By ZACHARY ZAHOS
Think back to elementary and high school, when you learned about American slavery as a young student. A chalkboard or PowerPoint slide relayed statistics of the Triangle Trade. You paid attention to key words and concepts that might appear on next day’s fill-in-the-blank quiz. Your life was comfortable enough that this grade seemed to be the only thing at stake. And that was that.
With blunt force, 12 Years a Slave reminds us that embalmed, quasi-objective summaries of America’s greatest shame do not approach anything close to knowledge. For in this draining but necessary new film, history informs art, but it is art that realizes history. Like Steven Spielberg with Schindler’s List, director Steve McQueen knows that only emotion and, more precisely, pain, convey the true toll of our violent, oft-romanticized past. While you may feel battered around taking in McQueen’s manipulative, unapologetic style of filmmaking, you should also leave the theater grateful. At last, you have witnessed an image of slavery both lucid — for, like most Hollywood pictures, it follows one man and his struggle — and unflinchingly, savagely honest.
Our eyes into history belong to the incredible Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Based on the life and memoir of a freeman-turned-slave of the same name, 12 Years a Slave opens on a plantation where a dejected, much older Solomon hacks away, like a machine, at sugar cane before flashing back to an idyllic suburban family portrait in Saratoga Springs, New York, circa 1841. A gifted carpenter and violinist who has won the favor of the town’s wealthy white folks and its remarkably progressive shopkeeper, Solomon lives a pretty modern life with his wife, daughter and son. Enter Scoot McNairy and SNL’s Taran Killam as two genteel traveling musicians who look like the Mad Hatter and recruit Solomon’s skills for a tour to Washington D.C. After a night where his hosts made sure his wine glass was always filled to the brim, Solomon wakes up on the floor of a dungeon, in rags and chains. A walloping from a studded paddle and the words, “You ain’t a free man,” welcome Solomon to hell.
If you would allow me the digression, I would like to look closer at that turning point of a scene, when Solomon gets beaten. In the first long take and off-putting composition in a film full with them, McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt spread Solomon across the foreground of the shot, on his hands and knees, as a white man, out-of-focus in the background, enforces blows to his back. Solomon screams in agony with every strike, but shadows shroud his contorted face. So, what do we have? Solomon, the white man and the weapon are all obscured or distorted from our sight in some way, yet the iconography of a slave receiving punishment, from Solomon’s supplicant pose to the abstracted colors of both faces, is unmistakable. In this shot, Solomon stands in for any and all slaves, suffering not just bodily harm but the first pangs of becoming something less than a person.
From this shot onward, McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley balance the two conflicting duties when depicting slavery: humanize your lead subject (here, Solomon) but do not elevate him above the millions of others unable to tell their own story. While Solomon is more educated and well-spoken than most of his fellow slaves, he realizes he must play dumb if he wants to survive in a white man’s world (not unlike Forrest Whitaker’s adaptive servant in Lee Daniels’ The Butler). Slavers look for obedience to match a slave’s muscles — anything more stirs revolt. Notice the sickening compliments a slaver (Paul Giamatti) showers over the naked black men and women standing frozen like mannequins at auction, rapping a man’s toned chest and lifting a girl’s smooth chin, with awful insinuations. He sells Solomon, now known as “Platt,” and a mother (Adepero Oduye) to Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), denying Ford’s half-hearted attempt to appease the mother’s cries to buy her children too. Not the son, the slaver whispers with glee, because “he will grow into a fine young beast,” and not the prepubescent daughter, because give her time and, well …
If the slaver’s inhumanity brings out the gentleness in Ford’s disposition, the scene also reinforces that Ford perpetuates this system with a bundle of cash. After Ford gifts Solomon a violin for good behavior, the lamenting mother makes sure Solomon doesn’t forget that, “given the circumstances,” Ford is still a slave owner. And after Solomon assaults a sadistic overseer (Paul Dano, who, after Prisoners and There Will Blood seems to be Hollywood’s go-to punching bag), Ford whisks his property away to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), infamous for “breaking” his slaves. By the way, this is immediately after Solomon survives a daylong lynching by tiptoeing in the mud, which McQueen films for a suffocating, unbroken eternity.
It is at Epps’ cotton plantation where the majority of the film remains, where Solomon befriends a doomed, kind soul named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) and completes a transformation of his own. Patsey has earned the bad fortune of Epps’ lust, and thus also his wife Mary’s (Sarah Paulson) cold-eyed contempt. The scenes between Patsey and the two Epps bring out a savagery in the so-called civilized white men and women who believe they have a biological mandate to own “inferior” humans. Thankfully, Patsey has Solomon, who has wised up to the dehumanized submission survival requires. This leads to a horrible, albeit cinematically extraordinary scene filmed in nauseating handheld, akin to Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible. Not long after, Solomon resolves his guilt and accepts his sorry state in another perfect long take, filmed in tight close-up, where he hesitates before joining in on a graveside Negro spiritual. The internal strife Ejiofor communicates with just his eyes — looking up to God, down to the dirt and, finally, forward ahead — pretty much grasps 12 Years a Slave from McQueen’s hands.
Like Schindler’s List before it, 12 Years a Slave concedes to a fair dose of Hollywood sheen. Mary Epps is so evil she’s lifeless. Hans Zimmer’s score, while effective, reuses Inception’s “Time” motif (which he, in turn, adopted from his Thin Red Line soundtrack). The 134-minute running time almost feels too short, stretching the believability that Solomon’s journey spans 12 years. Brad Pitt shows up near the end, to distracting effect. But if Pitt’s name sells one or 1,000,000 more tickets to see this film, I am on board. For once, a gimme-Oscar pitch has earned its merit through artistry and provocation. You won’t remember the lashings as much as those despairing human faces. Those you won’t forget.