Gone with the Wind, several other films and media whitewashed it in the 30’s and 40’s, Roots showed the semi-sanitized truth onto American T.V screens in the 80’s, Lincoln and Django Unchained portrayed it to it in very different effective ways last year, but visionary filmmaker Steve McQueen depicts it at its most unblinkingly, unfiltered, ruthless and unabashedly horrifying in Solomon Northup’s eyes.
There are movies I appreciate, enjoy, really like, and love, and then there are some that just leave me speechless. Steve McQueen continues his streak of making those kind of movies for me. The visual artist turned director has really made a name for himself portraying relentlessly dark dramas about the destructive nature present in the human condition, from our natural struggles with identity and free will in Hunger, to our inner vices with Shame. Now with 12 Years a Slave the UK filmmaker combines those elements to craft an unflinchingly true depiction of the most devastatingly inhumane chapter in American history.
An outstandingly poignant Chiwetel Ejiofor (just give the man the Oscar) plays free man Solomon Northup, living in upstate New York circa 1841. Having just said goodbye to his wife and kids for a few months span while she cleans homes elsewhere he is offered a job playing the violin for a traveling band. The organizers take him to dinner one night after a show and give him enough alcohol to pass-out. His journey into hell begins when he opens his eyes to find he is shackled to a floor and mercilessly whipped for trying to argue he is no runaway slave.
From then on he is taken by steam boat down to Louisiana where he is chosen to serve a kindly, but dangerously passive, owner Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). He learns fast that his intelligence and compassion are fatal qualities for slaves. They are there to be mindless drones, not on equal footing with their masters and anyone who thinks differently are dealt with severely. He witnesses slave auctions, families being torn apart (one of the coldest harshest lines in cinema history is uttered here to describe this event) and the harshness of plantation life, but can do nothing about it. Remarkably enough he tries to make the best out of this hellish situation by helping his owner and earning his sort-of respect.
After an altercation with one of Ford’s slave drivers (Paul Dano) he is sold to a notorious, even by plantation owner standards, Edwin Epps. Let’s get this out of way Michael Fassbender imbues Epps with villainy and evil rarely, if ever, portrayed; he embodies southern plantation owners and slavery just as Ralph Fiennes with Amon Goeth and the Third Reich two decades ago in Schindler’s List (this alludes to disturbing parallels I’ll touch on later). Fassbender and Ejiofor are the antithesis of each other in ways seldom ever seen on screen. The twisted game played between Solomon’s want for free will and Edwin’s need for domination is unbelievably rendered.
Solomon is not alone in this ordeal, a slave girl named Patsy also endures unimaginable torment as Epps “Favorite” worker. Lupita Nuyong’o is absolutely devastating in her portrayal of Patsy a woman tortured both physically and psychologically by her owners, it is her first screen credit and she’ll be hard pressed to top her performance here (here’s hoping her work too is adorned with that golden statue come March). What makes her ordeal all the more gut-wrenching is that Epps is clearly attracted to Patsy which brings out the worst in him, because all the contradictions of slavery are laid out for him in his mind. How could he be attracted to not a human being but property? This attraction is all the more obvious to Mistress Epps, a terrifying stoic Sarah Paulson, who berates Patsy and asks her husband to punish her at any given turn. Again Solomon is helpless to stand up for the people around him, all he can do is remain in the crowd and join in the choir with his enslaved brothers and sisters.
Last year’s disturbing Compliance, by Craig Zobel, hauntingly showed that it takes an outsider of a vicious instilled system and cycle to break it. Not ironically, It took a director from the UK to tell this part of American history. Other countries had slavery too, but it lasted here longer because of a warped system that created institutionalized inhumanity. Both Ford and Epps conduct religious sermons to their slaves telling them just how they are all meant for servitude, not so much done as an anti-religion message but symbolic of just how dogmatically unbreakable the institution was. It is why the bloodiest war on North American soil had to be fought to end it.
There is no hint of antebellum romanticism or pulling back punches here. McQueen uses his signature long takes in the most brutal scenes to make sure that there is no artifice or cinematic mechanisms to mitigate the audience’s view of what is being depicted. This is a part our history, we have to own up to it. I can akin it to a German person watching holocaust archival footage today, yes this happened long ago, yes the people responsible are dead and gone, but we can’t distance ourselves because of those facts. For anyone that can’t understand how or why Germany could’ve taken hatred and malice so far during WWII, well not even a hundred years before it was happening right here on American soil.
Spoilers From Here On Out: For many, that might be the most unsettling thing about the film. For myself it is the last scene of Solomon returning home to his family when he remarks just how much he looks “unfit” to be seen by them. The man they once knew and loved died 12 years ago, the man standing in front of them now is forever changed by his ordeal. In the end Epps won and that shakes me to my core.
The end title cards tell of Solomon finding the people responsible for enslaving him in the first place and taking them to a futile court case. Additionally, that the exact means, time and place of his death remain forever unknown. There is no gravestone or memorial for him, his account in the book 12 Years a Slave and this film adaptation serve as the only markers that the man ever existed. We do not know where Solomon is buried and, not coincidently, we cannot bury the past presented in the film. We can only look on, unable to help, at lives that will be forever shattered.
9.8/10 (A harrowing and emotional journey through the unimaginable hell that institutionalized inhumanity created)