I can’t promise that you’ll be able to watch this film to the end. I can’t promise that you’ll leave the cinema unscathed. But I can guarantee you’ll struggle to forget the experience of 12 years a slave.
Director, Steve McQueen presents an increasingly difficult watch that refuses to accommodate our modern palates. As we see through the eyes of captured men, we experience the institution with their wide-eyed horror and disbelief. The film destroys any notions of romanticism that could surround the era as we’re confronted with humanity at its basest form. McQueen does not shy away from brutality, but does not glorify or glamorise the violence in the way Tarantino was critiqued (Django Unchained, 2013).
The story begins with a successful black family living in New York. We meet Solomon Northup as he tucks his children into bed and lies beside his wife. He is a talented, articulate gentleman defined by his ambition. With break neck speed we watch helplessly as Solomon falls right into the hands of spineless slave traders. Within minutes we’re made to see Solomon stripped of everything he holds dear and launched into the depths of slavery.
The film is shot through a conspiratorial perspective that places us in the position of a concealed bystander. We view events through bushes, behind or around the corner of housing; intimate enough to witness but at a distinct distance. This angle puts the audience in the heart of the action, but always in the powerless periphery.
Thus, McQueen defies the typical symbols of slavery and places our perspective in a new, unflinching position. As Solomon is savagely beaten on all fours the camera is placed just beside his chin, as if we were lying there beside him. Unlike Tarantino’s slave narrative it is the actor’s reactions to the violence that tears through the audience. As the dignified and gentle Solomon yelps and whimpers in agony we are forced to gaze on his contorted features rather than his faceless back. It is this personification of the noun slave that returns humanity to the story.
Similarly, the strikingly beautiful Kenyan actress, Lupita Nyong’o, gives a heart-wrenching performance in a scene that reduced the men in the cinema to tears. As the slave Patsy is subjected to a horrific whipping the lengthy scene is filmed within arms reach of her face. We are forced to meditate on the torture of this woman; McQueen doesn’t cut away, so the audience never get a chance to catch their breath. Micheal Fassbender admitted to almost fainting during the filming of the scene. It was announced today that Lupita has been nominated for the Breakthrough Performance Award at the 25th annual Palm Springs International Film Festival.
McQueen utilises the techniques that made ‘Shame’ such an uncomfortable watch to full effect in this biopic. His signature longs shots are disturbingly raw, forcing a reluctant audience to gaze at length at the most unsettling aspects of slavery. Later, the slaves mill around the plantation undisturbed as the air is punctured by the rhythmic sounds of men being whipped. The film is a further revelation of intimacy in the most uncomfortable manner. As her master, Epps, rapes Patsey we are made to watch the whole ordeal, with the most upsetting part being her quiet acceptance. She doesn’t struggle, and appears too stunned to move when he finally abandons her.
The film breaks new ground in portraying the multiplex of complicated scenarios that sprung out of such an inhumane institution. Micheal Fassbender gives a career defining performance that should definitely earn him the ‘Best Supporting Actor’ award at the 2014 Academy Awards. He is unrecognizable as a tormented and conflicted slave owner driven by impulse and madness in equal measure. His character, Edwin Epps, provides the film with its richest sub-plot and poignant interpretation.
While it is clear that he is infatuated with his slave, he loathes himself and her for it. We watch as his psyche unravels, and he buckles beneath the pressure of his own contradictions. How can he justify his adoration for the ‘property’ that he repeatedly lusts after? This is McQueen’s clearest reading of a mutually scarred nation; despite their positions and predetermined place in society, their human instincts override what they ‘should’ feel. Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of slave master Forbes is similarly a conflicted participant in the cruelty.
British born Nigerian actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor demonstrates such a deft ability to convey so much with so little. As the main character, Solomon is not given a huge proportion of dialogue but communicates what words cannot. His performance is tinged with the kind of compassion and empathy that is touching to see. The film places the crew in positions completely opposite to reality. McQueen is a Trinidadian descendant of a slave married to an English woman, while Michael Fassbender has dated a number of African-american women, including his Shame co-star Nicole Beharie.
The credits were met with an eerily silent cinema, a silence thick with emotion; each person seemed to be coming to terms with the reality of the situation. I felt hollow, with a deep penetrating sadness that was indescribable. Solomon’s tale was the happy ending, the grim fairytale amongst absolute desolation. He is finally able to prove his identity and thus his freedom is granted by Brad Pitt’s character.
The fact is, millions more people would never see their children again, would never feel human. It is the reason the scars still resonate within the black community, it is the reason why I have the surname ‘Richardson.’ Multi-millionaire Edmund Richardson, was known as the richest man in the South and the largest cotton planter in the world, owning five cotton plantations. Perhaps my ancestors were traded through his hands, manipulated and destroyed to his merit. It is difficult to know that that wealth was bought with the blood of my ancestors.
‘This is no fiction, no exaggeration. If I have failed in anything, it has been in presenting to the reader too prominently the bright side of the picture.’
It is for his honour that this story can never be forgotten. On the 6th November 2013 the BBC reported that the History channel had confirmed the rights to remake ‘Roots’ the ground-breaking slavery series derived from Alex Haley’s novel.
With the release of Lincoln, Django Unchained and now 12 years a slave, it would seem we are finally, finally ready to acknowledge a wound too ugly to conceal. As we learn, we can’t help but grow. Perhaps one day we’ll hold a minute’s silence for the people who experienced a death of the mind, maybe we’ll wear a pin on our lapels to respect those that were denied their humanity at every turn. And maybe we will finally achieve the racial reconciliation and healing that has escaped us thus far.
In Cinema’s globally, January 24th 2014.