Northup becoming overly comfortable in his situation with Ford or the deadening of his hope under Epps.
In the end, the character journey is, of course, the triumph of hope over despair. Northup is freed and brought home. His expectation of that happening wavered plenty during the tale that was told, but the end message of his journey is one that is hardly surprising: hope should be the last thing to be abandoned. And if we are being honest with ourselves, Northup never really gives up on it completely, turning to numerous avenues to try and fulfil it. He tells Ford he’s a free man, to no avail. He seems to make a quickly aborted run for it in his early days on Epps plantation, halting quickly when he blunders into a lynching. He tries to use the Dillahunt character to get a letter out, placing a large amount of trust in somehow he’s just met, only to get burned for it. That would realistically have been the end of any pretensions, but then Bass comes along and Northup, not far gone enough to have given up completely, is compelled to try once more, this time with success. Northup’s outward face of acceptance masks an inner desire for freedom that cannot be trampled down completely, perhaps a microchasm of the entire black race in these times.
There has been much discussion around 12 Years A Slave’s ending, specifically Brad Pitt’s character. Some complain that he represents too much of a deus ex machina. He arrives apropos of nothing, when Northup is at his lowest point and in seemingly easy circumstances is able to engineer Northup’s release.
The complaints are kind of two-fold and both have some legitimacy I believe. Firstly, the expected structure of the movie is sort of warped by the development. You’d expect that Northup would escape rather than be rescued. You’d expect some kind of reckoning between him and Epps more than the one we’d get. You’d expect him to have some larger degree of agency in the whole process, for a more rounded film experience. Moreover, an actual escape would make for a more enthralling third act, and some of the promotional material did indicate that this would be the case.
The second is that the story is about a black man’s terrible experience at the hands of white overseers. He is then saved by a white man, with very little part to take in the entire process.
These two complaints, like I said, have some legitimacy. But only some. McQueen’s simply adapting Northup’s memoirs, and this is how it happened in his memoirs. The way the movie pans out is historically accurate.
Moreover, having expectations not met in this fashion, in regards the structure and the final act, can be a good thing. It makes 12 Years A Slave a more notable, surprising experience in a way, and much more memorable. Yes, Northup could have taken the lead in his own escape. Yes, that would have given him greater agency and maybe would have been a better cap to his personal journey. Yes, it would have conformed to the common notion of a traditional story and the journey of a hero.
But I feel like any attempt to do so would have been poor form. Changing history to better suit the modern story-telling narrative forms is not an inherently bad thing, as I have talked about before. But in this case, I believe it would have been. Aside from air brushing Bass out of history in an unnecessary way, it would have seemed cheap and derivative to me. While the actual ending is structured in an uncomfortably odd way and doesn’t leave the audience with all of the happy feelings that an “escape” ending would have, it should be remembered that this is exactly how Northup’s story should go.
As for Bass’s race, it means little to me. Northup could not have gained his freedom without the help of people higher on the social ladder than himself, that is only to be expected when it comes the realistic portrayal of the times and indulging the audiences suspension of disbelief. White people can’t always be terrible demons when they happen to be in the South, and McQueen shows numerous white characters who can be called fully sympathetic (or at least half way there). Tying into a continued motif of minor kindnesses getting Northup through his experience, Bass’s involvement is the culmination of a few glimpses of humanity peeking through the awful facade of Southern life in 19th century America. While it might be more uplifting – and predictable – that Northup would have a larger role in his rescue, I don’t think that 12 Years A Slave would have been a much better movie for it. I would say that I would have liked some sort of final confrontation with Epps, even if it was just a failing one in a courtroom, in order to tie up that characters own existence.
12 Years A Slave provides several key snapshots of what the slave trade, and its white superiors, were like. It does this by moving from situation to situation, first with Northup’s initial capture, then his initial selling, then his first master, then his near murder, then his second master. All of these incidents and the white men behind them provide a look at how slavery worked in the South of the United States, ranging from the decent to the out rightly criminal.
The first is the initial slaver, who locks Northup in a cellar, in chains, and starts the dehumanisation process immediately, a repugnant individual who see’s the lives he is snatching away as little more than those of insects. Men, women, children, there is no difference or extra allowance of morality. These are cattle to be transported around and shipped off to wherever they are most profitable, with a beating to send them on their way. On the boat, there is murder and rape to continue the process. This is the audience’s brutal first look at the “trade” and no punches are pulled, metaphorically. The physical and mental abuse that it entails are depicted vividly from the off, as the gatekeepers of the practice seek to break spirits and wills as quickly as possible.
Upon arriving in the South, it is the turn of Paul Giamatti’s auctioneer, the ironically named Theophilus Freeman. At this point names are revoked and deviation from the new one results in a slap in the face, a cakewalk compared to some of the abuse we have seen so far, but gut wrenching in the casualness of it.
Freeman is the slave trading man who is wilfully numb to the horrible things that he does. He breaks up families without a thought. He comments on the predicted attractiveness of young girls. He makes young boys dance for prospective buyers. He shows off their teeth, as if they are horses for a racetrack. When Ford appeals lamely to the man’s “sentiment”, all he gets back is a sneer. Freeman is the picture of the business side of the slave trade in the south: fat, contented, immoral and completely heedless of all of the misery it is inflicting.
Then there is Ford. Ford represents a different kind of insidiousness, the good man who does nothing. He seems to detest the practice of slavery but still finds himself easily persuaded to partake in it, and to sell on the slaves that are not to his wife’s liking (because she wouldn’t stop crying about the children taken away from her). Ford saves Northup from a lynching, but put him in the line of fire in the first place, and “cannot hear of this” when Northup tries to tell him he is a free man. Ford is, in a very real way, almost worse than Epps or Freeman because he’s hiding his collaboration with the trade behind a mask of pleasantness and Bible thumping. He shows kindness towards his slaves, but will not lift a finger to really help them when it counts, the benevolent Christian facade that the South likes to put front and centre, a pageantry of good manners in front of the worst kind of activity.
Tibeats is a glimpse at the more violent nature of the trade yet again, only this time in a meek, immature way. Tibeats is a man with terrible self-esteem issues, which he takes out on the people he controls. If he represents a part of the south, it is the bullying insecure part, that refuses to allow for the black races equality because it might reflect badly on themselves. Tibeats is proved wrong by Northup repeatedly. His reaction is attempted murder, a refusal to even attempt to deal with the problem outside of the ingrained racial superiority he enjoys.
And lastly there is Epps, the worst of the worst. Borderline insane, a bully, a rapist and to top it all off, a man who thinks that the words of the Gospel’s legitimises all of his behaviour. He embodies everything that it wrong about everyone that has come before, with his dehumanising treatment, his violence, his sexual assault, his hypocrisy and his complete lack of humanity. He is the perfect embodiment of the African slave trade’s master. Under him Northup see’s the worst of days, both physically and emotionally.
But there is one more symbolic glimpse of part of the slave trade, and that is Northup himself. Northup is the inspiration for his fellow African-Americans. In a flashback scene, we see a young black man, apparently a slave, follow Northup into a general store, seemingly fascinated by how this free man is accepted by his community, before being pulled away by his owner. Northup is who the black race, in chains in the South, aspire to be: free, respected and equal of all the same humanity as any other race is.
My usual note on female characters. The most important, with their dynamic, is Epps wife Mary and Patsey, the most productive of Epps cotton pickers and the subject of his barely restrained lust. I really liked the way that the warped rivalry between the two was presented, though obviously Patsey was given far more material to work with. She had a child-like air about her personality, as we see her making dolls in the fields, but becomes altogether adult at other points, as she urges Northup to aid in her suicidal dreams and later tries to escape the indignity of not being able to wash. She gets the most characterisation of any other black member of the cast, and is shown to be a truly pitiable creature, trapped between her unwanted (presumably) talent as a cotton picker and the aggressive advances of Epps, which she can hardly turn down, given her position, but which comes with the hatred and vindictiveness of Mary, who goads Epps on when he decides to subject Patsey to an extended series of lashes. She is that withered feminine side of the slavery atrocity, with no way out other than death. She gets no culminating point in her sub-plot, save one last desperate embrace with Northup as he leaves for freedom. That’s a shame, but I suppose it doesn’t take much imagination to realise what her final fate would have been.
Before I move on, I must mention some thoughts on the ending. It was short and sweet, which is not altogether a good thing. Having endured so much just in the watching of 12 Years A Slave, was it too much to expect just a bit more time on this conclusion, the happy ending of Northup’s journey? Perhaps depict his work in the abolitionist movement? McQueen choose to leave off on a briefer, happier scene, but such was the brevity that it almost felt like a lurch. As stated, this might well have been the intention, but I feel that McQueen could have kept that feeling of uncomfortableness even with a few extra minutes to showing Northup’s life after his ordeal. I suppose a small measure of catharsis is created for the audience in that reunion, a beautiful moment despite its short length, as Northup confronts both the changed nature of his home – grown children, a son-in-law and a grandchild – with the reality that much else has stayed the same – his family is still there, intact waiting for the father they love.
But before the credits roll, one more gut punch: the complete lack of justice, as a closing crawl informs us that nobody ever faced legal reprisals for what Northup went through. As downbeat a conclusion as the story really called for.
Onto the acting front them. Chiwetel Ejiofor is one of the great unnoticed treasures of our time when it comes to the acting craft. He has already proved himself across many varied genres but has thus far failed to land a role that would garner international appeal. But I’ve been watching his work for a while, in things as diverse as Whedon science fiction (Serenity), stage Shakespeare (his acclaimed Othello), surrealist comedy (Kinky Boots) and brainless blockbuster (2012, where he was easily the best part of an otherwise terrible experience). I know he’s good.
And by God, if he didn’t have the chance to show off for a greater audience before, he does now and he is fantastic. This is a film that is routinely underwritten, with McQueen preferring to let the actors he has express themselves without words. Ejiofor seems to love such a predicament, and with McQueen’s up close camerawork, finds plenty of opportunity when it comes to showing off. Every grimace, every strained squint, every tear, every cry, every smile, every look of hopeless anguish and renewed vigour is carried off brilliantly.
Ejiofor gives us Northup the family man, relaxed in married life and happy to place his trust in people. He gives us the man initially shocked by his enslavement and then emotionally fraught as he cries out for help and gets no answer. He shows us a man sliding towards comfortableness in his role under Ford, snapping angrily at suggestions that he should not be, hiding that inner desire for freedom. He shows us a beaten down man and a person who still thinks that he just might be able to get home if he keeps holding on.
Without the opportunity of speaking a great deal, Ejiofor does all of the above to a tee, in a performance that is sure to have acting nominations piling into his lap, and probably a few victories as well. Perhaps his most brilliant moment is after talking to Bass, when a lingering shot of his face allows us to see him run a gambit of emotions without uttering syllable, the return of a forsaken hope, that brings tears to our eyes as much as it does his. A wonderful, wonderful performance form one of the best actors working today.
Michael Fassbender comes up with the goods yet again, in another in the long series of films that have marked him out as one of the business’ best investments. Utilising all of the experience he presumably has with this director from Shame, he comes up with one of the most startlingly vivid villains of recent film history. From the first close-up shot of Epps, his hairy face and Bible in hand, Fassbender knocks it out of the park. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for him to play such an unmitigatedly evil part as this. Actors usually say they enjoy playing villains, but playing Epps, every violent act, every abusive gesture, every insane look of glee at the thought of hurting other human beings must have been a very difficult job to do. Fassbender does great work, at showing us that must cruel face of the slave trade, and yet leaving him still somewhat vulnerable, in his nagging wife, his obsession with Patsey (including a traumatic but well portrayed rape scene) and his complete inability to relate to his “property” on any equal level. Fassbender is another industry treasure.
Lupita Nyong’o, in what I understand is only her second film role ever, does amazing work as the much maligned Patsey, bringing a wide swath of emotions to this pitiful character. Whether it’s her infantile wistfulness when not in the presence of others, her good natured camaraderie with Harriet Shaw, her stone facedness with Mary Epps, her unfeeling resignation as Epps stalks and then rapes her, or her desperate pleading as she reaches out to Northup, Nyong’o makes what could have been an otherwise forgettable character into one of 12 Years A Slave’s best personalities, despite the lack of a real climax for her.
Benedict Cumberbatch has rapidly turned into a Hollywood darling, and it’s a well deserved position if we are being honest. He imbues the Ford character with everything that is really required: the nature of an apparently sympathetic and caring man, who who is as spineless and empty as any other when it comes right down to it. Only Cumberbatch could perform as somebody who appears to be the epitome of the Southern gentlemen, and still leave the audience queasy at the sight of him by the end, as his only solution to Northup’s dilemma is to sell him on to somebody else, to wash his hands of the problem, a desperate immorality that Cumberbatch plays very well. It also says something for Cumberbatch’s range: in the last month we’ve seen him as a malevolent dragon, a sociopathic detective and now a hypocritical preacher man. And in every performance, he’s sold it.
Paul Dano is another rising star, whose wowed many with his little known leads and his great support roles. His time in 12 Years A Slave is short, but he makes full use of it, whether it’s his astonishingly racist song that he opens with or the humiliated look on his face as Northup beats him, one of the most satisfying moments of the entire production. Like the others, he does as much as can to embody a despicable human being, no small task when the human being in question is as bad as this.
The general ensemble of 12 Years A Slave is just amazing at all levels, but with a such a large focus on the Northup character and his main masters, it is only to be expected that the rest, despite nearly all doing fine work, would be relegated in many respects. Paul Giamatti is brief but effective as Theophilus Freeman, with plenty of experience in this kind of period piece stuff from John Adams. Sarah Paulson is wonderfully bitter and scheming as Mary Epps. Garret Dillahunt has a great part around half-way through, playing a treacherous white farm hand who nearly gets Northup killed. Alfre Woodward appears memorably in one scene, as the black wife of a plantation owner, an extreme rarity in the period. Adepero Oduye does heart-wrenching stuff as Eliza, whose children are taken away from her and who refuses to let go.
If there is a weak link, it’s unfortunately Brad Pitt. He was a co-producer, and one suspects his casting here was a bit of a vanity call. He plays Bass, an important if a little underused character, with all the enthusiasm of someone just doing a walk-on cameo, with a dull drawl in his voice and little emotion upon hearing Northup’s story. Someone else should have taken that part.
There are many other links in this cast and, with that one glaring exception, I think that they were all great. McQueen has brought together quite a fantastic ensemble here, who give the source material all of the life, verve and reality that it deserves and requires.
Visually, it’s a very tight, up close production that McQueen had headed. With cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, McQueen has crafted a film that, more often than not, wants to land right next to the people involved in terms of camera work, with every other shot taking in just the actors and a tiny bit of background, if just their heads and faces, which happens frequently enough. I suppose the intent there might be to simply try and make the characters more human, which makes Northup’s fate seem more terrible and the slavers activities even worse.
It’s a still kind of camerawork, with precious little panning or moving shots at all. Every act or sadism is captured with a long hard, motionless look at the people involved and little else. That might seem boring and pedestrian in description, but it really isn’t. I think it’s perfect for a film like 12 Years A Slave personally, where flashy camera angles and tricks would only detract from what McQueen is trying to portray. It certainly allowed the ensemble to use their talents to the fore, especially Ejiofor and Fassbender. I’ve already noted some of the moments where they get to really emote at the highest level, and the connecting thread between them is the zoomed in nature of both shots, where their faces encompass nearly the entire screen, in scenes where their facial muscles do most of the work for them.
And there are plenty of once-off moments that really resonate with the viewer. There is the chopping waves on the boat that transports Northup, a recurring image of a trail leading back to his former life. There is a montage based around Paul Dano’s introduction, one of the only moments of rapid cuts in the entire production. One of the only uses of panning is during Paul Giamatti’s auction, as he zips between buyer and buyer, slave and slave, barely acknowledging that the “property” exists at all. Northup is forced to play at a Southern party for the white guests in opulent surroundings, that are a direct contrast to his own enjoyment of a dinner at a fancy restaurant before his ordeal began, a memory that is etched across his face.
Best of all, the real highlight, is the aftermath of Northup’s attempted lynching. He’s left strung up, his feet, caked in mud, just having enough reach to prevent him from choking to death. As he struggles to maintain his balance amid the filth and the ropes, the life of the plantation, that had vanished when the ropes came out, slowly returns to life. Nobody helps him, save for one brief drink of water offered. The rest of the slaves go back to work as Northup struggles to keep breathing, the only sound being his ragged gasps for air. The shot lingers, lingers and lingers some more, an extraordinary but utterly gripping scene that captures so much of the horror endemic in the slavery practice.
A word also has to be said about the set choice in 12 Years A Slave. Actual plantation sites were used for the most part, a brilliant choice, albeit just a little bit morbid. It obviously allowed for a greater connection between the cast and the story they were telling – one, I believe it was Fassbender, described it as “dancing with ghosts” in an interview – and helps with the realistic depiction of the slave experience: the fields they were forced to work in, the huts they crammed in to at night, the big houses that oversaw it all. I believe there is currently a bit of a debate raging in the States as to how to treat such areas nowadays. Are they places for traditional historical remembrance or should they be treated akin to Auschwitz? I can’t answer that question, but 12 Years A Slave has at least helped to get people talking about the issue.
Connected to the production work as well is the costume design and the general make-up of this 19th century world, one that captures much of the grime and soot that was endemic, but also a bit of the colour and pageantry in dresses and suits. Everything on that score seems real and true to the historical record.
As I have already noted, 12 Years A Slave seems a lot of the time to be a very underwritten production. I mean that in so far as its best moments and scenes frequently have very little or very limited dialogue. This is a story that can be largely told without words after all. But that is not to say that what words that exist are not worth hearing.
It’s a good script, despite its limited nature, that John Ridley has come up with, adapting skilfully enough the words that described Northup’s journey over a 150 years ago. There is, naturally, an old-timey flavour to everything, a kow-tow once again to historical realism which thankfully does not backfire in any way, shape or form (though it has been known to in other productions). The script is accessible and free flowing, full of memorable moments.
When Northup does talk, his words are filled with powerful emotions, whether he’s trying to justify his comfortableness under Ford or trying to lie his way out of encounters with Epps. This is an intelligent, articulate man who is being forced to hide who he is frequently, acting dumber than he has to in order to get by, perhaps most notably in some scenes late on with Bass, where the deception appears to be becoming real, as Northup stumbles over words. “I know where Ca-na-da is, I been there m’self” he says, where earlier in the story he spoke with much greater fluency.
Aside from all of that, there are many other great moments of dialogue to mention. Northup has a great back and forth to enjoy with Dano’s character, as they argue over the use of a waterway for transportation and later the building of a house. It culminates in an explosive declaration from Northup: “I did as instructed. If there’s something wrong, it’s with the instruction.”
Garret Dillahunt’s character has a great conversation with Northup, where he expands on his view that taking a whip to another human being destroys the handlers soul as much as it does the victims flesh, a rare acknowledgment of the psychological damage some white men endured when thrust into their roles within the trade. It’s not a speck on the suffering of the black race, but it is worth noting, even if the Dillahunt character turns out to be as reprehensible as any other really.
Woodward’s character, a black wife of a plantation owner, expands jovially on her own contented position in life, noting how she can afford to overlook her husband’s continued indiscretions due to the lofty position she has achieved. It was a scene marked by some of the best script work in the production, a bizarre cutaway from the harsh life that Northup was leading up the road, but which ends on an odd, almost prophetic declaration: “The curse of the pharaohs was a poor example of what waits for the plantation class.”
Northup gains his freedom, stuttering over the words that will confirm who he is, even while Epps rages in his ear that it must be all a lie and that he can do what he likes with his property. Northup makes it home regardless, and also stutters in his reunion with his family (“I have had a difficult time these past several years”), only being able to acknowledge his new son-in-law by saying they have a lot of acquainting to catch up on.
There are others to note. Freeman’s declaration that “My sentimentality stretches the length of a coin” as he dismisses lame pleas not to break up a black family. Ford’s closing words to Platt, which say more about him than the slave: “Whatever your circumstances, you are an exceptional nigger, Platt. I fear no good will come of it.” Or Epps’ terrible perversion of Biblical passage: “That nigger that don’t take care, that don’t obey his lord …that ‘ere nigger shall be beaten with many stripes. That’s scripture!” Or Northup’s own personal declaration: “You tell me all is lost. ‘Tell no one who I really am’ if I want to survive. I don’t want to survive, I want to live.” While 12 Years A Slave might not win any awards for the overall quality of its writing, it still does a fine job.
Musically it isn’t quite so good. The actual soundtrack is fine, a nice mixture of Southern folk music and African American Gospel choir. It’s Hanz Zimmer’s score where things fall down big time. Simplistic to a fault, it mostly consists of a repeated theme of around four violin notes, that is essentially the exact same as the track “Time” from Inception, which Zimmer also worked on. He’s consistently criticised for re-using old themes, ands it’s fairly blatant in this production. Beyond that four note jingle, there really isn’t anything else to talk about, with 12 Years A Slave being rather minimalist in its scoring, with large swaths of the production being absent of any music at all.
There are still some decent moments with music though. Of most note is the direct contrast between two musical moments and two very different songs. When the Tibeats character is introduced, he forces his black slaves to clap along while he sings the amazingly racist ditty “Run Nigger Run”, a not so subtle warning against any of his “workforce” actually trying to escape. Later, at the grave of one of their fallen compatriots, a group of slaves sings “Roll Jordan Roll”, a gospel melody that starts off slow and builds to a captivating crescendo, marked by Northup’s hesitant and then full flung involvement, singing out the pain and humiliation of an entire race, an emotional and fulfilling scene. The first song is about taking away dignity and forcing men and women to work, the second is about restoring a bit of pride and culture.
Aside from all that, there are some notable scenes based around music and musical instruments in 12 Years A Slave. Playing the violin is key skill for Northup, something that his owners are fine with, bizarre considering their opposition to him reading and writing. Some of the very first scenes are framed around Northup’s stringing his violin, later snapping one of the strings in a low moment, before trashing the entire device. He last see’s his children as they try and play some tin whistles. Epps’s deranged mind sometimes forces his slaves to play music and dance in front of him. Northup finds some of the only vestiges of his former life while playing the violin, but is increasingly disgusted by the audience he is forced to play to. All important moments, and all of them centred on music or the act of playing it. That stuff is great, I only wish that the score had been up to matching it.
And so on to themes. The most obvious theme is, of course, the desire for freedom and what freedom means to the various characters. Northup starts (I suppose he never actually stops) as a free man, a black American who is not in thrall to anybody, though he still suffers from a reduced social status. But he’s still not a slave. He has the freedom to pursue employment, a family, life, liberty and happiness.
That’s gets taken away from him by a different breed of American, who have long since forgotten or distorted the words “that all men are created equal.” For them, freedom is only something to be enjoyed by a superior race. It is more than just a legal freedom, it is an economic one. And if they have to stand on the abused backs of others to attain that freedom, then that is what they are going to do.
Through 12 Years A Slave we gain a very distinct view of what freedom means. It’s more than just immunity from unjust imprisonment and forced labour. It’s more than just being in a position where one man is not allowed to hurt you without consequence. It is exactly what the Declaration of Independence made it out to be. It is life, one that is worth living, not just surviving as best you can amid a maelstrom of misery. It is liberty, as in the freedom to go as you please without anyone stopping you against your will. And it is the pursuit of happiness, which cannot be granted in the slave state.
Freedom means being able to trust your fellow man. Freedom means being able to speak your mind without fear of physical reprisal. Freedom means compassion towards others. All of these things are denied to Northup while he is enslaved. And that is the epitome of the evil that slavery represents. It grants much to the people who benefit, while taking so much more from the people it abuses.
And it also connected to a twin theme of dehumanisation and dignity. I don’t use the word dehumanisation lightly, but that’s what slavery was. It was removing the tag of “human” from the description of the black race, lest that pesky Declaration of Independence interfere. Northup and his fellow slaves are just pack animals that happen to be able to talk, which only makes them worth more in the South. They are treated as such, animals to be broken and cowed, from the moment that their incarceration begins.
Dignity is an important aspect of the intangible force of freedom and the process of slavery takes it away. The ability to stand up and the right to a measure of respect that every human is entitled to is taken away as part of this dehumanisation process. When slaves are forced to wash outside naked, when they are physically and sexually abused, when they are forced to do work without pay or restitution, when they are made to sleep in a barn together like cattle, when they are denied the means to educate themselves, then they are being turned into sub-humans and treated subsequently as such.
The sexual aspects of 12 Years A Slave are important in that regard. There are only two scenes of outright sexual activity, but both bare the same hallmarks. They are both depicted as animalistic, primal lusts without the slightest shred of emotion attached, like mindless animals rutting. In the case of Epps raping Patsey, he’s merely using his “property” in a way that seems best and fitting to him, the same way that another man would use a sex toy. Her opinions and feelings on the matter are irrelevant: worse, to Epps, they are non-existent.
The lack of any kind of dignity or humanity to this very basic human act is unsettling traumatising and brings home the true depravity of slavery. Apologists then (and some even now, God help them) like to paint the trade as some sort of beneficial symbiotic cycle but it was not: it was one side taking what it could from the other, and the other side just having to endure it, robbed of their humanity and their dignity.
Another theme, which I have spent some time on already, is hope. Rather than re-hashing my points, I’ll look at a specific instance. Northup fluctuates in his hopefulness throughout his Odyssey, going from hopeless to renewed at different stages.
One of the most vivid is late on in the movie. While working in the fields, he sees a fellow slave collapse. After a few kicks and curses aren’t enough to get him up, he is callously declared dead. Northup and a few others are assigned to dig a paltry grave. Northup goes to get started immediately, before one of the others asks to say a few words. Northup pauses, a bitterly sarcastic look on his face, but complies. The pathetically short eulogy is given by a slave who can barely formulate the words. The moment he’s finished, Northup, short on sentiment, starts shovelling dirt, an almost disgusted look on his face.
This is a man without hope, a man who looks upon appeals to the almighty and expressions of regret for the fallen as signs of stupidity and weakness. For Northup at that moment, sadness and pity should not be the emotions being felt: it should be happiness, a cynical kind, for the slave who has permanently escaped from his terrible existence. Northup, who has aversions to suicide, has no such way out and shows it. He just wants to dig the man’s grave and have it done. There is no hope in his eyes, of any kind of salvation. He sees the mourning men beside him as little more than “niggers”.
Later, after the brutal and terrible abuse that Patsey has suffered at the hands of Epps and an unwilling Northup, he finds himself back at the graveside. This time he is surrounded by his fellow slaves, who start to sing. Slowly, gradually, a mournful and desperate Northup joins in, tears falling down his face. This is a dirge being sung out by him, but it also has other powerful connotations. It is a man appealing once more to the otherworldly, looking for a way out beyond death. It is a man joining in with those suffering around him, embracing them in a very emotional way, a way that he was unable to before.
Following on from that uplifting experience, he is able to find the means to place trust in somebody again, in the form of Bass. He gets his freedom as a result, a suitable award.
Trust is also a key theme in its own right. Northup finds himself in his predicament because he places trust in two people that he barely knows, something that he can barely understand in the initial stages of his bondage. He places trust in Ford, and while his life gets more comfortable as a result, it’s still a hollow existence under a master who is happy to use him even while decrying the state of his existence.
In Epps, there is no trust that can be placed, any more than you would trust any kind of raving monster. Northup becomes guarded, even with his fellow slaves, like Patsey. When he sees a white man coming close to the same situation as him (but nowhere near close enough really) he chances his arm. He is nearly killed for the impulse. The lesson he learns is that he cannot really trust anyone in the manner that would see him escape in one piece, especially white men in the South, who see greater opportunity in turning him in than helping him find his freedom.
His spiritual reconnection opens up the possibility of giving someone trust once more. Bass, a Canadian and an abolitionist, is the perfect candidate. Northup chances his arm once more and this time he gets what he wants: a sympathetic ear, who sees it as a civic duty to try and help Northup rather than any kind of opportunity for personal gain.
Trust is a good thing. The ability to enjoy it and to place it on someone is something that slavery seeks to destroy, as part of the dehumanisation process. But even though in Northup’s situation they are rare to find, there are always people who are willing to help, who disagree, sometimes violently, with the ideas that slavery embodies.
Lastly, I want to mention family as a theme in 12 Years A Slave. Northup has one that loves him, one that he fervently wants to go back to before it is too late. This is contrasted very directly with the other main family that he encounters, that of Epps and his wife Mary. The two are a terrible pair, the antithesis to Northup and his own wife, even if she is very distant from him. Epps and Mary seem to actively despise each other, a state of affairs that feeds into their cruelty to their slaves. They both try and get back at the other through abusing Pasty, just in different ways. This awful warped version of family is one that Northup cannot understand or contemplate, being so used to the loving relationships that he has at home. Family, when done right, is an immensely positives force in 12 Years A Slave, one that gives expectation and hope to Northup. The other side of the coin is an ugly loveless thing, that simply feeds a greater and unforgivable malice towards innocent bystanders.
If 12 Years A Slave was something to endure, so is writing long film reviews so I must move towards a conclusion. 12 Years A Slave is sure to receive plenty of award nominations, and will likely win many of them. And it will be a deserved success. It is a great production, even if it eschews traditional structuring, takes some risk regards purist adaptation and really does everything that is can to unnerve the audience.
The last point especially. 12 Years A Slave is an uncomfortable, galling and sometimes sickening visual experience. It is a movie that has done the best job possible, the best job ever if I am to be plain, of depicting the crime that was slavery onscreen. It does this without kind of restraint, or any understanding of an audience’s desire for a normal catharsis and a happy ending. But it is a much better film for all that, exactly what the subject matter required.
And more than that, it features an accomplished ensemble at the top of their game, who revel in the trust that the director has placed in them to act out his interpretation without too much resort to flowery words. They are headed by a man who should now be acknowledged as one of the greatest living actors, if he wasn’t already. It has a decent script and a visual style that is visceral and uncompromising in its quest to showcase all of the inherent barbarity of Northup’s story.
It is not a perfect movie. The score could have done with some serious sprucing up and many may feel that the third act ruins the narrative experience. Pitt does poorly and the unrelenting tide of unhappiness may well have some audience members begging for it all to stop before the credits finally roll.
But these are subjective complaints, only some of which I actually agree with. For much of the rest, 12 Years A Slave is a near-flawless experience, that brings the emotional weight and the required serious to a topic that is long overdue for this kind of screen treatment. McQueen has done the remembrance of slavery a gigantic service with this film. It comes fully recommended. Actually no, it is not a film that I recommend you see. It is a film that you simply must see.
(All images are copyright of Fox Searchlight Pictures).