12 Years a Slave is a movie of incredible power. It not only speaks truth to power and depicts an important time in our history, but it does this while being extremely emotional and artistic at the same time. Rarely does a movie get all aspects of film making as right as this one does. This is not a film that gets by on good intentions. It is a tour de force for all involved.
The movie follows the story of Solomon Northup, a person who was a free black in the pre Civl War North. He is captured by fugitive slavers and taken down south under false pretenses. It certain ways it is almost like the Inferno section of The Divine Comedy as it charts the lead character’s descent into hell. We watch as Solomon goes further and further and further down the dark rabbit hole of American slavery.
I don’t believe a movie is important just because it tackles a serious subject matter. There are plenty of made for TV movies and lesser Hollywood films that take on controversial subjects with often forgettable results. Often these movies inform us, but many of them do not move us. In order for something to stay with a viewer it has to have a certain kind of poetic truth, more than the just the mere representation of facts.
The direction by Steve McQueen is the work of a true master. The same can be said by the cinematography of Sean Bobbit. The camera lingers in all of the right places, adding meaning and pulling ideas out of the story. There are landscape shots that add a surreal fever dream quality to certain scenes. There is a scene that focuses on the slaves singing. For a moment I was left thinking about the power of music to help one transcend suffering on this earth. And yet, scenes like this are done without hitting you over the head. The score is almost minimal. Much of the powerful emotions of the film are communicated by the powerful performances of the actors and by what the camera chooses to linger on. Often films will try to manipulate you with their score. I found myself moved almost to tears several times just by the images onscreen.
Every actor in this film brings their A game. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyoung’o, as Solomon Northup and the female slave Patsey, are able to convey complex emotions often with nothing more than the expressions on their face. Also, none of the white actors in the film allow their characters slip into caricature. Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson always make it feel, no matter how horrible their deeds as slaveowners are, that you are watching the actions of complicated human beings.
This movie is not only a deeply moving historical drama, but it is also as horrific as any horror movie, and even features certain scenes of jet black comedy. Yet it does all this while never letting you forget that as strange and as horrible as the scenes in the film are, that this is anything other than another day in our history. This is not the work of strange beasts who have no relation to our present, but the day to day lives of many of our American ancestors. It does not simply condemn the past, but also makes us aware that the deeds of these people are very much alive in our modern world. In fact there are times when Fassbender’s character sounds quite a lot like modern day racists. He simply had the legal permission to cary out his worst impulses.
Anyone that thinks this movie is depicting worst case scenarios simply hasn’t read enough history. I am reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. William H. Seward, a member of Lincoln’s cabinet, makes a trip down south and is completely disgusted by the day to day depravity of the South at that time. He sees a group of black children being led in shackles while being whipped. Children! And again at the time this was nothing unique, but just another day in America.
When I mentioned that there were scenes of dark comedy, I meant that the film features moments where the absurdity of human behavior comes to the forefront. Several times Fassbender’s Edwin Epps character commits horrible acts while being drunk, and then quickly justifies his acts by bringing up the Bible. Hannah Arendt once said that, “the horrible can be not only ludicrous but outright funny.” We recognize the truth in this behavior, in that even in our modern world many people justify their behavior through religion. Because this behavior is absurd, to anyone that has a brain, it becomes ridiculous, but it is no less true or horrific for being so.
This movie, which features so many scenes of horrific depravity, is also full of compassion. The dignity for which Solomon bears his suffering is inspiring. Brad Pitt also plays a character later on in the film that reminds the viewer that, even during times like these, the world is full of good people as well.
If this movie just relayed the message that slavery is bad it would be bringing nothing new to the table. However, by infusing this story with poetic truth, the filmmakers have made a film that allow us to reflect on our present. While watching the film I couldn’t help but think that not only was this a story of where we came from, but so much that is in the film is still with us, even if it is often just below the surface. I think if you not only want to understand our past, but also our present, this film is a must see.