In the opening credits of 12 Years a Slave we read the infamous line: ‘this film is based on a true story’. The reference to the film’s origin; the 1853 memoir of the same name by Solomon Northup, reflects on a larger scale the defiant honesty with which the film wants to depict slavery. Stylistically sharp from the beginning, the film that led critic Armond White to heckle Director Steve McQueen and dub it ‘torture porn’ is as painful to watch as it is educational. The film follows Solomon’s story, taking on slavery in an unapologetic fashion. This uninhibited depiction is likely where White’s criticism originates. The more graphic scenes proved difficult to sit through — but the film’s integrity lies in the empathy it implores from its audience.
Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an educated, violin playing ‘free negro’ born in New York State, is kidnapped and sold into slavery. He spends 12 years working as a slave on the plantations of Louisiana before a labourer named Bass (Brad Pitt) discovers Solomon’s true story and agrees to write to his family about his whereabouts. But by this point Solomon has reached the end of hope, as we see him struggling to survive and despairingly destroying the violin he had been gifted by one slave owner. The wish is to ‘live, not survive’, as he proclaims upon his kidnapping. As the film progresses, this seems to slowly disappear. Ejiofor’s performance sees a choreographically poignant gradual hunching of body and spirit as time passes.
The camera pauses on Solomon’s face, focuses and waits for us to grasp the magnitude of each significant event. We watch his reaction whilst the cotton plants sway, beautiful, hazy and unfocused in the background. The hum of movement remains constant whilst Solomon tells his story through stillness in the foreground. Reminiscent of McQueen’s Shame, the spaces in between the action are the most important, full of potential which is quickly negated by reality. Whether it is a speeding subway train, or slaves continuing work whilst another hangs from a tree branch, the scenes McQueen creates agonise the audience from the beginning.
The brutality of the slaves’ treatment is never avoided. Michael Fassbender’s performance as Epps, a slave owner renowned for ‘breaking’ slaves, is terrifying in its unpredictability and violence. His desperation only worsens his tyrannical treatment of his ‘property’, whilst his mental demise reflects the impact of human cruelty on the perpetrator and the victims. In one drunken scene he proceeds to chase Solomon around and through a pigsty; the slapstick elements of Epp’s falling through the muck juxtaposing Platt’s attempt at reasoning with him and almost ridiculing the slave — slave owner relationship.
Contrasting Tarantino’s outlandish inversion of roles to evoke comedy in Django Unchained, McQueen uses a classic comedic trope of silent film. The result is an avoidance of slipping into emotionally fuelled tear-jerker territory, and a realism that drives home the injustice of slavery. A subject historically avoided by Hollywood producers is being taken up with gusto, and 12 Years a Slave provides a harrowing reality that perfectly balances its different elements to create a film that holds an important role in honestly recounting one of the darkest, least honourable parts of our history.
-movie poster, all credits to Fox Searchlight Pictures and affiliates
-Steve McQueen, Chris Cheung