Friday, 17 January 2014

12 Years a Slave

Blood, sweat and tears

One of the first scenes in Twelve Years a Slave shows Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man who was kidnapped into slavery, attempting to write on a parchment, using juice squeezed from some blackberries as ink. He is, however, unable to form so much as a letter, and recoils in despair and frustration. Like his inability to record his circumstances in the written word , the stories of those who suffered through slavery have gone largely and conspicuously untold in Hollywood. Twelve Years a Slave finally addresses that shocking part of American history, adapting the memoirs of the real life Solomon who, after a dozen years forced to live as a slave, was finally able to tell his story.

That story involves being tricked into believing he has been offered a lucrative job only to be sold into slavery, where he endures the life working in a plantation first under the ownership of William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), then later at the mercy of the psychotic Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Each plantation owner represents the two types of evil exposed in the film; while Fassbender delivers a typically intense and exhilarating performance as overtly disturbed and cruel, it is the banality of evil represented by Cumberbatch’s character – whose ostensible kindness is neither sentimentalised nor allows us to lose sight of the system he exploits - that really disturbs.  
Perhaps the most haunting line in the whole film is spoken by his wife who, in a half-hearted attempt to comfort their newly purchased slave who has been separated from her family, tells her that ‘You’ll forget about your children soon enough’. Sadists like Epps may be the ones who unleash the violence that causes the horrific whip wounds McQueen’s camera confronts us with, but it’s the attitudes of the ordinary people expressed in these words that legitimise such brutality. 

Given his background of provocative art-house films Hunger and Shame, it’s no surprise to see director Steve McQueen treat slavery in a similarly uncompromising way. What is more surprising – and, for that matter, admirable – is the way he balances such a challenging style with a structure and aesthetic that makes Twelve Years a Slave accessible to an audience beyond art-house devotees. He uses many tropes of traditional Hollywood storytelling exemplified in films like Gone with the Wind, but never trivialises or compromises the authenticity of Solomon’s story. Evidently McQueen is committed to telling the story of Solomon to the widest possible audience, and draws upon his talent for viscerally and vividly depicting human suffering not to alienate, but to tell the story honestly, in unflinching detail.

Such candid handling of its material renders the film’s status as entertainment problematic, but McQueen addresses this through the pervading theme of music. Solomon, as a talented player of the violin, is himself something of an artist, and his instrument is his most prized possession. In a sense, it allows him to express his individuality, which makes it all the more soul-destroying when he is forced to play jolly, joyful tunes by his white masters as they abuse his fellow slaves, in scenes  which make the common, ironic use of music to juxtapose violence - such as Tarantino’s Django Unchained – seem perverse.

His violin comes to represent how he is different from the other, uneducated slaves, preferring it to the songs sung by the slaves as they work. The lack of collective resistance among the fear-ridden slaves is one the most alarming aspects of the film, and so a scene in which Solomon embraces his allegiance with the others by singing along with a song enacted in honour of a recently deceased friend is one of the film’s most moving. They sing not for entertainment but for something deeper, in much the same way the film itself works. 

Although primarily about the experiences of Solomon, the film never allows us to forget or ignore the other victims, particularly the endlessly-suffering Patsy (Lupita Nyong’o), inadvertently and tragically entangled in a marital dispute between Epps and his wife (Sarah Paulson). Its seriousness and dedication to honour the lives lost to slavery makes most other films seem frivolous by comparison, and McQueen’s will surely be remembered as one of the great films of this era. 


1 comment:

  1. In my opinion, this film is not at all flawless but it needed to be made. The shameful silence which has hidden the issue in Hollywood needed to be broken. Especially since Amistad and Django Unchained failed to really condemn the entire Antebellum system.

    Unfortunately, all three major trans-Atlantic slavery films have some sort of redemptive ending where the protagonist escapes to freedom. But what about the greater reality of being born and dying as a slave? Indeed, this was the case for the majority of Black individuals in the pre-Civil War South.

    It reminds me of Stanley Kubrick's comment about Schindler's List: "Think that's about the Holocaust?...The Holocaust is about 6 million people who get killed. Schindler's List is about 600 who don't."