I took time to digest this film because ‘Essential cinema’ is the phrase that has been much brandied about in the past few months. When you tell me “essential”, I think of The Godfather, Citizen Kane, Vertigo, Pulp Fiction, anything by Scorsese and Spielberg’s earlier work. As David Bordwell put it, films that are innovative in ‘subject matter, style, formal strategy and themes’. To be essential to cinema a film must be in at least one of these categories.
Watching 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen) for yourself is the only way you understand how important it is on a cultural scale. Combined with a director whose reputation is founded upon painting vivid pictures and dealing with unrelenting subject matter, the consequences are one of, if not the, most powerful depictions of America’s immortal sin. Based on an 1856 memoir, it tells the story of Solomon Northup. Born a free Negro, his freedom is horrifically ripped away from his as he’s enticed with a job offer and kidnapped before being sold into slavery. Northup’s struggle is fed to us without a sweetener; McQueen forces us to become involved with the pain, degradation and humiliation blacks faced in the 19th century.
McQueen himself is no stranger to controversial subjects. This is the man who directed Shame, a film about a man’s struggle with sex addiction. McQueen is an artist by trade so it’s no surprise he successfully attempts to show us something so vivid and unflinching in its representation (obviously nothing can truly present slavery but you get the point). I say this now; not a film you can watch twice. But as I watched the savage whippings handed to Northup, I felt a need to watch it through to the end, as though an important moment was happening that I had to see.
An element which made this film even more stomach-unsettling was the masterful, bold acting on display. Chiwitel Ejiofor’s expertly displays a man who is intelligent, morally upright and knows slavery is one of the basest sins mankind has committed to itself. But he carefully balances that with the pain of a man who hasn’t only had his freedom ripped from him, but also his humanity. It’s in the long take close ups where Northup says very little do we see the damage such unimaginable circumstances has done to him. When a fellow slave berates him for defending his owners, “To SURVIVE!” is the logic he screams. But his words are masterfully betrayed by the pain he tries to hide on his face. After all, how many times have our voices said things our hearts don’t really believe? This subtlety is the reason Ejiofor will walk away with the Best Actor prize at the Oscars.
Not to downgrade McQueen’s effect of course. The director’s patient, unwavering direction forces us to take in the horrors which Northup and the other slaves face. Whether it’s watching Northup be savagely lashed or forced to dance with other slaves in the middle of the night, McQueen takes his time with everything; making the experience as shocking for us as it is debasing for the slaves on screen.
Even more dehumanizing is how hopeless escape and fairness seem. When Northup (renamed Platt) defends himself against an overseer on William Ford’s (a friendlier slave owner adequately played by Benedict Cumberbatch) plantation he’s almost lynched as a consequence. When a woman tries to engage him sexually, her advances only succeed in reminding them how pathetic their attempts at indulgence seem. McQueen is telling us what we already know: it was utter despair for these slaves, something 21st century men and women will never comprehend. But that doesn’t make America’s history any less dehumanizing.
Edwin Epps (irrepressibly played by Michael Fassbender) is Northup‘s next slave owner and he is far more debauched than any of the villains we’ve met so far. He is as vicious as he is fascinating; with an unmasked hatred of blacks and an obsession so twisted he sexually abuses his most valuable slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). Fassbender’s role tells us much about slavery; he rouses them up in the middle of the night to dance for his mistress and he recites Scripture when his treatment of slaves is questioned by Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt, who helped secure funding for the film), who plays a pivotal role in the film’s ending.
12 Years a Slave is a film that is significant because it is trying to present us with something that hasn’t been shown to us in a way as naked, as solemn as this before. And although the plot presides over an extraordinary circumstance such as Northup’s, its subject matter and the way it’s shown is essential. I feel everyone should go to watch this movie because the motion picture is the most accessible way to get important information across. And this is as important as it gets.