12 Years a Slave doesn’t flinch on the brutality but speaks volumes on the human spirit
’12 Years a Slave’ is harrowing, intense, and hard to watch, but it’s incredibly impressive in nearly every aspect.
Despite the love Americans have for their country and its history, there is always that lingering shame of our terrible past. Among all the awful things done to build the nation, it is difficult to argue that anything was as soul-crushing or evil as legalized human slavery. It’s something that has come up quite a bit in recent times; last year had two very different looks at slavery, both from a “justice” perspective. Django Unchained was the over-the-top, hyper-violent and borderline cartoonish spirit of vengeance against slave owners, while Lincoln was the overly dramatized and streamlined legal thriller “based on real history” variant. But the lives of real slaves tended not to have such happy or even bittersweet endings — the exceptions stand out because they show an important truth: even in the darkest times, there is still hope.
12 Years a Slave from critically lauded director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) is the adaptation of a real life story — the autobiography released in 1853 of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. This movie presents a bleak, unflinching portrayal of slavery and the unconscious, highly ingrained racism that was an accepted part of American life, particularly in the South. Solomon was an educated family man in upstate New York and an accomplished violinist, before he was deceived and kidnapped, smuggled out of Washington DC and sold to plantation owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) in Louisiana. But after Solomon defends himself against a vitriolically racist carpenter (Paul Dano), the “decent for a slave owner” Ford sells Solomon to the cruel and troubled plantation owner Edwin Epps, played by Michael Fassbender. Solomon struggles against his own humanity, balancing his internal core of pride and decency against the will to survive, both physically brutalized and forced to brutalize others. He is utterly alone, unable to trust a soul, or so he thinks. And Epps has his own demons, obsessed with one of his slaves, a young girl named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). He is a man lost and cruel, surrounded by hatred and immersed in it.
This movie has already been praised nearly universally, but despite that, this movie is not perfect, because the story it represents is not perfect. There is no clear or obvious story arc, no act or resolution of transcendent catharsis. Instead, life is chaotic and muddled. Epps is not a villain understood; his motivations and background are equally unclear and confusing, because nobody truly knows what drove him. The pacing can be slow at times, and the brutality skirts the edge of exploitative. It is important then to realize that there is no “story” here, just a struggle. But once that is understood, the not-so-radical view on humanity can come to the surface. One thing that cannot be argued here is the sheer brilliance of the acting. Chiwetel Ejiofor is phenomenal as he falls into the abyss, while all supporting roles are equally excellent. Attention must also be paid to Michael Fassbender, revealing much more than the minimally written script could ever convey, and the intensely personal performance of Lupita Nyong’o as the slave without hope at all.
This is not an easy movie to see, but it is a beautiful one, despite its hardness, although the brutal imagery is tempered by an extremely careful filter of context. There’s no doubt many will attack this movie as “Oscar bait,” and it does contain many of the elements that often get that sort of label. But I found myself emotionally invested by the end despite some of the theatrics, and although the revelation that people were really, really racist in 19th century southern USA is not exactly news, sometimes we might need the reminder of how far the country has come. That’s how I prefer to view this movie — that despite horror and hardship, ignorance and insanity, there was still the barest possibility of hope and humanity.