12 Years a Slave (2013)
Written by John Ridley
Directed by Steve McQueen
In 1841, freeman Solomon Northrup, a resident of Saratoga Springs, New York was tricked by two white men into joining them as a traveling violinist. With his wife and children away for work for three weeks, Northrup sees an excellent opportunity to make a little money on the side and travel. Instead, his companions drug the man and sell him to a slave ring. A journey begins that brings Northrup to New Orleans and into the ownership of a plantation owner where our protagonist experiences just a taste of the hell that his life will become. From there he ends up at the cotton plantation of Epps, a drunkard and a brute who sexually abuses one slave in particular, Patsey. Northrup tries to keep his hope alive while watching those around him become brutalized and eventually murdered in some instances. Eventually, he will be free again but forever changed, terrors and evils scarred into his mind that he will never forget.
With this movie, I have seen all of Steve McQueen’s feature film work to date (Hunger, Shame, and Widows being the other three). My big take away when I look at this body of work is that McQueen is very particular about what he wants from a film, that he takes his time crafting a film, and he doesn’t have a specific style of filmmaking. The common threads that link his movies are thematic, not necessarily technical. Hunger shares themes of brutalization and steadfastness with 12 Years, Shame has a privileged protagonist who is pulled down into his lowest point, and Widows is filled with conversations about American power structures of oppression. McQueen is not interested in the perfect, flawless protagonist and trusts his audience can handle a main character that is not always empathic towards others, who acts selfishly.
There is a debate over films that attempt to tell the story of the Holocaust that I suspect movies about slavery should also be a part of. Movies are a simulacrum of the experience, something very few surviving Jewish people can relate with and slavery is an experience no one alive can do similarly. If you are making movies about the days of the Jim Crow south, then we do have more living citizens who have a personal connection to that experience and can be a core part of the conversation and education around that era. You also risk becoming exploitative when you make a film about the Holocaust or slavery. There is an inclination from some directors to veer into maudlin sentiment which clouds the harsh reality of what transpired in our country for centuries.
There are moments where an audience could think McQueen was exploitative, but I think he is stylistic, both to heighten the horror but create a psychological distance between the viewer and full trauma of the experience. We see multiple instances of black bodies being torn apart by inhuman slave owners and masters, McQueen doesn’t hide the strips of bloodied meat that hand from their backs and the permanent scars. However, he also employs a Steadicam which creates a floating dreamlike tone to many of these scenes. I recall a moment where Northrup is allowed to walk to town by himself to purchase items from the general store and sees an opportunity to escape. As he wanders through the woods, he happens upon a lynching in progress, likely two runaway slaves. The white man overseeing the murder spots Northrup and makes sure he gets the message. The whole moment feels like some horror out of a fairytale, of haunted woods and an inescapable nightmare.
The final product is a film that isn’t so much about Northrup as it is a tableau of evil, taking us on the tour of obscenity through the American South. We follow the slave trade from capture to the ultimate termination of a human being, all seen through Northrup’s eyes. McQueen doesn’t hold to any of the formulas we expect from films about slavery. When we think we’ve met a “good” plantation owner, we watch him discount the truth that Northrup is a free man because he doesn’t want to upset the system in place. In a worse film, Epps and Patsey’s situation would be played as a romance against the backdrop of the horrors of slavery. McQueen says no, Patsey is viewed as an animal that is there for Epps to rape as he pleases. Oh, Epps calls her a “queen” and lauds her with praise, but only in the context of how well she picks cotton. When challenged, Epps immediately falls into referring to Patsey and the others as things that he owns, waking them in the middle of the night to dance for him while he slips further into drunkenness
I loved that McQueen made sure to show how seeped into the psyche of every person this system of dehumanization was. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Northrup as both a person of nobility but also someone very much focused on himself, which is precisely what the chattel slave system demanded. The idea that slaves would feel unity with each other was a dangerous idea and direct threat to the power structure. Ejiofor shows that his character wants to make it through this process, seeing his state of being as temporary and trying to muffle out the noise of human terror around him. A weeping woman, torn away from her children, never to see them again, bears his anger when he can’t take her cries any longer. A neighboring slave owner has “married” one of his slaves, and she enjoys the station of a white woman of the house, the subtext being that she doesn’t have free will and can’t leave if she wishes, she serves only at the pleasure of her master. Despite the audience knowing this, the woman sees no irony in the way she is now served by those who are the same as her; she ignores this incongruence because, as the system wants, she sees no unity with her brothers and sisters. Patsey begs Northrup to drown her because she doesn’t have the steel to do it herself and he chastises her for not having hope. Eventually, he is freed but rides off as Patsey’s mind shatters, and she collapses, knowing there is no one coming to reveal her as a free woman.
12 Years a Slave comes exceptionally close to being the harsh depiction of slavery audience should be forced to contemplate. My personal opinion would be that a film should be made that exceeds the capacity of our rating system yet is viewed by the culture in its entirety. The culture has continuously cushioned the privileged class from just how deep down in hell evil the age of slavery was and so many causally use events like the Obama presidency to declare that conversations about race are over. Post-racial is a state of being I don’t believe our nation will ever achieve because of how monstrous slavery and how the inaction of moderates and centrists acted as a passive enabling of the system.