12 Years a Slave leaves you speechless. Part of this is the inhuman brutality on display throughout the film. Whippings, beatings, and rape — this is a tough film to watch. The story of Solomon Northup (an amazing performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from New York who is abducted and sold into slavery in the South, is full of injustices and brutality. But letting the subject matter discourage you from seeking this film out is the wrong decision. If you want to claim some understanding of what slavery was like, even if it’s only the sliver of empathy you get from watching a film like this, you owe it to yourself to have that experience. That’s one of the great things about 12 Years a Slave: it doesn’t congratulate the audience for watching it.
Too often, films dealing with social issues make the viewer feel morally superior to the actions on screen — as if the film is proudly declaring itself the result of that particular evil being defeated, and that, even more ludicrously, the viewer has somehow contributed to defeating that very evil by watching the film. Not so with 12 Years a Slave. Not only does it not insult the events it depicts by saying they occurred so audiences in the future could learn some sort of moral lesson from them, but it also makes some disturbing connections between the perpetrators of slavery and the audience. Frankly, the film links the slave masters to the audience by showing how the institution of slavery was dependent on the apathy of ordinary people. Something like slavery could happen because people accept a thousand little sins on a daily basis and don’t challenge the people that commit commonplace evil. There is continuity between the institution of slavery and the evils that exist in the modern day — that continuity is human fallibility.
The other aspect of the film that leaves you speechless is the technique. Director Steve McQueen is often called a clinical filmmaker in the same way that Stanley Kubrick is clinical. There’s an observational remove from his characters that sometimes gets in the way of emotion. His first film Hunger is remarkable in its artistic exactness, but it has no cohesive story or characters. Michael Fassbender’s Bobby Sands is more symbolic than emotive, more akin to the shit-stain mandala the prisoners paint on the walls of their cells than a human being we care about. Even a great film like Shame suffers from an observational disconnect that keeps us outside the character. We see how sex addiction tortures Fassbender’s Brandon, and unlike with Hunger, we feel for him, but we never really understand Brandon to the degree we understand most protagonists.
In 12 Years a Slave McQueen’s clinical exactness finally coalesces with a story that is inherently emotional. He still keeps his distance from the events on screen, but because the film is so undisputedly Solomon Northup’s story, we are locked inside the head of its protagonist. Even as Solomon is subjected to injustices, he is forced to observe the brutality inflicted upon others. And he’s always helpless to stop the brutality. We watch Solomon watch others, and just like him, we can do nothing to stop the evil. Watching and failing to act is so inherent to slavery and other similar acts of evil. Thus, it makes perfect sense that the eyes of our protagonist and the eyes of the audience would be linked.
In this way it was necessary for a clinical filmmaker to make 12 Years a Slave. The ordinariness of the evil on display would not have as much impact if the filmmaker had tried to amplify the emotional truth of the events. One of McQueen’s signature techniques is having long takes. He doesn’t move the camera around on Steadicam like Kubrick or impossibly pass through space like Alfonso Cuarón. He lets the camera sit still, perfectly framed, as it observes the action on screen. In one scene, Solomon is hung from a tree and can barely touch the muddy ground with his feet. As he struggles to maintain balance, the camera holds on his agonizing struggle, choking sounds gurgling out of his mouth. It is a wide shot and in the background we see other slaves curious about Solomon, but they mostly go about their business undeterred. We cut to three slave children playing with each other, mindless of the struggle happening right next to them. McQueen hits the point home: this sight may be unfamiliar and heinous to the audience, but to the people of the time, it was disgustingly ordinary.
12 Years a Slave is that rare film that astounds you with its technique and breaks your heart at the same time. There’s no manipulation here. There’s no need to manipulate the audience into feeling: for Solomon and the situation he’s stuck in, for the other slaves who didn’t even have the hope for freedom that he did, for the world that allowed such a thing as slavery to occur unimpeded, century after century.
When Solomon finally arrives home at the end of the film, freed from his 12 years of slavery, he apologizes to his family. The things he has been forced to witness, the degradation he has suffered, the actions he’s had to perform in order to survive — he feels the weight of these things crushing down on him. He has been broken by the evil of humanity, but his dignity, his essential human spirit has remained alive. As he says early on into his sufferings: “I don’t want to survive. I want to live.”
That a movie which runs a mere 134 minutes can make you comprehend the reality of slavery, in all its evils, and also encompass the dignity of humanity is a remarkable achievement. Many films are moving. Many films tell hard truths. Not all films are monumental. 12 Years a Slave is.
10 out of 10*
12 Years a Slave (2013, USA/UK)
Directed by Steve McQueen; written by John Ridley based on the memoir Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup; starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Alfre Woodard, and Brad Pitt.
*A note about my rating: Usually I only give a movie a 10 on a revisit. However, since I have no particular inclination to revisit 12 Years a Slave anytime soon as the subject matter is so brutal, and because I feel the film is undoubtedly a masterpiece, I’m breaking my usual rating rule and giving it full marks on a first viewing.