Though slavery, and by extension, race, has been the single-most vexing problem faced by the United States in its history, the movies have never really dealt with the subject head on. There was the moonlight and magnolia romanticism of Gone With the Wind, the tawdriness of Mandingo, and the cartoonishness of Django Unchained. It was really only television, with dramas like Roots, that lifted the lid on the unsavory and inhumane nature of the “peculiar institution.”
12 Years a Slave is really the first mainstream film to tackle slavery head on. It dispenses with any apologies to the Southern mentality, and backhands the small and ignorant but vocal minority that insists slavery wasn’t so bad. In addition to the beatings, the rapes, the forced separation of families, and the back-breaking work, 12 Years a Slave highlights the worst part of it–the dehumanization.
Director Steve McQueen, who is black but British, brings an interesting perspective to this uniquely American problem. Wanting to make a film about slavery, his wife told him about the narrative of a man named Solomon Northrup, who was born a free black man, but was kidnapped and sold into slavery. This story gives it a different view than many slave tales, such as Roots–this man was free, and living a good life, to boot. Therefore, an audience of people taking their freedom for granted can identify with him, regardless of race. Everyone can empathize with the horror of waking from a drugged stupor in chains.
Northrup, played with fierceness by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is a violinist in Saratoga, New York in 1841. The place seems an integrated paradise, as Northrup can live and shop where he wants, and white citizens have no problem shaking his hand. A pair of strangers offer him a job with a circus, and lure him to Washington, D.C., (slavery was not abolished there until 1862). He is drugged and sold to slavers, and ends up on a boat to New Orleans. Being free all his life, he is amazed at this turn of events, but of course has no papers to prove his freedom and is beaten for his troubles.
Initially he is bought by a Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), along with a woman (Adepe Oduye) who is separated from her children, and is continually bereft. Cumberbatch is relatively kind, and actually values Northrup’s advice on things, which earns him the enmity of a carpenter (Paul Dano). This will lead to him being sold to Edwin Epps, who is not only evil, but crazy.
As played by Michael Fassbender, Epps is one of the more vivid villains in recent movie history. I can’t quite wrap my mind around the character–we all hear about the banality of evil, but Fassbender is anything but banal. He is taken with waking up the slaves and making them dance for him, like trained animals. Fassbender is remarkably intense, but the character is almost too big for the film.
His most prized possession (and to him, they are possessions) is Patsy (Lupita Nyong’O) who can, amazingly, pick 500 pounds of cotton a day, more than double that of the men. Fassbender also rapes her on a continuous basis. His wife, Sarah Paulson, hates that her husband does this so blatantly, but he tells Paulson quite plainly that he would sooner give her up than Patsy.
Northrup has to lie low–revealing he is literate or a free man would probably earn a death sentence. He does what he can to keep his head down, but his entire existence becomes an increasingly vexing charade. Fassbender has suspicions–in fact, it’s kind of a plot problem that he wouldn’t have killed Northrup already, and in fact, maybe he doesn’t only because it would be money down the drain.
12 Years a Slave covers many of the horrors and quirks of slavery. The biggest moment in the film is when Patsy is brutally flogged, a scene that many of the hardest hearts would have trouble absorbing. There is also the slave trader (Paul Giamatti) who shows off his slaves like horses (some of them nude), and has no problem selling a mother away from her children. “My sentimentality extends the length of a coin,” he says. We also see the black slave owner (Alfre Woodard), and a white man who is forced to work and live alongside slaves.
This is a terrific film, if not an easy one to watch. But, I do have my reservations. For one thing, the pacing is erratic. The film begins in media res and then reverts to flashback, but the moment chosen is not a particularly pivotal one, and by establishing Northrup as a slave from the get-go, I think it robs some of the impact of his kidnapping. Also, aside from the title, we have no sense of time passing.
And then there’s Brad Pitt. Late in the film he appears in a glorified cameo, and to reveal more would spoil. But suffice it to say that the role does not deviate from Pitt’s image both as a superstar and a liberal do-gooder. It’s as if he arrived from the future (actually, in the film he comes from Canada). I think the role would have been far better suited to an unknown actor, and Pitt would have been more interesting in the role of a white man who betrays Northrup.
Still, this is quibbling. 12 Years a Slave is a fine film, one of the best of the year.
My grade for 12 Years a Slave: A-.