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Bloody, phantasmagoric, nightmarish, heart wrenching; all these words and more describe 12 Years a Slave, the latest offering from British director, Steve McQueen.  With only two other features under his belt, McQueen is already marked as an unflinching filmmaker as with his harrowing study of a man willing himself to die for a great cause in 2008’s Hunger, and his graphic examination of a sex addict in 2011’s Shame.  12 Years a Slave takes the same bold stance of polarising its audience with what McQueen means for his films to say and the way those statements are made.  To that end, in its depth and truth showing us the American slavery experience as no other film has before, 12 Years a Slave is glorious in its brutality.

In Saratoga, New York of 1841, a loving husband and father of two small children happily raises his family.  Solomon Northup is a free black man, the son of an emancipated slave who was himself born free.  He is of no special interest in his community other than as a respected and well-liked member of it.  Northup’s existence is wonderfully normal.  When his talent as a violinist is relayed to a pair of traveling showmen, after deliberating with his wife, Northup chooses to take a lark; playing around the Northeast under the amenable contract and salary offered by the two men.  His celebratory dinner will be the last one as a free man he will see for some time.  Northup rises from a drug-induced stupor in chains and enters a waking nightmare.  When he pleas for his freedom from his jailers, explaining his status, he is brutally whipped for his trouble and forced to deny who he is.  As he is transported by boat to the South, several efforts by fellow captives to escape or fight back that end in death serve to quell Solomon’s attempts to win his freedom.  While slightly muted, Solomon can’t be other than the refined, educated man he is, and at the first plantation run by the liberal-minded minister, Master Ford, Solomon’s defiance and obvious intellectual superiority towards a cruel overseer finds him dangling on the end of a noose, kept alive only by the tips of his toes.  That torture is not enough to satisfy the ignorant hired hand, and the minister must spirit Solomon off the place, handing his ownership papers over to another plantation owner with a far worse reputation.  Edwin Epps uses the Bible as his license to hold dominion over his slaves and treat them as beasts – all except one.  Solomon watches as the master obviously favours the young slave Patsey for more than her cotton picking skills.  His admiration earns her the evil eye of Epps‘s equally heartless wife, who blames the helpless Patsey for all that ails her loveless marriage.  While Solomon feels for Patsey‘s situation, he still seeks a way out of his own.  Plotting an escape while running chores for the mistress is daunted when on en route he finds himself witness to a lynching of fellow would-be runaways.  As years pass, and Solomon sees no other options, he nervously relates his tale to an itinerant contractor with abolitionist sympathies hired to build on the plantation and begs the man for help, though he knows it’s like wishing into the wind.  His spirit is finally done in when he again dangerously shares his story, trusting a white farmhand to relate a message to Saratoga and the man betrays him for his own gain.  The revelation of both Solomon’s plans and his education is practically a death sentence once Epps confronts him, but for his quick thinking and playing docile.  Solomon is finally defeated and the dozen years away from the only life he’s known to an existence lower than a farm animal takes its toll.  The once bright and intellectual man seems to only live out his years waiting to die.

It isn’t only the unblinking portrayal of the brutal violence of the antebellum South that makes 12 Years a Slave remarkable, it’s the contrast of the life of a free black man in those years before the Civil War; a subject rarely, if ever, shown on film.  The complete normalcy of Solomon Northup’s loving family life and the commonality he holds with the other members of his community make his kidnapping and torture a relatable nightmare.  By showing that idyllic time before, McQueen puts the viewer into Northup’s head as he can’t comprehend those first cruelties rendered unto him for something as trivial as the colour of his skin.  The degradation of this average man is harder to bear and the act of his imprisonment and servitude unthinkable because unlike in prior tales about slavery, it could have been anyone on any city street.  To view what Northup was and how valued, and to then witness him devolve into an obedient beast who must look away to survive and commit acts previously inconceivable to the civilised New Yorker is truly wrenching.  We see Solomon struggle against not only the sundry missteps that could put him on the wrong end of a noose, but feel his desperate fight to save his identity and his hope to see his family again.  We watch flesh flayed off of young girls who have suffered rape and young men have their necks broken for the unlikely chance of freedom.  Those moments are only slightly less harrowing than the personal hell of seeing Solomon slowly, inevitably lose his soul.  Once he’s exhausted every chance to return to his rightful place, his eventual and heartbreaking resignation to life as a slave is like watching a slow death.  The unquestioned trust he once held for white men is shattered as one after another treats him as a mindless animal.  Even the kindly minister Ford doesn’t have the courage of his conviction that slavery is an aberration to actually free any of his own slaves, nor stand up to others’ abuse of them.  Solomon’s very humanity is imperiled by his time on the plantations as he’s forced by both the psychotically jealous Epps and his wife to issue a horrible whipping to Patsey, who he vainly tried to protect.  In the utter helplessness of his situation; Solomon realises that not only can he not shield Patsey, he cannot protect himself.

McQueen’s movies are studies in silences.  He asks his audiences to read the characters' faces and body language more than what is said.  In 12 Years a Slave, this transition from the convivial conversations of Solomon Northup’s life in Saratoga, where he was listened to and respected, to the enforced muting of his voice as he is forced to hide his education and beaten for correct opinions, further enforces the decimation of his person.  The opening scenes show the enslaved Solomon in cramped sleeping quarters being mounted by a female fellow captive; their joyless rutting is but one example of how numb and hopeless the devoted husband has finally become. 

The suave and urbane Chiwetel Ejiofor easily carries Northup’s casual dignity and amiability in the scenes of his time in Saratoga and makes very real the shock of his later abduction and subjugation.  The intelligence and self-respect whittled down to nothing reflects in his eyes and long moments of time pass where the camera just focuses on his face and there lies more suffering than words can express.  McQueen’s reliable go-to Michael Fassbender plays the brutal slave master, Edwin Epps, a man convinced it is the hand of God that has put him in his position over these lesser brings, but is torn with psychotic jealousy and deep self-loathing over his obsession with Patsey.  Sarah Paulson as Mistress Epps is a harpy and harridan who doesn’t get too far out of line before being forcibly reminded by her cruel, drunkard husband that while she bears no chains or whip marks, her respected social status as lady of the plantation - as well as the loss of it - is completely down to him.  Both actors skate dangerously close to the top (as does Paul Dano, as a vicious plantation hand), but the gravity of the performances of Ejiofor and a regal  Alfre Woodard as a wise slave cannily turned mistress of the house, balance the overage.  Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o gives a breakout performance as the hapless Patsey.  At once worshipped and battered, unlike Woodard’s lady of the manor, Patsey cannot pretend to enjoy the ravishment she must endure by Epps, which only drives him to further cruelties.  Nyong’o‘s Patsey is at once childlike and sage, advising Solomon against rash actions and losing herself in a world of her own when she can, but even her docility has its limit.  By the film’s resolution the broken doll that is Patsey, left to her fate is one of the most haunting visions of the film.

Of course, there is bound to be license taken with any narrative film based on a person’s life:  Some might also feel the violence is gratuitous, but things that may be considered over-the-top only serve to strengthen this look at slavery in what is perhaps the most eye-opening, in your face feature film ever made on the subject.  12 Years a Slave is not only required viewing for all Americans, but it is an absolutely necessary universal lesson about the depths of man’s inhumanity to man.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

Oct 18th, 2012

 

 

 

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