|Fassbinder and Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave.|
«««« 12 Years a Slave. Written by John Ridley, based on the memoir by Solomon Northup. Directed by Steve McQueen. At selected theaters.
There are a lot of things Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave isn't. It isn't self-consciously hip, like Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained. In its unstinting portrayal of plantation slavery in the southern US, it isn't easy to watch. Yet despite the multiple scourgings, hangings, rapes and other indignities it portrays, it never feels exploitative, never indulges in Gibsonian pleasure of self-flagellation. What it is, in fact, is the most compelling treatment of its subject since Roots---and maybe longer.
The "hard to watch" part deserves emphasizing. Based faithfully on the real-life memoir of Solomon Northup, a free black from Saratoga, New York, Slave withholds none of the horror as it shows the enterprise of human trafficking that operated in the antebellum period. Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is an educated family man, and a talented musician, who is lured to Washington D.C. in 1841 on the promise of a job. After a night of hard drinking, he wakes up in chains. Protesting that he is a free man, he is savagely beaten, and informed that he is an escaped slave from Georgia. His past is erased, and his name changed. Before long he's smuggled out of Washington into the deepest of the Deep South, where he languishes as a field slave for a dozen years.
One of the film's most trenchant images, among many, is of Northup crying for help from a basement cell as McQueen's camera rises to reveal the incomplete U.S. Capitol building. There, in one shot, is the essence of what became Martin Luther King's message more than a century later: that slavery was not just immoral, but a standing indictment of a nation that failed too long to uphold its own ideals.
Nigerian-descended Briton Ejiofor (Children of Men, Redbelt) is terrific as a man too busy holding together the tatters of his dignity to think about vengeance. At no point does he not command the screen, even in the presence of a powerhouse cast that includes Michael Fassbinder, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch and Brad Pitt. No doubt his performance will make him a major star. Also notable is Lupita Nyong'o's performance as Patsey, as a girl who discovers the consequences of being the object her master's guilty desires. To Northup's enduring stoicism, Nyong'o is a bare nerve, delighting in her little privileges as strongly as she suffers their costs.
But make no mistake: the real revelation here is the British-born McQueen. His best-known previous work, 2011's Shame, had its moments, but gave no hint of what he was capable of. From start to finish, 12 Years is the work of a director in complete control, tightening his hold on his audience like Solomon Northup tightening the strings on his violin. To perpetuate the metaphor, the film feels like a recital by a master soloist, staged in a spare room for just a small audience. Over 133 minutes, it unfolds with the logic of a terrible theorem, never flinching from the results. By the time Pitt appears, playing an abolitionist who excoriates Fassbender on the abomination of human slavery, it feels not like a moralistic lecture from another century, but a long-denied affirmation that 2 plus 2 does, in fact, equal 4.
Northup's book was one of the better-known slave memoirs of the 19th century, though its impact tends to be overshadowed today by Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin. Picking apart the movie's portrayal of slavery would be hard, given that Northup's experience was well-attested. Still, it is interesting that in the scene where Paul Giamatti's character sells Solomon to his first "master", Northup is sold for a price of $500, a considerable sum at the time that would be equivalent to about $12,000 today. Rational folks making a $12,000 investment today—or back then—rarely throw such serious money away on frivolous cruelties. It's for that reason that the film is almost compelled to portray Northup's last "owner", Fassbender's Edwin Epps, as a drunken lecher and sadist.
No doubt there were slave owners who were insane. But in a way, this is letting the institution of slavery off too easily. The deeper damage of all those generations of slavery was not done by the occasional sociopathic master, but by the regular, everyday institutionalization of human suffering. It wasn't necessarily the whippings, but the slow wearing-down of dignity. Every night a slave went to sleep in bondage, thankful to have his belly full of his owner's food, was its own kind of beat-down.
But these are quibbles. 12 Years a Slave may well count as the definitive movie about its subject for a long time. For an institution with such a consequential legacy, that's saying a lot.
© 2013 Nicholas Nicastro