It feels as though the theme of slavery has been an unusually present one in my cinematic viewings over the last two years or so. There was Lincoln, a film entirely about slavery that, surprisingly, showed incredibly little of it, with Steven Spielberg focusing instead on the politics of the time. Then came Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, a dark exploitation comedy that went in the complete opposite direction in terms of tone and depiction, giving viewers an uncomfortably jarring experience of laughing out loud at the, admittedly heightened and caricatured, situation. A film that rested somewhere in between the harsh reality of violence and a look at the politics of the American nation was Lee Daniels’ The Butler, not a picture strictly about the enslavement of African Americans but nonetheless portrays a character who was born and raised on a Georgia cotton plantation. Whilst The Butler can be accused of over sentimentalism, the latest cinematic offering to tackle the issue of slavery is as visceral, upsetting and agonising a picture as you will ever see.
From British director Steve McQueen, 12 Years A Slave is a historical drama based on the real life testament of Solomon Northup, a free man and resident of Saratoga, NY who was kidnapped whilst travelling and sold in to slavery in New Orleans where he was put to work across plantations in Louisiana for twelve years before his release. The film is unrelenting in its depiction of the horrifying injustices and treatment Solomon and his fellow workers suffer at the hands of those involved in the slave trade, I found myself on upwards of five occasions having to hide behind my hands. Yes, this violence is striking and stomach churning, but one has to accept that it is necessary. Some critics have accused McQueen of being overindulgent on this front, of risking the integrity of the film in becoming over gratuitous and approaching the realms of ‘torture porn’, but I cannot agree with this sentiment. Films such as Saw and Hostel indulge in a particular type of violence, a creative type of stunt making that encourages the viewer to try and guess in how many ways a human body can be broken. Fans of that genre take delight in the unusual and outlandish way that the films’ victims meet their fate, but rest assured this is absolutely not how one reacts to the violence of 12 Years A Slave. No enjoyment is taken from a whipping so brutal that you can no longer distinguish a human back, or a paddle beating so hard that the wooden tool breaks in to pieces across a shoulder blade.
It is the job of a filmmaker to evoke emotion in a cinema goer, though this emotion does not always have to be one of entertainment or enjoyment. Director McQueen’s previous work has shown us that he does not shy away from making an audience feel uncomfortable, and the scenes aforementioned certainly attest to the notion that he is not prepared to sugar coat or dampen the impact of these atrocities. They were perpetrated in real life, why should we not be exposed to them in a retelling of the facts? What elevates 12 Years A Slave, however, from turning in to a two and half hour depiction of violence, are the interesting aspects of the film that one does not commonly find in a film set in the slave trade era. For example, we are given scenes depicting Solomon and his free life with his wife and children in New York. The sight of a black family in period clothing, freely associating and living amongst white families of the same social strata is something that I don’t think I have ever witnessed before in a film of this period, and it was interesting to ponder those rarely portrayed states in America where the enslavement of African Americans was not a way of life. Arguably even more interesting than this, is a scene in the middle of the film in which a white plantation owner is shown to have a black mistress sharing his home, and effectively assuming the role of a slave owner herself. Once again, black on black slave ownership, whilst obviously being a prevalent practise, is a dynamic I had never given much thought to, and to have it displayed in the film adds texture to the way in which I consider the political and racial ladder of slavery in the South.
It is necessary, in a film that portrays the degradation and dehumanisation of people to such a degree, to have a cast that can internally rebel against this and give their characters life no matter what treatment they receive. This is certainly the case in 12 Years A Slave, as Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon and Lupita Nyong’o as fellow slave Patsey give performances that are pitch perfect. An understated and controlled performance by Ejiofor is entirely appropriate given that his character is forced to hide his education and intelligence from his slavers, instead assuming the guise of an illiterate man to get by without arousing unwanted suspicion and attention. The same can be said for Nyong’o’s Patsey, who catches the eye of plantation owner Edwin Epps, played by exquisitely and unsettlingly by Michael Fassbender, and is warned to keep as low a profile as possible in the hope of keeping him away. A supporting cast full of big names such as Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt and Paul Dano all turn in exceptional performances. There is a danger when films cast such a high profile ensemble of the immediately recognisable faces removing the viewer from the universe of the film, but the skill with which these actors work assures that this is never a problem.
Overall, 12 Years A Slave is an extraordinary film, but it is also a film that I feel I will never watch again. It will go straight in to that section of my film watching history that houses the likes of Sophie’s Choice, Irreversible and United 93, films that though expertly crafted and brilliant pieces of work, are just too upsetting to watch again and again. McQueen should be lauded for his bravery in portraying a brutal practice as just that, and the films’ cast should be applauded for humanising what is essentially a tale of the lowest form of dehumanisation there is. It may not pick up as many Academy Awards as some are predicting, but I would not be at all surprised to see it take home Best Picture on March 2nd.