“12 YEARS A SLAVE” is, without doubt, one of the best movies made in the last decade. Steve McQueen’s groundbreaking masterpiece is one that finally engages and confronts the horror of slavery (Alex Haley’s TV series, “Roots” was released in 1977). Slavery is a fundamental part of the American experience that Hollywood has consistently either shied away from or preferred to address via the noble efforts of White liberators (“Amistad”) or faux heroes (“Django Unchained”, “Mandingo” et al).
The movie offers an unflinching look at the dreadful inhumanity of slavery, a system, justified by economics (free labour – capitalism’s wet dream!) and endorsed by religion (McQueen cleverly juxtaposes readings from the bible with the scenes and sounds of brutality) that institutionalized torture and dehumanized all involved, from the slaves who were no more than beasts of the field to the slavers themselves, even the so-called benevolent ones.
The movie’s strength is that it is both a rich kaleidoscope of the moral issues at the heart of slavery, and also the very intimate and personal story of one man’s loss of and struggle to regain freedom. More than this, director McQueen’s look at slavery is so much more than an accurate portrayal of an historical period: slavery becomes a lens through which we can view much of what the US is today.
The story is an adaptation of Solomon Northup’s autobiography, one of the few books written about slavery by slaves. Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor in a towering performance) was a free man in New York, in 1841 (more than twenty years before the –US- Abolition) who was drugged, chained, shipped and sold into slavery in New Orleans. There he remained a slave – property to a series of slave owners (one Mr. Forde, Benedict Cummerbatch and Edwin Epps, Michael Fassbender)– until a chance encounter with a Canadian carpenter and abolitionist (Brad Pitt) provided his route to freedom.
McQueen does not shy away from showing us the physical and emotional brutality of the system: the slaves were treated either like animals – flogged at will or made to perform at request – or as sexual property, raped. This systemic brutality and malevolence was so much the norm that desensitized slaves would simply get on with their day in the face of torture. In one scene, Solomon is ‘toed’ (This is a punishment in which the slaves were hung by the neck and barely kept alive by their ability to just about touch the ground with their toes.) As he is left hanging there, gagging and swaying from a picturesque branch, children play in the background; others go about their chores (Abu Ghraib anyone?)
But even as he immerses us in the reality of slavery, McQueen and his composer (the extraordinary Hans Zimmer) are very restrained. He never uses the score to underlie the horror of what we’re experiencing. Here is a director who trusts his visual sense and his audience enough, that he feels no need to resort to melodrama.
At its heart, the story pits Solomon against Epps, slave against slave-master, Black against White, the powerless against the powerful. For Solomon to be free, he needed not only to regain his freedom papers, but to liberate himself from powerlessness. Or to bring this somewhat up to date, it’s what Eldridge Cleaver in “Soul on Ice”, a hundred years after Abolition, saw as the fundamental American class war: between the super-masculine menial and the omnipotent administrator. During the Antebellum years, one in four free Whites owned slaves. Nowadays 10% of all African Americans are in prison. The liberation from powerlessness (Solomon is initially rendered powerless as a precursor to being sold into slavery), informs much of the movie.
It begins with its two overriding themes, potentially routes out of powerlessness: money and deception (Money, deception? We could be talking about “The Wolf of Wall Street” here). We are introduced to Solomon as a well-regarded violinist (even then it was OK to be Black as long as you were a performer) in Saratoga, New York, preparing to send his family off for their annual three-week retreat somewhere. This is the world of a dandy-ish Solomon and a world of The North, where free men can walk unmolested on the streets (an artistic exaggeration). The movie dwells on these images –of nobility – to offer the dramatic contrast with the South where the image is essentially one of degradation. It’s a North/South, freedom/slavery divide that McQueen wants to highlight…a divide that still perhaps defines the US.
Solomon’s first act is a mercantile one: he’s engaged in purchasing a bag for his wife (later, as a slave, he’s sent with a bag to purchase merchandise for the wife of the plantation owner). There is discussion about the costs. Later he is persuaded to go to Washington (Solomon rationalizes that he’ll be gone and back before his wife and family ever found out) because he’s offered a ton of money. Of course he’s kidnapped and sold… for a ton of money. McQueen dwells on the slave auction, where the retailer, Freeman (Paul Giamatti) points out the strengths of each of his offerings, like any good salesman would. Conscience plays no part in these transactions: whether families stay together or split apart is irrelevant. It’s all about the economics of the sale.
Once sold, once his freedom – and his name – like his clothes, has been stripped away, Solomon, now called Platt, has been redefined – from free man to chattel. As chattel his worth lies exclusively on the extent of his output. In a naive attempt to ingratiate himself to his new owner, Ford, Solomon struts his intelligence to demonstrate a more economical means of transporting logs. Later as the property of Epps (to whom he is offered in repayment of a debt), he’s evaluated solely on the weight of cotton picked that day. As such, his economic value is significantly less that that of Patsy (Lupita Nyong’o in her debut role), Epps’ unwilling mistress. Solomon manages to earn some money from playing his fiddle, which he tries to parley for getting a letter out to his sponsors in the North. Beyond the intimacy of Solomon’s finances, the film observes clearly that really the only factor controlling slave owners as ruthless and sadistic as Fassbender’s Epps is not morality or God, but the reality that a dead slave is a loss of income.
Slavery? It’s the economics, stupid.
Within this system, the only real route to survival is through deception. In reality, the flight to freedom (to the North, via the underground railway), sporadic group and individual rebellions, and (in the West Indies) escape to hidden areas such as the Maroons in Jamaica, belie the image of the docile, ever compliant slave. But the image of the compliant slave is one born of deception. Solomon hides his literacy; his showy, flashy lifestyle on the North becomes internalized and secretive. He manages to steal and hide away a scrap of paper and he lies about a letter he’s written. Solomon survives because he successfully manages to inhabit his slave persona of Platt. McQueen shows us multiple other examples of subterfuge – from the flashy ‘house niggers’ content with yielding to the whims of their concupiscent masters – to those others who would turn away from helping fallen colleagues so as to avoid any charge of complicity.
This inner life of subterfuge, the feigned Uncle Tom docility, is contrasted with the outer life of degrading manual labour and physical abuse.
Here, McQueen leans on the towering performance of Ejiofor to communicate and humanize this internal/external divide…the external pacifism v the internal anger. Ejiofor’s performance sees his physical comportment shift from the free man as strutting peacock to the slave as slump-shouldered beast of burden. The only glimpse of the truth beneath the lie of his sagging shoulders is Ejiofor’s eyes that blaze with resentment, anger and determination. And McQueen let’s his actors get on with the job. The director eschews the cheap trick of quick cuts and endless reaction shots. His camera lingers on faces so that thoughts, emotions, desires have time to register as they flicker across the eyes. And at this Ejiofor is a master. In one scene, Solomon’s reaction is one of embarrassment, guilt, shame, relief and pride. Ejiofor communicates this without a word needing to be spoken.
Michael Fassbender give us an equally powerful performance…necessary to balance Ejiofor’s strong presence. As Epps, Fassbender is a loathsome being: a drunken, self-contemptuous, dangerous bully. Whenever he enters the scene, he carries with him a charge of danger and threat. It is a characterization that epitomizes the institution.
“12 Years a Slave” deserves the Oscar. But can a story about the shamefulness of slavery written to make us uneasy and made by an English director with English actors beat out the jolly romp of “American Hustle” written to reassure our moral superiority over those scumbags?
Hmm; we wait with bated breath.