Year: 2013 (U.K. Release 2014)
Director: Steve McQueen
Screenplay: John Ridley
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Lupita Nyong'o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson, Paul Dano
Note: This review is much longer than usual writings and contains plot elements that can be considered spoilers.
Synopsis is here:
I watched 12 Years a Slave in the plush Tate Modern Cinema on the day Mark Duggan was judged lawfully killed. I was a little late but was able to get a seat at the front before the auditorium got too packed. I looked back to what was a majority of white faces. The girl behind me was nattering about Buzzfeed and Kubler Ross’ five stages.
A black group then sat next to me and a conversation began about film critic and intellectual blowhard Armond White, who recently covered himself in glory by allegedly heckling 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen at the New York film critic awards. Already I could see where various people’s heads were at before the movie started.
The black group’s most vocal woman was incredibly fierce in her condemnation of White, despite sounding like she's only recently heard of the notorious NYC critic, who has sounded off more than once at McQueens film. For me the most notable attack was on the Slash film podcast. Amusingly White (who is Black) was critical of McQueens ability to make a film about one of America’s ugliest eras of history as he was Black British. The irony here is by saying such things, White hints at his own issues and prejudice. With Hollywood allowed to revel in its own alteration of historical events, White's attack reeked of his often felt contrarianism that the young woman I eavesdropped on, spoke of.
There were aspects of White opinion that I half agreed with. 12 Years maybe based on a true story, but like White, I too consider it a fiction of sorts and the film doesn't touch upon the lingering grip of slavery and white imperialism in the same way of the films that White mentioned (Beloved being the main text).
Yet why should McQueen’s film live in the shadow of what’s come before it? Unlike White I believe 12 Years a Slave to be a demanding and important motion picture on its own terms. Whether it's liked or not (in terms of superficial “enjoyment”), one should not be dismissive of it, lest you act like the patrons of the plantation who play ignorant of the torturous suffering we see on display. I may consider the picture a fiction of sorts (which films aren't) but it's a damn good one.
The story of Solomon Northup's story in which he; a free and educated black man, is drugged and sold as a slave, is an astonishing one. We see him examined and looked upon like a dog, beaten down, whipped and mentally broken down in a cult like manner. When ignorant racists have asked "why don't they just fight back/run" (I always find it strange how many racists perceive blacks are meant to subservient and hyper aggressive in a bizarre oxymoronic manner) McQueen answers them with a stern fierceness. Like any cult arrangement, you break down who a person is to gain control.
Black civility isn’t a dirty word, but a non-existent one. Here even blacks that are "favourited" are beaten to an inch of their life. One moment as Northup fight back against a repugnant and thick carpenter played by Paul Dano (unfortunately the weakest performance of the cast) to which he is hung up by his neck to a tree with only his toes balancing him on the soft, slippery mud to keep him from choking. An overseer makes sure he doesn't die, knowing the reasons behind the fight back may be true. Yet Northup is still left to hang despite his innocence, while those around toil and play. The same fingers and toes mean nothing; even speaking the same language brings no joy. Emotion and empathy from slaves is looked at as alien.
The most affecting aspect of the film is the passivity of such behaviour. Slaves are considered property by religious scripture. Name and identity is beaten away. No one batters an eye at the beatings. We see one man gives a compliant stare towards the camera before being hung. In this world, there’s little wrong with hurtling a glass bottle at a black woman but if a note is passed from black to white, hands are wiped on dresses. It's almost as if McQueen takes us to the start of the now more insidious modern ignorance. It's hard not to feel anger as hot as the blistering Georgia sun, As Northup struggles to find ways of surviving such injustice. When he is first captured he screams out from his prison bars. His plea is heard as the camera pans up and shoots against a brick wall for almost an age, before rising to the skyline and the free world. If the shot is a metaphor, it is a just one.
Sean Bobbit’s camerawork is sublime, with shots not only capturing the fragile mood of the piece (the night work is excellent) but also using the light (and make up) to show the slow deterioration of Northup, with long close ups of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s visage, painting a vivid and haunting picture.
If the ridiculous Italian Marketing campaign told us anything, it reminds us just how distracting the films white A list actors can be. While their performances can’t be faulted in terms of pitch (both Cumberbatch and Fassbender are stunning as two sides of a sinister coin) it’s tough not to notice who these people are. When Brad Pitt arrives, his position in as producer influences his role in the film. This is something I feel important to remember, considering the geography of the actors.
That said, this is Chiwetel Ejiofor's film almost entirely. Those who follow film have known of his pedigree for years, but here he is allowed to carry a film with conviction and quiet nobility. We are so clear of his civility in his demeanour, that even at his lowest ebb, we feel his decency and most importantly his very being still resides. Ejiofor’s Northup makes judgements we may not agree with, but these actions only remind us of his selfhood. This balance of human frailty yet unyielding spirit is played though Ejiofor’s expressive face. We see the torment; we’re astounded by the emotional reserves.
12 Year’s a Slave works best when we see Northup placed against the distress of other slaves. To see him put to the test against those whose resolve is dangling by a thread and have been considered as “property” for too long. To be told not to inform people that you’re learned (or face death), to witness women who are considered animals yet must be receptive of their masters carnal desires (Nyoong'o performance is heartwrenching). How do you hold maintain your insanity when those around you are so dehumanised?
This could possibly be more effective in turning a generation of people on the more difficult conversations of race than other narratives, mostly due to the stories entry point. Northup’ elegance and stature from the start (as opposed to Django Unchained’s straight up slave to badass narrative) help connect to where we are now to the culture. The atrocities faced often become a metaphor to sins of our recent history and present. The idea of Northup being drugged and placed into slavery has similarities from the sex trafficking stories we are told of. The examinations we witness remind us how easy it was to conduct the likes of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. Both those examples dehumanising its subjects to the state of mere vessels. The aggressive evil that inhabits Fassbender’s Epps may only really be seen by people on the fringe, but the “pleasant” demeanour of Cumberbatch’s Ford lingers in the same way we observe those who completely ignore that white privilege doesn’t and has never existed. To Ford; Northup is an “exceptional” nigger, but he is still a nigger. Observe how the killings of Trayvon Martin and the aforementioned Duggan have divided opinion due the perception of the victim over the shooter. Consider the stats that state that blacks are up to 28 more times more likely to get stopped. Speak to the “right” people and you’ll still witness that people believe there’s a negative aspect to a black person because it’s simply “in them”. I’ve said so much about the film already, so I’ll stay quiet over the cotton picking scene involving Northup and Armsby an alcoholic ex-overseer. Such scenes help illustrate how the seeds were sown.
12 Years a Slave maybe McQueen’s most accessible film, but it’s still no easier to watch. His facial close ups still hurt; the violence causes revolution and anger. Film has a wonderful sense of pace, rhythm and space. He also manages to make the hurt of over 200 years feel fresh. It’ll be interesting to view this again when the awards buzz leaves us. The awards season (as always) distorts readings of film and I fear the films narrative and angle will serve it well for glittery things but do little to rouse Hollywood towards the underlying issues they refuse to face. Will we observe more black stories? Will they all have to head down the same path of slavery and racial tension? Will Ejiofor’s superlative performance open doors for him and others? When we look at an even wider perspective, will 12 Years a Slave finally do what the likes of (award winners) The Blind Side (2009) and The Help (2011) didn’t and open up boarder dialogues of race? I don’t see many silent movies after The Artist (2011 Oscar winner). These questions are for the Oracle to answer.
Armond White considered this a whitewash of the themes at hand and I strongly disagree. As the credits rolled, the predominately Caucasian crowd was quick to get to their mobiles and sighed with relief. It was back to the real world. More buzzfeed and normality. The same woman who was angry at the start was angrier now. Seething at how quick some had sat up, began natter and distance themselves from what had happened on the screen. I stayed to the end and turned round to see who else did when the lights came up. Everyone who did was black, with many younger than me. It seems we took it all in. I feel like to that woman 12 Years a Slave was more than a simple water cooler moment. This moment helped demonstrate how important this movie could become to a future. Maybe she saw the same things I saw. Perhaps the dialogue has started.