Take 99: 12 Years a Slave
12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir, is one of only eight films from this century to make the list of top 100 films. In fact, this is the most recently released of all the movies on this list and it’s interesting that it’s main topic is shared with the film on this list with the earliest release date. That distinction belongs to D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, which is retained in the canon as the film that basically invented cinematic editing, a technical marvel at that time, despite it’s abhorrent racism and literally murderous aftermath.
12 Years a Slave is a very good movie that gets better every time I see it, which is probably about five times at this point, mostly by coincidence. As I’m now close to finishing this project, it strikes me that this is the only film about the experience of slavery and yet there are at least three movies on the list pining for the lost civilization of the antebellum south. If you’re looking for examples of systemic white privilege, I’d argue this is a pretty solid one. I recognize that it’s not that reductive, but it also serves as a microcosm of the larger more complicated issue that is born of the production pipeline that traditionally favors perspectives of white, male, leads. It doesn’t mean that everyone involved in that pipeline is inherently bad or evil, but their actions have been shaped by an amoral system. This spectrum of reactions when not only faced with evil but raised within its walls is where McQueen shines.
Solomon Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejifor, is our Orphean guide to the center of hell and back. Along the way, we’re introduced to characters who have landed in every shade of gray of misfortune. Northrup is the perfect thread to tie together these disparate American experiences because he has had both incredible luck and incredible misery. When we first meet Northrup it’s in upstate New York, where he lives in a colonial with his wife and children; he wears tall hats, and is a respected violinist in white social circles. His life is so perfect it could probably be cut into a Disney movie without many people noticing, that is until a slave sees him and is agape with confusion over how we could hold such a station.
This joy is short lived when he meets a couple of men who liquor him up and kidnap him into the slave trade. He is accompanied by other victims of the plot including a finely dressed woman and her two children, who was promised free papers by the master she had a sexual, and seemingly, romantic relationship with. Michael K. Williams pops up, but his time in the film is short lived after he’s stabbed by one of the slavers when he tries to intervene when the man begins to escort the young mother, Eliza, out of the holding area to rape her. In his dying breath, he makes it clear this is preferential to a life of enslavement. Another man cries for his master at night, praying to him for salvation, and weeps with relief when the man is there to reclaim his stolen “property”. The men embrace on the shore, and the slave owner comforts the distraught man.
This movie is an ensemble masterpiece and McQueen uses the many pieces at his disposal to manufacture collisions between good and evil, and how relative those distinctions can be. It’s fascinating to see this level of nuance applied to a topic that has such obvious victims and villains. There are various masters and overseers that Northup encounters, beginning with the relatively kind William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his sadistic buddy, John Tibeats (Paul Dano, who dusts off his psychically deranged, indignant, and insecure There Will Be Blood character, Eli Sunday). When the two face off, Tibeats strings up Northup so that his toes can barely graze the ground and it’s difficult to watch as his peers mill about behind him, doing little to intervene until one woman furtively rushes over and encourages him to sip some water before running away.
One of the strengths of the film is how it highlights the relationships between the enslaved people. They cannot protect each other from cruelty, and sometimes the only way to protect themselves is to aid their captors in wrongdoing. There are a couple of examples of women being treated better or worse as a result of having sex with slavers. Usually, it ends with the woman being abused and horrifically mistreated. The most gut wrenching moment comes when Northrup is forced to whip Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) for the crime of inciting her abuser’s lust, in a scene so troubling it’s making me sick remembering it now. Nyong’o and Ejiofor are masterful in the film, both of them communicate overwhelming pain with great subtlety for the majority of their time on screne, which makes the moments when the pressure forces them to expel extreme emotion razor sharp and cutting.
Next to this extreme sadness and grief, the behavior of the powerful in the film consistently astonishes in it’s abhorrence. The gall of the men who befriended Northup and led him into this fate is appalling in and of itself, but then we meet the trafficker Freeman (Paul Giamatti) who refuses to allow Ford to purchase Eliza’s children for reasons so depraved it made my stomach drop. But how much of a difference is there between Ford, who reads from the bible to his slaves and got Northup a violin as a gift but refused to help him regain his life, and Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender)the sadistic plantation owner who “prides himself on being a slave breaker” and flays the workers ruthlessly at every opportunity? A lot in practice, but maybe not as much as Ford would have wanted to believe. There are the good white men who do eventually assist Northup in his fight to rejoin his family, but even in those men, there is some implied complicity with the institution of forced labor. Also, consider Sarah Paulson as the Mistress Epps, who sadistically manipulates the enslaved people, paying particular harm to Patsey because of her husband’s affection for her. Along with the rest of the cast, Giamatti, Paulson, and Fassbender also shine in their roles.
What McQueen accomplishes is the delicate art of both highlighting and questioning the degrees of complicity that individuals can achieve with systems of structured violence and disenfranchisement. By doing this, he holds the mirror in front modern audiences and asks, what would you have done? And what are you doing today?