It’s easy to draw the lines regarding slavery in America as “good” and “evil” where the enslavers were evil and everyone else was good. When the issue of slavery culminated in the Civil War, the battle lines were drawn between the “good” north and the “evil” south. As long as we know someone else is to blame for the evil in the world, then we remove all culpability from ourselves. With unflinching, heart-wrenching honesty, Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Solomon Northrup’s memoir 12 Years a Slave shows that the issue of slavery wasn’t as simple as black-and-white. There were shades of grey regarding slavery even among slaves. The evil of slavery isn’t in question, and McQueen shows it in all its ugliness. He shows slavery to the point of how it not only wears away a person’s body, but also their identity and even their soul. The exploration in 12 Years a Slave is into the culpability of all men and women, free and slave, in this unquestionable evil.
In 1841, Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free man living in Saratoga, New York. Locally renowned for his skill at the violin, he is hired under false pretenses to play in Washington, D.C. Once there, he is drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery under the name “Platt”. In order to preserve his life, Solomon must keep his head down, his true background a secret, and hold on to any shred of hope of seeing his family again. Over the course of Solomon’s slavery, we meet several masters with different temperaments including the kindly William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), the sniveling, belligerent carpenter John Tibeats (Paul Dano), and ultimately the vicious, sadistic Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) and his bitter wife Mary (Sarah Paulson) who is sickeningly jealous of Epps’ slave mistress, the sweet and innocent Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o).
McQueen’s acuity at depicting slavery is remarkable because he always knows exactly how far to go. He never lingers nor does he sugarcoat. He knows we don’t need to see every single whipping in gruesome detail. There are some that make us physically ill, but others happen off screen because by that point, they’ve become a sad matter-of-fact. We don’t need to be reminded that beating innocent people is horrific. McQueen also knows that for all of the violence he can show, the evil is in the details, and that’s one of the ways 12 Years a Slave is so revelatory and shocking.
The insidiousness of slavery was how people reconciled themselves to it. Edwin Epps may be a sick, drunken, twisted excuse for a human being, but at least his evil is recognizable. He believes his slaves are his property, and can abuse them as he sees fit like a child playing with toys. But look over to his wife Mary, and her evil and brutality comes from Epps’ affair rather than being a plantation owner. Instead of having to suffer the indignity of her husband’s infidelity, Mary is free to take her wrath out on Patsey or force others to do so. At the other side of the spectrum you have Ford. Ford is good to his slaves and a devoutly religious man, but he’s still a slaver. He’s a product of the “peculiar institution”, but he still has some awareness between right and wrong. He does wrong, but does it in the nicest way possible, which arguably makes him as bad as Epps. At least Epps doesn’t have any delusions regarding the master-slave relationship.
McQueen and John Ridley’s script also go into detail when it comes to the slaves’ behavior. While it would be easy to categorize them as a monolithic group of victims, that would be another form of dehumanization. The experience of slavery varied from person to person, and each one was subject to different rules. At one point, Northrup desperately needs the assistance of anyone, and his fellow slaves ignore him. They don’t approach him tentatively or talk amongst themselves about what to do. The slaves on Ford’s plantation—yes, the kindly Mr. Ford, not Epps—have to remain indifferent to the plight of their fellow man or risk retribution.
There’s no single way this indifference happens. For some it’s by birth and the person didn’t know any better. For some it’s a means of survival. And for others, they no longer have the strength to care. They have been beaten so low that they have come to accept their lot in life and that the value of a slave’s life extends only as far as his or her ability to work. This is the journey that Solomon struggles against, and every day he sees a little more of his hope slips away. Hope of escape is dashed on the ship that carries him from Washington D.C. to New Orleans. His initial desire to “live” instead of “survive” eventually becomes a matter of survival “until freedom is opportune.” With each passing indignity, there’s less of Solomon and more of “Platt”, and the pain of the character is that he knows he’s losing his identity. He’s the rock feeling the grindstone.
Ejiofor is sublime in showing this transition. It is a subtle performance that comes mostly from facial expressions and private moments. There’s no room for big speeches or outbursts because those acts would get Solomon beaten or killed. McQueen accustoms us to gasp every time Solomon or any slave even puts a toe out of line. So Ejiofor has to show us a man who is losing his hope and his identity, and do so quietly. There are moments of anger and sadness, but the way Ejiofor captures the slow decline of Solomon is remarkable.
The rest of the cast is terrific, but Fassbender deserves special attention for doing his best to play a character as brazenly monstrous Epps. Epps isn’t one-dimensional, but eventually we can’t glean anything new from him. He comes up to the verge of no longer being a man but a terrible act of nature, and that diminishes a humanity (rotten as it is) that must be accounted for. Fassbender doesn’t relish the role as much as he presents the constant fear under which Epps’ slaves live. At one point, Epps threatens Solomon and Fassbender doesn’t blink. This is not a short conversation, and Fassbender doesn’t blink. He keeps his eyes completely fixed on Solomon, softly intones threats, and quietly demonstrates how Epps relishes his power.
The power of the performances is undeniable, but McQueen and his key collaborators deserve equal credit for this captivating picture. In addition to keeping an eye on the complexity of slavery, McQueen earns every emotional moment until he has us in tears by the end. 12 Years a Slave never cues us to cry. We do it out of exhaustion because like Solomon, we have been broken by the unending nightmare of slavery that’s been conveyed through the thoughtful direction.
The movie is cloaked in shadow, and Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography is gorgeous but not glorifying. It pushes the slaves down to the bottom of the screen and makes them appear small against the backdrop. Bobbitt, who was the DP on McQueen’s previous two films, also continues his impressive single-takes like the one where the slaves ignore the suffering Solomon.
Ridley’s script is superb, and is mostly faithful to Northrup’s book with the majority of the changes being ones of subtraction for purposes of time rather than addition for embellishment. Even more impressive is how he keeps the language of the time intact. It’s a speech that’s not common to our ears, but it feels completely natural and all of the actors have a handle on its cadence. The language is almost melodic, which is another way McQueen provides a startling juxtaposition between a supposedly civilized world and the legalized brutality within it. Even Solomon, before he himself is enslaved, has no part in the abolitionist movement. America accepted this brutality.
Our country’s blood will always be tainted by the sin of slavery, and 12 Years a Slave is a devastating look at the cost of that sin not to the nation, but to the individual. McQueen’s movie is not a celebration of heroism or hope or endurance or understanding. It’s an observation. It’s an observation that tears at our hearts as we witness how tremendous evil can wear away the humanity of all.
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