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Non-Review Review: 12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave is a harrowing and moving piece of cinema. The most profound and cutting of the recent studio films to explore slavery in America, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is almost relentless in its probing explorations of the systems an structures that allowed and reinforced that slavery – it’s hard to watch at points, providing a deeply unsettling glimpse at the suffering that man is capable of inflicting upon his fellow man.

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12 Years a Slave is based on the famous memoirs of Solomon Northup, a free man who was abducted from Washington and sold into slavery. He is conned by a couple of smooth-talking sales men with a story about a circus that exists to exploit other culture, trading on exoticism – featuring “creatures from Darkest Africa, as yet unseen by modern man; acrobats from the orient who contort themselves in the most confounding manner.” Northup seems suspiciously trusting of two men who openly admit to exploiting foreigners for their own monetary gain, and he inevitably finds himself kidnapped and shipped to Louisiana.

The most fascinating aspect of 12 Years a Slave is the way that it explores the complicity inherent in slavery. This is something that Tarantino’s Django Unchained touched upon, but John Ridley’s script explores it in almost painful detail. While Northup comes across more than his fair share of sadists – including John Tibeats and Edwin Epps – the vast majority of the people involved in the trade are presented as people just making a living as part of a system that is unquestioned and unchallenged by those within it.

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Solomon spends a significant amount of time on the estate of William Ford. Ford is not presented as a monster. He’s presented as a reasonable and considerate man. He is reluctant to separate a mother from her children. He is capable of recognising Solomon’s intelligence and education, and capable of acts of kindness and generosity. He is not cruel or sadistic. Indeed, there are points when he seems sympathetic to Solomon’s plight. There’s evidence of compassion when he offers Solomon shelter inside his house following a bitter and brutal confrontation.

At the same time, Ford is a cog in the system. As much as he may appear to be pained by the decision to break up a family, he follows through on his decision. As much as he might offer Solomon shelter in his home, he is quick to get rid of him once Solomon becomes a burden. He never sees Northup as a person, but as a piece of property. He’s more liable to think of Solomon in financial terms – as a “debt” – than as a human being.

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Benedict Cumberbatch does great work in the role, underplaying Ford and knowing better than to present the character as anything approaching a virtuous man. Even in his more sympathetic moments, Cumberbatch suggests a passive weakness to Ford, suggesting that this is the kind of individual who perpetuated and enabled the system of slavery to exist. He might be polite and might not be outwardly sadistic, but he’s not a good man or anything close to it.

Then again, Ford is a saint compared to Edwin Epps. Michael Fassbender invests Epps with a maniacal sadism that helps him seem like more than a simple two-dimensional slaver. Epps is much more in the style of slave owner we’ve come to expect in popular culture – bitter, angry, righteous and sadistic. It’s Fassbender’s performance that prevents Epps from seeming like a cliché, suggesting all manner of deep-seated issues bubbling away beneath the surface, ready to explode.

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Still, Epps is one of the least fascinating aspects of 12 Years a Slave. More interesting is the way that McQueen and Ridley suggest that slavery was something in which everybody was complicit – the most banal form of evil, normalised and accepted by the society in which it took place. One of the movie’s most effective sequences features a slave strung up in the sun all day, without any help. The place is empty when the attack takes place, but it only takes a few minutes for the other slaves to come back out and get back to work.

One slave slips the captive a cup of water, but she’s clearly terrified of being caught. Everybody else keeps their heads down and goes about their business. At one point, children can be spotted frolicking in the background over the shoulder of the suspended slave, apparently numbed to the brutality of the torture unfolding mere metres from where they play. It’s stunningly effective sequence, and it might be the most telling part of the film.

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The movie argues that slavery was made possible by forcing everybody to be complicit – by forcing everybody to look the other way. Even the slaves themselves keep their heads down and their eyes averted in order to avoid direct punishment. The movie builds towards the logical end point of this approach, as Solomon finds himself actively complicit in the abuse and oppression of his fellow human beings. (Rather bravely, 12 Years a Slave fleetingly suggests that Solomon had been passively complicit long before, ignoring all the signs of slavery and oppression in his life as a free man.)

12 Years a Slave is a tough film to watch in places, as it explores the type of life that these slaves had to live, and sacrifices that had to be made in order to survive. “Tell no one who I am?” Northup repeats early in the film after being offered survival advice. “That’s the way to survive? I don’t want to survive. I want to live.” Solomon has to give up who he is. He has to accept the name given by the slave traders. He has to conceal his learning. He has to pretend to be illiterate. He has to lose everything that makes him a person in order to make it through these harrowing events.

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12 Years a Slave is powerful and unsettling stuff, as it should be. McQueen’s direction is as strong as ever. He lends the moving a sweeping style that never loses track of the characters at the heart of the story. He’s ably assisted by a superb central performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor in the lead role. Ejiofor is an actor who has demonstrated his talent quite a lot over the past few years, but has never broken through into the mainstream. Ejiofor is amazing here, making Solomon the focal point up which 12 Years a Slave pivots.

He is ably supported by a fantastic cast, but special mention must be made of Lupita Nyong’o. Nyong’o is making her American film debut in the role Patsey, the slave who attracts the unwholesome attentions of Edwin Epps on his estate. It’s a brutal and trying role, and Nyong’o does astonishing work playing a young woman trapped in impossible circumstances. She gives an assured and confident performance, promising a great career ahead.

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And yet, despite all these wonderful elements at play, 12 Years a Slave never feels as quite as intimate or as raw as McQueen’s two earlier films. There are – at points – almost a detachment from the plight and suffering of Solomon Northup, despite Ejiofor’s sterling work. While McQueen presents a brutal and inhuman glimpse of slavery, one that can’t help unsettling the viewer, the film never feels quite as uncompromising as Hunger or Shame.

Part of this is built into the true story of Solomon Northup. The resolution of Northup’s story is very clearly out of his own hands, placed in the hands of a special celebrity guest star who shows up in the last few minutes to provide a convenient conclusion to events. 12 Years a Slave is based on a true story, sot there’s only a limited amount of give here, but the casting of Northup’s salvation feels a little bit like stunt casting – and takes the focus off Northup at the movie’s climax.

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There are moments when 12 Years a Slave‘s tone seems almost at odds with its content. The movie is much too personal and much too intimate to be cynically described as Oscar-bait, but the film seems like it was carefully constructed to be more friendly to awards and nominations than McQueen’s earlier work. 12 Years a Slave is a story about man’s inhumanity to man, about the pain and suffering that those in positions of authority can inflict on others, and how they make the oppressed indifferent to each other’s pain. And yet there are a few moments here or there when the script seems to forget that.

12 Years a Slave is a story about turning people into property and the way that injustice keeps on pressing down upon them. And yet, despite that, there are moments when 12 Years a Slave seems positively melodramatic – more like a grand sweeping historical epic about endurance and perseverance than a cold exploration of systemic oppression. Hans Zimmer’s score doesn’t help, seeming like it was designed to be set against the trailer of some Oscar bait movie about hope and redemption. 12 Years a Slave is very much at odds that sort of romanticised sugar-coated portrayal of the era.

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McQueen and Chiwetel Ejiofor know better than to pretend that Solomon was somehow enriched by the events. Despite a closing title card hinting at hope on the horizon, the final scene makes it clear that so much has been taken from Solomon and can never be replaced. Most of 12 Years a Slave is brutally frank about this, but there are moments when it seems like the film is about wander into clichéd “inspirational” territory.

Still, these moments are few and far between. For most of its runtime, 12 Years a Slave is a brutal and harrowing exploration of an era of American history that remains something of an open wound; an attempt to explore the past so that we might perhaps understand the workings of such a terrifying and degrading system.

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5 Responses

  1. Love the commentary on this film’s themes. I quite agree!

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