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Film Review: 12 Years A Slave

Monday 27 January 2014

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To tell you the truth I’ve been a little afraid of starting this review. Something to do with the subject matter of the film, as well as its overwhelming critical support, has kept me away from the keyboard. But since ‘12 Years A Slave’ continues to hold on near the top of the UK Box Office, I can’t delay any further. It’s a serious movie that demands a serious response.

Or perhaps instead, it demands a deferential response. That’s part of the problem: deference gets in the way of my task. But it’s hard to know how else to approach the film. I appreciate Steve McQueen as a director and a stylist, and was very impressed with ‘Shame’ back in 2011. Michael Fassbender is always a joy to watch too, and so the follow-up was going to be an exciting prospect regardless of its subject matter. But since ‘12 Years A Slave’ was announced over two years ago, the rumours accumulated that it was looking set to be the first serious study of slavery in cinematic history. And since, like most people, I can only countenance the raw, appalling fact of institutionalised African-American slavery with total incomprehension – perhaps even detachment at the alienating depths of its cruelty – I wondered exactly how the film would attempt to draw me in to its subject.

To the extent that huge and widespread historical atrocities have entered the public consciousness at all – and let’s be honest, many have not – it’s the sheer scale, the numbers involved, that can have a dehumanising effect upon their collective ‘memories’. Who alive today can fully grasp the extent, the idea even, of American slavery? The challenge facing ‘12 Years A Slave’ is to re-humanise a distant, eternally damning truth that’s so far beyond negotiation that it might as well be cast as the new Genesis story of Western modernity.

This is a task that ‘Django Unchained’ never assumed the responsibility for: as an exercise in self-conscious exploitation, it volunteers to serve different purposes. Translating slavery through Tarantino’s trademark populist film language, the subject was made digestible through familiar tropes. The intimidating, sacred fact of slavery had condescended to the register of pulp fiction. There’s nothing ignoble about that, as all genre fans will know, but ‘12 Years A Slave’ sets itself much loftier goals for being in earnest.

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Django Unchained. Photograph: Columbia Pictures/Entertainment Pictures/Zuma/Eyevine

Perhaps surprisingly, all this preambling doesn’t lead up to me announcing my divergence from the popular consensus. It’s a good film – really really fucking good, in fact. Its financial success has made it ‘mainstream’ by default, but a broadening of appeal in narrative terms is evident throughout, especially in comparison with ‘Shame’, a film where so much seemed to hinge upon muted and indistinct moments. I suspect this is largely due to the source material, as 19th Century novels and memoirs tend to be fastidiously linear and explanatory. But it also feels like a deliberate choice by McQueen and his screenwriter John Ridley to match the scope of the story (and the quiet dignity of its central character) with confident pacing, strongly communicative individual scenes and a script that flirts with literariness while still feeling very natural.

‘12 Years A Slave’ balances its ideas and elements extremely well. Watching it was, for me, a rare experience – a gradual realisation that a piece of work has both aimed for and achieved a higher standard. It’s not just certain elements that are superior, it’s the entire thing: better than the director’s (and most of the actors’) previous work, and better than the rest of the films in cinemas right now. The last time I experienced a similar realisation was when I saw ‘There Will Be Blood’.

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a family man and musician from New York state who is drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery in place of a runaway from Georgia. He is viciously beaten with a paddle, assigned the runaway’s name and carted off to the Deep South, where he initially gets ‘lucky’ with a relatively lenient master, before a violent confrontation with a white farmhand forces him to leave for another plantation. This second farm is owned by a volatile drunk named Epps (Michael Fassbender), who interprets and preaches Bible verses as divine justification for slavery, and cannot subdue his vindictive and jealous wife as she objects to his obsession with a slave named Patsey.

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Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in ’12 Years A Slave’

This is but a bare plot outline that doesn’t give too much away; besides, we all know that Northup survived the ordeal and wrote his memoirs. What makes the film most powerful can’t be given away by words – it’s the authenticity of the pre-Civil War country, the long lingering threat of brutality that hangs in the palpable heat of thick Georgian air. The huge plantation owners’ mansions stand idyllically upon green, half-wild Southern territories, as the slaves labour away in sorry-looking huddles or spread out evenly over cotton fields.

McQueen and his cinematographer Sean Bobbitt don’t particularly beautify the settings of this terrible way of life, but neither do they attempt to darken the palette to match the tone and subject. Instead, what’s colouring each shot is the potency and tension of the story itself. In a reversal of the typical psychological associations of town and country, it’s the urban settings that feel freer, more open, more protected (and protective): the daytime greens and lamp-lit nights of the South offer only remoteness and loss. In a strange way, ‘12 Years a Slave’ has something in common with controversial 1970s classics like ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ and ‘Stray Dogs’ – films that convey a very rural sense of dread.

McQueen truly had his pick of actors for this film. The supporting cast is a pretty even mix of Super-celebrities, beloved character actors, up-and-coming stars and TV drama heavy-hitters. Most are put to effective use, especially Benedict Cumberbatch as Ford, and Pauls Dano and Giamatti. (It’s a shock to see the latter play such a repellent character.) But Michael K Williams is wasted in a tiny role – surely such a distinctive actor might have had a character written especially for him – and Brad Pitt remains Brad Pitt, no matter how much the story calmly and repeatedly insists he is someone else. And while much deserved praise has been poured on Lupita Nyong’o for her performance as Patsey, some mention must go to Adepero Oduye as Eliza, the woman who is kidnapped sold to Ford alongside Northup, being forcibly separated from her own two children in the process. Her inability (or refusal) to stop crying for her missing children forces a passionate confrontation with Northup; the two air their differences about the instincts of endurance and self-preservation. It’s a fantastic moment: acting and screenwriting matched at the highest level.

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Michael Fassbender as Epps and Sarah Paulson as Mary in ’12 Years A Slave’

It’s easy to be overwhelmed, humbled, repulsed, and even shamed by ‘12 Years A Slave’, with many viewers proclaiming certain sections almost impossible to sit through. I personally didn’t feel the need to turn away at any point, and I think these kinds of comments do the film’s narrative and visual craft a disservice. But more importantly than that, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be too distracted by the political heft of the subject, or we might start believing that ‘12 Years A Slave’ is the ultimate ‘slave’s narrative’. It isn’t: Northup is himself an outsider within the slave experience. His intelligence and cultivation is of a very ‘white’ kind, by which I mean the kind permitted and celebrated by white society in the North. The Southern slaves, with whom he shares skin colour and toil and very little else, have their own society – one built upon the constant endurance of degradation.

McQueen emphasises this on as many levels as he can without letting it overwhelm the story or undermine Northup as the protagonist, pointing out that this autobiography has the arc of a fairy tale, and the injustice that has been done to him is not the same as that which has been done to previous and subsequent generations of Southern black slaves. While in the North, Solomon is an ordinary man, but transposed into slave society he becomes “an extraordinary nigger”, and McQueen and Ridley communicate this limbo state he has fallen into with great nuance. Even in group shots with the rest of the slaves, in identical clothing, working identical tasks, Northup has the posture and poise of a town man. Ejiofor was indeed cast for this purpose: in interviews McQueen has stated that he was looking for an actor with the cultivated air of Sidney Poitier, to emphasise the character’s dislocation.

While it’s true that this dislocation is dealt with in the film’s narrative, it’s still possible to argue that the film is presenting an outsider’s perspective, despite the fact that Northup is subject to the whip as much as any other slave. But only viewers with extreme cases of political paranoia could ever suggest that ‘12 Years A Slave’ isn’t quite real enough, or is too artfully shot for its subject matter. Or, indeed, is mere torture porn masquerading as arthouse filmmaking. And believe it or not, a few people have registered such complaints – a very very few. I don’t often make such strong statements, but here goes: these objections are nonsense. It’s as skilfully crafted as it is historically significant. Audiences will be reeling from it for quite some time, and I don’t mean months, I mean decades.

Words: David Hamilton-Smith