When 12 Years a Slave played at the Toronto International Film Festival last month, there were reports of walkouts during screenings, even among the press. It wasn’t because the movie was bad. Far from it. People walked out because 12 Years a Slave was so extreme in a few scenes that it overwhelmed certain audience members.
Watching 12 Years a Slave myself, I was struck by an overwhelming sense of repulsion and shame that pervades the film. The melancholic spell was broken every now and then by small yet dashed hopes and relentless moments of violence and degradation. One scene in question — the one that probably caused the walkouts — was one of the most powerful and brutal things I’ve seen in a long while. This wasn’t the absurd masochism of The Passion of the Christ. Director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) and his actors transcend mere violence and find in it a miserable, fragile truth.
Had I been watching 12 Years a Slave at home, I would have paused the film after that scene so I could sob uncontrollably for five or six minutes. That would have helped me regain my composure. Instead, I just clamped a hand to my mouth and silently wept there in my seat.
[This review originally ran as part of our 2013 New York Film Festival coverage. It has been reposted to coincide with the theatrical release of the film.]
12 Years a Slave
Director: Steve McQueen
Release Date: October 18th, 2013
At the center of 12 Years a Slave is Solomon Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. He’s conned, kidnapped, and taken into slavery in sequences that feel like Kafka rather than real life. We’re first introduced to him in the midst of his bondage, but the film doubles back to recount how he arrived in this situation. McQueen does some fascinating jumps through time early in the film as a means of acquainting the audience with Northup’s idyllic life in Saratoga Springs, NY, melding recollection and exposition through images and scenes rather than through overt dialogue. When Solomon is captured and taken, the tenor of the film changes dramatically, and yet the whole film is shot with a consistently uncanny elegance.
Even though 12 Years a Slave is an adaptation of Northup’s 1853 memoir of the same name, there’s something eerie and otherworldly about the film. I think it has less to do with the evocation of the era and more to do with the film’s evocation of Solomon’s dread and the perils of spiritual decline. The Spanish moss has a menace to it, as does the scream of cicadas. The riverboat ride that transports Solomon from Washington DC to the South is like being ferried to perdition. We see Michael K. Williams on this boat in chains and with his face harnessed in something like a mix of manacles, muzzle, and bondage gear. The slave selling sequence has the feel of a nightmare in how casually people are treated like chattel. I couldn’t help but read the film as a sort of surreal descent into the bleakest places of the nation’s soul.
A fair amount has been made of a UK director helming a film about American slavery. (Nevermind that the film’s screenwriter, John Ridley, is American.) I think McQueen, through a mix of national distance and close human concern, depicts the pre-Civil War south as a kind of subtly alien hellscape. He’s able to get beyond whatever received cliches a native culture may have provided him and instead gets into the core human emotions that have resonance beyond national borders and cultural identities. It’s a film about American slavery, yes, but a country of origin is not an impediment to exploring universal experiences of human suffering and human dignity.
12 Years a Slave digs deep into what it means to be human and what it means to have that humanity debased, degraded, and stripped away mercilessly. The violence isn’t just physical and verbal, however, it even becomes philosophical and existential. Solomon’s captors refer to him as Platt and say he’s a runaway slave. No longer is he a violinist or a well-regarded member of a community; no longer do a wife and family have meaning. Solomon notes an important distinction when he says that he doesn’t just want to survive but to live. He used to live as a person, but all he’ll manage as a slave is survival. The latter is still a kind of life, but how long is it possible to lead it without being totally broken?
More than the odd otherworldliness of the film, 12 Years a Slave is driven by sadness and helplessness. The scene I mentioned at the beginning of this review was one that affected me the strongest, but I wound up crying through at least a quarter of the film since it strikes such a melancholy chord. Much of it is thanks to the performances, especially Ejiofor. There’s a persistent worry etched in his brow, and a growing woe in his eyes as he learns to be suspicious of everyone, even those who may seem sympathetic to him. Where there once was joy and pride, there’s only a kind of raw imperative to exist in solitude. There are two slave women whose narratives are also an important part of the film’s journey through hopelessness. There’s Adepero Oduye as Eliza, a mother trying to hold her family together, and later there’s Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey, who’s left in an untenable situation that would make most succumb to despair. Both actresses and characters are memorable in their own depictions of desperation.
There are many faces of evil in the film. Paul Dano is maybe the most caricature-like as a screaming Southern racist. His histrionics have improved on those displayed in There Will Be Blood, and one of his early scenes involves a song sung to slaves that’s as absolutely chilling as it is surreal — it’s almost funny how over-the-top hateful it is. The ditty plays as the backing track to a montage on the slave routine and the very absurdity of slavery. Benedict Cumberbatch is a kind man for a slaveowner but is ultimately evil in his human disregard. The whole of his character’s heart is found not in a kind gesture to Solomon but in an extended act of indifference.
In the deepest pit of this American hell, there is Master Edwin Epps played by Michael Fassbender. The man is absolutely demented, and it doesn’t help that he thinks the Lord’s on his side. Epps wakes up his slaves for dance parties, he abuses them at his will, and he lusts after Patsey even though he’s ashamed to admit it. His wife Mary, played by Sarah Paulson, is a ruthless and capricious belle full of venom, and she might be just as evil as her husband. What makes both of them so frightening is a constant unease. Acts of rabid, wanton cruelty can happen any minute they’re around. Whenever Solomon may have an inkling of hope, betrayals and the lash are a reminder of how fleeting this hope can be.
It’s strange what keeps hope alive. There’s an old idea (and maybe a misinterpreted one) that hell is where God is absent, and yet there seems to be hope anywhere that there’s still some sort of life, even if it’s just survival. Solomon and his fellow slaves share in a deep faith that keeps them going even though their circumstances ought to call into question the very existence of a merciful and all-loving deity. When there seems little chance for escape, when all hope seems lost, Solomon joins in a slave song in one of the film’s most memorable moments. It’s not about major crescendos of emotion, but rather a quietly observed change in Solomon during the scene and in the story. The song could have gone on minutes more and it would have been a bright and welcome reprieve from the sheer despair of the film.
12 Years a Slave is such an emotionally draining movie. When I stepped out of the theater, I couldn’t process much of what I’d seen intellectually because I was still too attached to it emotionally and viscerally. I still am about 24 hours later. I might be next week. This is profoundly affecting, deeply moving cinema, and within it, most importantly, is an undeniable heart that’s beating full of life.