Hollywood has a notoriously mixed track record with historical atrocities. Sometimes it turns out into something like Schindler’s List or Roots, while other times it winds up being overblown Oscar bait. In the case of slavery, a common denominator is that no matter how America’s original sin is depicted on screen, it’s usually from an enlightened white person’s P.O.V. and/or has to tone down slavery’s true cruelty. But none of that is the case in 12 Years A Slave, perhaps because relative outsider Steve McQueen is at the helm.
While slavery raged on in 1841 America, a black man named Solomon Northup carved out a life for himself as a free man in New York, with a family and talents as a violin player. But when he meets two men who claim to be entertainers, he is thrown into the slave trade and taken down South. Not only is he renamed Platt, he has to hide his education and knowledge to have any hope of survival. Although Solomon manages to keep his head down at first, his true horrors unfold when he is sold to the vicious Edwin Epps – with no relief in sight until 1853.
Despite how 12 Years A Slave is just now opening wide, its reputation is already in place. Massive critical raves have made it the Oscar favorite, but it has also been deemed one of the most brutal movies of all time. At the least, it has been deemed the defining movie about slavery, if only because it is a true story about a black man and not a white savior.
Solomon Northup is McQueen’s gateway to an unblinking look at life in slave-era America. For those who saw McQueen’s first two films Hunger and Shame, they know how he can turn a cold, unflinching eye at harsh subject matter. Of course, slavery is nothing like a hunger strike or sex addiction, but 12 Years A Slave shows slavery like few others have before it.
The movie is already notorious for more than a few beatings, whippings and acts of extreme violence. However, this sort of reputation does more harm to 12 Years A Slave than good, and may hurt it in the Oscar race to come. With all the buzz over the movie being too violent and hard to watch, it will make it much harder for voters and audience to come around to it. Yet in truth, aside from three of the ugliest scenes imaginable, the real terror shown isn’t in the violence, but in the dehumanization.
While we can wag our fingers at the obvious horror of slavery 170 years later, it was a regular fact of life in Solomon’s time. 12 Years A Slave is therefore the perfect fit for McQueen’s matter of fact approach, as he stands back and shows how normal it all was back then – and how it stripped away the humanity of all involved. This is especially true in one of those three aforementioned ugly scenes, as Solomon struggles to stand on his tip toes while being lynched – and the rest of the world passes him by without notice.
Even Solomon isn’t untouched, as he is determined to keep his head down and survive without speaking up – which makes him lash out at a woman who can’t stop mourning over her family being broken apart. He is also unable to comprehend relieving the suffering of Epps’s most prized, tortured female slave Patsy, no matter how much she begs – which comes full circle in another unimaginably brutal scene. Although Solomon has no choice but to submit the way he does, this kind of survival still comes at an unshakable cost.
Solomon also has to hide his intelligence and make himself look uneducated to gain favor – which is very easy to understand these days. At this moment, white Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito is being defended by his black teammates, despite accusations of allegedly bullying black lineman Jonathan Martin and using racial slurs. Yet reports are that Incognito was considered an “honorary” black man, while Martin was not – perhaps because in part of his higher education at Stanford.
This is still a time when educated black men are often considered soft, sellouts or even Uncle Toms — and not just by white people. That legacy of slavery is playing out on the sports pages as we speak, 170 years after Solomon Northup had to play dumb to survive a hostile culture of institutional ignorance. If one wants to dismiss 12 Years A Slave and slavery as a whole as part of a bygone past, it is truths like this that prove otherwise.
Other movies would sentimentalize these harsh realities, sugarcoat them or offer some relief. McQueen is not that kind of director, and 12 Years A Slave is not that kind of movie. It does make Hans Zimmer’s more traditional score somewhat distracting, especially since its main theme all but rips off his theme at the end of Inception, of all films.
Besides that, this is not a Hollywood kind of film, and has been appropriately hyped as such. Unfortunately, this has had the accidental side effect of making it look harder to watch than it really is. This could prevent it from getting the mass audience it deserves – and may need in the months ahead to hold off less harsh Oscar films.
Regardless, there is no getting around that Solomon is an often passive character by design, which has been a common complaint about black characters in many slavery films. Of course, the reasons for it in 12 Years A Slave are better than most, but it forces Solomon into the background of his own journey more than once. And although McQueen is documenting the evils of the times, the sad truth is that movies make such evil the main attraction more than they should – and with McQueen’s muse Michael Fassbender embodying Epps, he can’t help but fall into that trap sometimes.
After the unanimous raves and Oscar buzz 12 Years A Slave got in film festivals, it also provided more than enough time for backlash to set in. It is already building under the surface, with such nitpicks as how the endless suffering has a numbing effect – which may be the whole point since that’s what it had on America back then – and that McQueen is too cold and clinical. Going in an over the top, Steven Spielberg like fashion wouldn’t have worked, but going the other extreme can make this movie easier to appreciate than love.
The icy walls around Hunger, Shame and 12 Years A Slave do show that McQueen’s world is cold. But in this case, it is populated by actors who are the exact opposite. McQueen makes this time and place harder to shake off on an intellectual level – yet he has Chiwetel Ejiofor, Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o to make it resonate on an emotional level. By counteracting McQueen’s coldness with their raw emotions, they give him and 12 Years A Slave the balance they truly need.
Ejiofor has broken out to become a Best Actor favorite after years of character actor work. While Dirty Pretty Things, Kinky Boots, American Gangster, Children Of Men, Talk To Me and even 2012 made Ejiofor a valuable supporting player, this puts him on another level. It does seem sometimes that all Ejiofor has to do is suffer, look tortured or be on the verge of crying, no matter how powerfully he does it.
Yet as the years go by, the ravages of slavery and the loss of humanity are worn by Ejiofor to the bone. As Solomon tries against all odds to find some hope or to endure, Ejiofor keeps his sad faces from being as numbing as the cold cruelty. Then when relief finally comes at last, the movie, character, actor and director all earn their catharsis, with McQueen keeping the moments from being too Spielbergian [a la Schindler’s final breakdown in Schindler’s List] as Ejiofor makes them unforgettably wrenching.
On the other end of the spectrum, Fassbender masters McQueen for the third time, this time as a villain of the times comparable to Ralph Fiennes’ Goeth in Schindler. Epps’ weakness, inadequacy and conflicted, twisted love for Patsy keep him from being a total monster – but when he acts like one, Fassbender taps into a terrifying level of rage. To balance it out, Sarah Paulson – who’s now also in a far different TV project involving the past and racial conflict, with American Horror Story: Coven – goes to even icier levels as Epps’ jealous wife.
The newer face of the bunch is Nyong’o, although she won’t be as unknown by the time Oscar season is over. Like Solomon, Patsy fights a losing battle to keep her head down in the midst of unimaginable terror, especially from Epps. Like Ejiofor, one can mistake Nyong’o as doing little more than looking tortured and getting tortured. But like Ejiofor, Nyong’o offers a gut wrenching display of desperation and longing, especially with Patsy having less hope, options and reasons to go on than Solomon. Yet with only two major showcase sequences, Nyong’o is perhaps more sadly underused than anything else.
McQueen is no Lee Daniels, but 12 Years A Slave does have a habit of stunt casting white actors in black experience films, like The Butler. No one is poorly made up to look like Presidents in this case, however. Benedict Cumberbatch does have a questionable accent as Solomon’s first master, yet it is a noteworthy account of a halfway decent man who still can’t help but commit evil – especially in saving Solomon’s life by selling him to Epps. Paul Dano takes yet another beating a la There Will Be Blood and Prisoners as a jealous foreman, while Paul Giamatti pops up as an auctioneer, and SNL’s Taran Killam actually appears as one of the men who put Solomon into slavery.
If 12 Years A Slave can be mocked for anything, it’s been for putting Brad Pitt in a third act cameo as the man who helped save Solomon. Pitt produced the film and helped get it made with his star power, so perhaps lending it in front of the camera couldn’t be avoided. In truth, Pitt does solid work in just three scenes, yet his good work can’t hide how he still looks far too out of place to fit in – which he’s usually even more vulnerable to with long hair anyway. In contrast, cameos from Alfre Woodard, Garrett Dillahunt, Adepero Oduye and Chris Chalk make an impact without taking the viewer out of the movie.
The massive raves and platitudes around 12 Years A Slave set a bar that few movies can really live up to, and this one can’t do it all the time. But even if it isn’t the historic masterpiece some have made it out as, it isn’t the hardest to endure film of our time either. In that regard, champions and critics of the film are doing it no favors, and their hysteria on either side is the opposite of what McQueen is going for.
McQueen lets the institutionalized degradation of this American era speak for itself, plainly and truthfully. It is that kind of horror that gives 12 Years A Slave its unsettling power and makes it essential viewing, instead of the feel bad medicine some have gone over the top to make it look like. And if one really wants to feel more than shame and cold sorrow, that’s what Ejiofor, Nyong’o and Fassbender are for.