The promise of work lures gifted violinist Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to Washington D.C. Things don’t go to plan however, and freeman Northup finds himself chained up and headed for a life of slavery.
12 Years a Slave is a film from Steve McQueen of Hunger and Shame fame and it’s an account of the true story of Solomon Northup. Northup wrote a book about his experiences and this film is based on that publication. This isn’t a feel good story and although Hollywood often puts a positive spin on many of humanity’s darkest acts (Schindler’s List) 12 Years a Slave remains true to its tragedies.
For a long time it seems that mainstream film often has an emphasis on the good that comes out of the bad, sometimes almost negating the terrible context of whatever story it attempts to tell. McQueen has always shunned that rosy tinted perspective and his films are often unflinching and hard-hitting. A film about slavery has to show the abject horror and the complete mistreatment of an entire race. Using Northup’s story provides a fish out of water perspective on the whole disgusting affair.
12 Years a Slave is not a success story
In some senses this could be seen as a negative. Northup is a man who finds himself enslaved but he has the trappings and the perspective that freedom gives. He isn’t so easily brow beaten and there’s hopefulness in his story. This is perhaps not reflective of the wider experience for African American slaves, but it does provide a harrowing glimpse into a world of unimaginable cruelty and abuse.
Many viewers could find 12 Years a Slave to be an uplifting tale of a man who survives over a decade of torture and forced labour. There’s perhaps even an assumption that a film like this would be designed to tug heartstrings and to rely on grand heroic music. This isn’t a film like that and McQueen rounds off his recent trilogy of work with Michael Fassbender with a film that doesn’t attempt to manipulate audiences. It doesn’t need to – the reality of the story and its legacy today provide all of the emotional weight necessary.
McQueen carefully keeps the camera almost distant and this omniscient perspective provides a harrowing truth – we’re just watching unbelievable cruelty. This is something that adds a degree of verisimilitude to the narrative but it also serves to remove the Hollywood film formula from the proceedings. However, there is still a slight lack of autonomy on the African American’s part and even Solomon still needs saving from his white oppressors. This is an era where African Americans had no power or influence and were treated like objects that existed to better their owners lives.
The other slight problem with this film is the fact that McQueen is an English filmmaker who grew up in 70s Ealing. This isn’t to denigrate his work but rather to highlight the fact that there is still a lack of autonomy for African American filmmakers. Is this a story that an English man should tell? That’s for someone other than me to decide.
McQueen often deals with difficult subject matter
However, McQueen has worked with difficult subject matter before bringing his distinctive fine art gaze to other societal related narratives. Both Shame and Hunger dealt with physicality and the effects on a body that come from external factors. Hunger detailed IRA man Bobbie Sand’s final days and Shame focused on the transformative effects of sex. 12 Years a Slave is no exception and it details the brutality visited upon Solomon with an unflinching perspective. His body is severely punished, and like Hunger’s Bobby Sands, the effects are increasingly visual. From a brutal whipping scene to a long drawn out hanging sequence where the plantation continues working under the shadow of twitching feet, McQueen doesn’t shy away from the horrors of a life in slavery.
McQueen does add some filmic touches and there’s an incredibly, perhaps indelibly, powerful close up of Solomon’s face. There seems to be a comment throughout that we’re watching this (and choosing to) and we could turn it off at any point. Just like way back then we could have collectively said no to slavery, the sad truth is we didn’t and we watch as Solomon becomes increasingly battered and mistreated. The truth is Solomon is just like everyone else and the life that he has lost is no different to the one that anyone can lose. Perhaps this is the strength of this narrative and it places us in an uncomfortable scenario where we see just how easily a man can lose everything.
There’s no fairness in reality
Tarrantino’s Django Unchained was effectively a blaxploitation movie with a focus on revenge. Like his previous work Inglorious Bastards, Tarrantino shows the story of the previously marginalised and maligned minority visiting revenge on the cruel majority – even those who simply stayed silent. 12 Years a Slave is not a revenge piece but a gruelling account of slavery shown through a series of increasingly stark and painful images. There’s no recompense, no fairness in Solomon’s world and his only course of action (if he wants to survive) is to bite his tongue and do what he’s told.
There are very few moments of respite in 12 Years a Slave and McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley force viewers to sit through increasingly horrific events. From the slave market to the plantation, Solomon loses so much but he doesn’t give in to the dehumanising that his ‘bosses’ demand. There is the assumption (at least in the subtext) that Solomon shouldn’t be there. But McQueen avoids ramming that point home and really none of the African Americans should be there. It’s not about circumstances, it’s about race and sadly the colour of Solomon’s skin is the deciding factor.
It’s about the story
12 Years a Slave is full of great performances and Fassbender, as per usual, out does himself. But all of that is slightly beside the point. A film detailing such a horrific story and a story that still has cultural and societal ramifications today has to be done well. It can’t be half hearted and it’s about time that there was a film about slavery so hard-hitting and unbearably unwatchable. Is it a good film? That seems to be the wrong question. 12 Years a Slave is horrifying and really that’s the point. There’s no filter, no artistic direction that can make this story any more palatable.
It seems that McQueen knows this and he keeps a reservation, a certain lack of didacticism that makes 12 Years a Slave non-political. Instead it’s the story of man experiencing unbearable despair and it’s in that context that he finds out who he really is. There’s definitely an argument for 12 Years a Slave being a story that finds success in the atrocious circumstances of slavery but really that negates the point. At its heart, 12 Years a Slave is about a man trying to remain an individual when everything that defines him is stripped away.