Mark Reviews Movies

12 Years a Slave


4 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Steve McQueen

Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Lupito Nyong'o, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti, Alfre Woodard

MPAA Rating: R (for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality)

Running Time: 2:13

Release Date: 10/18/13 (limited); 10/25/13 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 18, 2013

There comes a point where the pain is just too much to bear. That point repeats itself over and over again in 12 Years a Slave.

We know the inherent injustice of slavery; it is, as men who signed a document centuries ago without any trace of irony put it, self-evident. We know the physical brutality of slavery; it has been documented in the written word, illustrations, and photographs. Director Steve McQueen portrays these with unflinching candor, but perhaps the most important achievement of this staggering film is how acutely and precisely he depicts the psychological cruelty of one of the most evil sins humanity has ever inflicted upon itself.

There are moments—too many to list—where we simply want to look away from the horrors on the screen, but there would be no point. We could still hear the cries, the howls of anguish, and the uninhibited hatred spewed by petty, odious men and women. If we were to shut out the sights and sounds, it still would not matter. By the time one dreadful event or another occurs, the film, through its mounting collection of atrocious deeds and heinous words, has already burrowed deep into our conscious and conscience.

We need to see, to hear, and—even to the miniscule degree the film accomplishes compared to reality—to feel this. In the necessity, though, there is a nagging feeling that McQueen is indicting us for watching. We are witnesses to a crime, and the only options are to bear witness and do nothing or to ignore it. Which is the worse choice?

The film is based on the autobiographical account of the same name by Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York who was tricked into slavery and, despite the overwhelming odds against him, gained back his freedom. At one point, his first master dubs him an "exceptional" example of his race, and the man is right but not in the way he intends it. Northup and his story are the exception to an experience that for far too many did not come to even the bittersweet end of Northup's trials.

Northup's story is not necessarily important because of him; its significance is in the fact that the individual—a man with a family, a job as violinist for hire, and a basically good life—becomes just another cog in the machine of a dehumanizing system. In losing his identity (figuratively and literally), he comes to represent something even greater than the individual. His story is just one of the stories of the millions of those who held in bondage in the United States. It is also the story of those millions.

The first view the film provides of Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor, in a devastating performance) is as an anonymous face in a group of slaves watching as their master displays the proper way to harvest sugar cane. The camera glides through the leaves of the plants, slowly coming upon a scene of work. There are no names here; the faces are unknown to us. It is routine.

There is a level of the mundane in the day-to-day lives of the forced laborers. John Ridley's screenplay emphasizes that condition almost immediately. The men and women march to—an a cappella song maintaining a rhythm to the labor—and from the fields—a shack on the plantation grounds providing shelter for dozens of men and women who lie down on mattresses or the floor in a huddled mass.

This night, Solomon turns over and sees a woman looking at him. She takes his hand and places it on herself. This should be a moment of intimacy, but it is instead a fleeting moment of release—a temporary escape. He understands this unspoken agreement. When she is finished, her pleasure instantly turns to a realization of circumstances, and there is another release—of torment. Solomon remembers lying in bed with his wife Anne (Kelsey Scott). Whatever tenderness was between them is absent—perhaps even impossible—where he is now. McQueen's ability to convey all of this through the juxtaposition of two wordless scenes that are separated by time and Solomon's state of mind is extraordinary.

The narrative treats time as a chasm. Memories emerge. They begin, as in the case of the tableau of husband and wife, with more specific events—how Solomon came to his situation in 1841, the beatings he received to try to erase his sense of self (The most violent scenes in the film are shot as one-takes, exponentially increasing their effect), the long trip to Louisiana on a steamboat in and after which characters who seem vital to the story disappear without any warning, and the way a slave trader (Paul Giamatti) manhandles and speaks of human beings as if they were cattle.

Events bleed together as Solomon encounters three very different masters over the course of his time in slavery. The first is Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a genteel man who is impressed with Solomon's talents (There's a debate about Ford's nature that is essentially one between moral relativism and certitude; the person on the right side of the argument is proven right through a heartless dismissal). He even gives Solomon a present of a violin, which he insists will bring both of them pleasure for years to come. The mention of the timeframe is the first of multiple times that Solomon's hope for freedom is shattered.

On Ford's planation is a carpenter named Tibeats (Paul Dano), who resents Solomon's independence and the favor Ford shows him. He is a spiteful little creature who plans excuses to show his authority. When Solomon challenges him, the confrontation leads to an attempted lynching that results in a harrowing dance of survival as Solomon attempts to keep his toes on the ground, lest the noose strangle him. He escapes another lynching in the middle of the woods, but McQueen keeps the camera on Solomon's face in the process, ensuring that we once again take note that the protagonist is the exemption.

The third is Epps (Michael Fassbander) who possesses only the appearance of Ford's gentility, Tibeat's nastiness, and a kind of demented malice that is entirely his own. He rules over his estate with an accountant's brain (Any slave that does not meet the daily quota of cotton is whipped) and a childish need to be right. He and his wife (Sarah Paulson) treat their slaves as pawns in a long-standing feud, and in the film's most distressing scene, Solomon is forced to enact Epps' punishment on his favored Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), just to prove to his wife that he has no sympathy for any of them.

Through these men, we see the range of degradation—from insidious politeness to abject inhumanity. The toll on those enslaved is incalculable, and even with McQueen's deft rendering of the effects on these men and women, there are still mysteries buried deep within the characters (When Solomon finally sings, is it out of acceptance or resilience?). The greatest evidence of the extent of the understanding 12 Years a Slave has of its subject is the film's recognition that some things cannot be fully understood.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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