As a history major at Amherst, I’ve taken numerous classes specializing in slavery in the US. I thought I could understand something of the history, the pain, the suffering, the anguish. I thought, to whatever extent it was possible for a white kid in the early 21st century to know, I knew. I was wrong. Sitting in the theater watching “12 Years a Slave,” I felt the inescapable grasp of history around my neck and I couldn’t do anything about it. Never before have I felt so clearly and achingly the tragedies upon which America is built. I felt helpless, my face contorting in anguish. My reaction was visceral; I gritted my teeth, I began to shake uncontrollably. “12 Years a Slave” is the best film of the year, and the best “Oscar” film I’ve seen in longer than I can remember. But “12 Years a Slave” isn’t just a great film. It’s an important one.
Adapted from Solomon Northrup’s autobiographical tale of his kidnapping into slavery and the dozen years of hell spent before he eventually secured his freedom, “12 Years a Slave” is telling not simply because it explores slavery, but because of how it explores it. As Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is kidnapped, sold to a nominally “benevolent” master and eventually a more openly cruel, abusive master and tries to secure his freedom, the film reveals itself as one of the first major filmic attempts to explore slavery not as a political institution (see “Lincoln”) or as an individualist fantasy-land in which any slave could take on an army of whites if they “wanted” to ( “Django Unchained”) but as it was actually experienced to those who endured it. Films about slavery are almost always about fighting or overcoming it, but in doing so they fail to truly understand the mental and emotional anguish of slavery and the real lived experience of it. Many ask why so few slaves openly rebelled against their masters, which paints slaves as docile and content with slavery. But “12 Years a Slave” shows the mental and emotional torture of slavery and the constant state of doom that gripped plantation life that only manifested most openly in violence. We see people being whipped at times, but even in scenes where no one is physically hurt, the noise of the overseers whip is a constant reminder of what could be coming next. The sense of dread experienced in the theater in part captures this sense of constant anxiety experience by Northrup. As we hear the cries of a slave continue over a slave master trying to prove his benevolence through reciting scripture, the two noises fighting and tensing and reflecting the constant contradictions and power battles of slave life, we become well aware that many slaves did rebel in subtle ways but that open rebellion would have meant death.
The nuances and complications run deep, particularly with regard to the depictions of the slave masters. When Northrup has to be sold to save him from a vengeful overseer, his master tries to protect him with a gun. On the surface, he represents the typical historical depiction of a “benevolent” slave master who looks out for his slaves. But when Northrup asks why he can’t go free, the master responds “I can’t hear this,. Despite trying to help Northrup as he sees it, his view is still constrained by the social circumstances of slavery. He can’t even imagine a black man as a free person. We see the complications in how slaves presented themselves around each other and around their masters, the complicated and confused notions of ownership masters felt toward slaves, inclusion and exclusion within slave communities, the mutual dependence of slaves and masters on each other and above all the dehumanization of life for slaves. One of the film’s most difficult-to-watch scenes involves Northrup hanging from a noose, balancing himself on his toes. The camera lingers on and on as slaves around him continue about their day life, children playing in the background. Life for them includes images such as this, and in order to survive they have to block it out. This exploration of slave life is a punch to the gut; it’s not manipulative melodrama, nor is it exploitative. Every scene in the film serves a purpose, and the impact of scene after scene is beyond devastating: it’s numbing.
“12 Years a Slave” is rightfully getting attention for its acting, which is simply astounding. The film’s anchor is Chiwetel Ejiofor in the performance of a lifetime. It’s difficult to watch some of the things Solomon Northrup must endure throughout the film, but Ejiofor makes it even more difficult to turn away, something made all the more telling by the complexity of the character’s arc from confident and comfortable as a freeman, to confused and passionate upon being captured, to stolid and determined yet hollow later in his enslavement. For the 2014 Oscar race, his is the performance to beat. Of course, the burden is lifted from his shoulders by a superlative supporting cast, including Michael Fassbinder, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Paul Dano and Alfre Woodward. Relative unknowns Lupita Nyong’o and Adepero Oduye provide stellar work as slaves suffering alongside Northrup, with Nyong’o in particular bringing fire and nuance to a supremely difficult role as the “favorite” slave of her abusive master. Of them all though, Fassbinder leaves the strongest impression beside Ejiofor, creating the slave master Epps as a truly unhinged and terrifying figure whose oppressive demeanor is exacerbated not only by the social system of slavery but by alcohol and religion.
The film, despite all the horrors that occur within, is simply gorgeous and remarkably well-constructed visually. Shots sway in and out of machinery and fields, breathing life to the smallest portions of slave life. Shots of the sky and Spanish-moss covered trees capture the mystery of a land both completely foreign and all too familiar. Director Steve McQueen, coming off his devastating exploration of sex-addiction, “Shame,” brings life to the film not only through painstaking period detail but a mastery of the subjective camera. A shot late in the film where Northrup breaks the fourth wall, looking directly at the camera at the audience, conveys discomfort, confusion, helplessnes and numerous other emotions. Light and dark, perhaps fittingly due to the subject matter, play in throughout. The film’s most striking image involves a letter being burned in the dark, the embers dying away slowly and taking Northrup’s hope with them. Never before have I seen a film that made darkness feel simultaneously so completely empty and whole, engulfing the world around it into nothingness. The admittedly mesmerizing “Gravity” and its visual aplomb will likely win more awards for cinematography, but the more grounded approach here is even more affecting. Plus “12 Years a Slave” more effectively marries its narrative to its look, whereas “Gravity” sometimes felt like a battle between the two.
And through all this, I couldn’t help but think, why has it taken until 2013 for this film to come out? The informal censorship of slavery through film history extends far beyond the visual medium; we as a country have done little to truly understand and reflect on our history and the real human impact of slavery. We read about the numbers and the lack of rights and the work, all horrors to be sure, but the real day-to-day dehumanization and anguish of slavery on the ground remains elusive. Even when films address slavery, it’s often from the view of a white protagonist, in which the most important human toll becomes not what happens to the slaves themselves but to the whites who have to cope with the internal anguish of watching slavery and having to learn to stand up against it. It’s unimaginable to most to address slavery as it really existed and even more-so from the viewpoint of an African-American victim of it. We’re afraid of it. “12 Years a Slave” puts us in the trenches of slavery and into the minds of those who lived, and died, through it. This is exactly for this reason that “12 Years a Slave” has the impact it does and why everyone needs to see it.