Steve McQueen is a coolly relentless filmmaker. With his first two films, Hunger and Shame, the camera would linger on his subject so the audience could fully grasp the physical and psychological ordeal they were going through. McQueen focused on people more than their surroundings – backgrounds were required but not exactly necessary – and so his latest is far more ambitious. 12 Years a Slave is about men, women, and the ugliness around them. His subject is more ambitious, too: he coolly documents all the dehumanizing agony of the American slave trade, all the way from imprisonment to eventual (unlikely) freedom. Many moments are difficult to watch – at the screening I attended, there were walk-outs – but his deliberate style is perfect matched for this historical drama.
Based on the memoir of the same name, 12 Years a Slave is the story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an educated black freeman who lives in upstate New York in 1841. Northup works as violinist to support his wife and two children, and one day two men masquerading as performers (Scoot McNairy and Saturday Night Live’s Taran Killam) trick him into coming to New York City. They get Northup drunk, and he’s in chains when he wakes up. He responds like any educated man would: he’s indignant until a slaver beats him into submission. McQueen then follows Northup on his journey to the South. There’s the long boat ride to New Orleans, followed by an encounter with a pitiless trader (Paul Giamatti) who truly regards the slaves as nothing more than property. The trader tells Northup his name is no longer is Northup. It’s Platt. Who’s he to argue?
Northup/Platt has two owners: Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a man who tries to preserve some degree of compassion while working within the confines of slavery. After Northup beats a white man out of defiant anger, Ford sells him to Epps (Michael Fassbender), who is far less progressive. 12 Years a Slave spends the plurality its running time with Epps, his plantation, and his monstrous wife (Sarah Paulson). Northup is slow to develop relationships with the other slave; he eventually grows a bond with Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), a woman who’s defined by gnawing desperation. Epps lusts for Patsey, and the complication of their sexual/economic relationship leads to scenes of brutal violence and raw emotional power.
One interesting thing about 12 Years a Slave is how McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley position Northup in this world. He does not have specific personality traits – most of the time he’s suffering, observing, or submissive – and at first I thought this was simply lazy screenwriting. Clearly Northup is meant to be an avatar for the audience; we learn few biographical details about him, and his reactions have a simple energy to them. The conceit wouldn’t work without Ejiofor subtle, effective performance. He communicates deep sadness and disgust wordlessly, and his soulful eyes serve as the movie’s moral compass. In an especially powerful scene, Northup stands with the other slaves as they sing a funeral song. He’s silent at first, then something snaps and suddenly he joins them. Ejiofor captures Northup’s complex inner turmoil: he finds comfort in the song, and he’s disturbed by his acquiescence. This internal duel is only communicated through his eyes, and McQueen closes in on Ejiofor so we know exactly what he’s thinking.
McQueen’s opening scenes have tight breeziness to them. They’re filmed traditionally, more or less, with careful attention to period details and no shot lasting too long. Once Northup falls victim to slavery, McQueen lets his camera linger and the effect is we feel Northup’s suspended animation. There are no title cards to indicate the length of Northup’s imprisonment; they are superfluous since long, tightly focused shots make each indignity he faces feel like an eternity. There is an early moment where plantation workers nearly hang Northup, and instead decide to lower the rope so only his tiptoes can touch the muddy, slippery ground. The camera regards Northup’s struggle from a distance: he desperately twists on the mud what feels like an eternity, and the scene is all the more chilling because the camera includes what’s around Northup. The other slaves avert their eyes from him, while the whites look at him dispassionately like half-dead road kill. After the initial recoil, McQueen gives us time to reflect.
Since Northup is a relatively passive character, McQueen allows the other slaves and their owners to grow in dynamic ways. Fassbender’s Epps is a disgusting, complicated man. He’s a stern taskmaster who lacks the Ford’s pretense for compassion. But there’s also self-loathing within him, and to the credit of McQueen and Fassbender, it’s unclear what motivates this feeling. There’s a long, stunning sequence that begins with Epps getting ready to whip a slave. Fassbender looks right at the camera, and his eyes suggest he hates his job, yet he takes his anger out on the slave anyway. His performance is unsympathetic to the care, yet defiantly human. But for all Fassbender’s nuance, newcomer Lupita Nyong’o’s performance as Patsey is the most heartbreaking. She will certainly earn an Academy Award nomination, if not the win, for her turn as a woman who fights for dignity in the basest, most honest way possible. Her lines transcend history and are encapsulate suffering at its most brutal and pure. She has two important scenes where she begs for the smallest kindness, and her matter-of-fact dialogue is jarring. Ridley’s script can be literate and old-fashioned, but he knows how to strip language until empathy is all the audience can feel.
12 Years a Slave is more important than disturbing. McQueen is unafraid to regard indignity with honesty, which is why his latest film is both historic and ferociously modern. There are a couple of minor hitches: Brad Pitt plays a Canadian abolitionist, and his messianic role sticks out in a story defined by matter-of-fact ugliness (granted, this example of deus-ex-machina is true-to-life, so perhaps the character would benefit from someone without Pitt’s star power). Also, McQueen’s composer Hans Zimmer lifts the exact same melody he used in Inception, so some musical moments are incongruous. Still, 12 Years a Slave is a towering achievement. Whereas Tarantino’s Django Unchained gleefully used slavery for exploitative fun, McQueen looks at the same ugliness and wants us to share his sustained horror. Revenge is the easy out way out. It is more challenging and important to internalize, “Slavery is not just history. It is our history.”