There’s been an inordinate amount of films this year that have reached to claim some stake in reality, often via the “true story” card used in different manners by Fruitvale Station, The Butler, The Bling Ring, The Conjuring, and even Pain & Gain. The writers at Dissolve put together a pretty strong argument against the rampant us of this phrase, which is enough to inspire disgust and a hint of manipulation upon seeing it at the front of any film. However if 12 Years a Slave seems to begin with a similarly cloying marker of “This film is based on a true story”, it immediately cuts away any dishonest attempt at sentiment with a note of grim severity. Presenting a huddle group of raggedly dressed slaves receiving disparagingly simple labor instructions from their white foreman who’ll scarcely be remembered by the time the film is over, it’s clear the “true story” designation is less a self-gratifying statement as it is a glaring accusation at the audience.
Steve McQueen’s first two films had no problem combating either the brutal political system maintaining the stale domestic bliss of 1980s Ireland in Hunger or the irrepressible objectifying and dehumanizing sexual compulsions of unspokenly scarred New Yorker in Shame. Few directors working today have such a keen interest in and bravery to tackle such obvious human injustices that normative social conversation brushes clean out of conversation. For him to now tackle American slavery seems an almost overly systematic next step, checking another big trigger subject off his list of worldly concerns. The film’s comparatively broad sensibility, almost perfectly primed as an Oscar juggernaut, also feels faintly like a distress signal, that perhaps some studio compromise was necessary to bring McQueen’s vision to such a wide audience.
If those fears undoubtedly exist in spite, or quite understandably because, of its monumentally positive critical reception – a villain as nasty to audiences as it is to films burdened with it – the opening act of the film stealthily whittles those fears away, though not in ways as subtly devastating as in Hunger or Shame. If the actions and decisions of McQueen’s latest are noticeably substantial and emboldened, it’s a reflection of the evident cruelty of that period. If past films about slavery depicted it simply as “the way things are”, 12 Years a Slave reinstates a timely sense of dystopia to the period. When we begin our journey with 19th century violinist Solomon Northrup, played with soft-spoken honesty and contrarian confidence by Chiwetel Ejiofor, he’s living a quaint and by all impressions normal life in New York with his wife and children. As he strides self-assuredly through Central Park, you’d assume universally equal as it is today, if not more so. If not for the title, slavery would be the last thing we’d expect to befall him, next to Freddy Krueger or the Alien Queen.
So when captivity does seize itself upon Solomon, it does so with the unnatural force of those gastly schlock monsters, then viciously taking its hunk of flesh out of him and, in tow, the audience. It’s an abrupt shift in circumstance that requires a heavy, brutal punctuation in order to make the transition from freedom to slavery. Once we’re in it’s the long-term experience that takes hold, opting for slighter changes in fortune and possession than the initial backbreaking. If the title is a ticking of time sentenced, Northrup remains sturdy to his resolve for escape, at times clearly to a point of selfishness. “I will survive! I will not fall into despair,” Northrup pronounces with intensity, but where the trailers might skew it as a “triumph of the spirit” moment, it reads as an obliviously soul-selling statement.
An earlier statement of “I don’t want to survive. I want to live,” lays the basis for a necessary moral dilemma inside this seemingly self-serving singular survival narrative. In this way 12 Years a Slave and Gravity would make a surprisingly potent oppositional double-feature, both tales of survival, but where Cuaron’s film is about justifying its worth in the aftermath of visceral and personal disaster, McQueen is interesting in the slippery injustices inherent in surviving. Making a black man a symbol of our cultural ignorance is a precipitous move for him, but one that lends itself a needed universality. It’s not racism that’s of greatest concern so much as the simple acquiescence to inhumanity, something we see through both Northrup’s internal maelstrom as well as the vortex of less tormented white oppressors whose service he cycles through.
There’s no pussy-footing around their express freedoms, each making their entrance with the propaganda of a campaign speech. “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaach, and the God of Jacob,” Benedict Cumberbatch’s kindly, ostensibly charitable preacher William Ford recites with a generosity more crudely teasing than sympathetic. Not that we can hear him, since his sermon is disturbingly tuned out as background whining while Paul Dano’s foreman Tibeats leads a chorus of slaves to his rendition of traditional folk song “Run Nigger Run”. Simple use of “the N word” – a phrase cowered away from by most and used with the weight of a bowling ball by others – is enough to make soft-hearted viewers cringe, but 12 Years a Slave recognizes it as an accepted part of the cultural landscape, used in frequency till the sting of it becomes innocuous, but no less wrong headed. The goal isn’t to sanctify injustice, but to condemn sanctimony when it retains such shocking apathy.
If Ford’s placid-faced artificial altruism is a mask, Michael Fassbender’s furiously grizzled Edwin Epps is what lurks screaming behind it. After nailing two staggering lead turns in the can with McQueen already, one’s glad the duo opted out blackface to get him in the lead role once again. His supporting stature here doesn’t keep him from building an even more sickly contortion of man’s freedoms let run unchecked than the desperate sex addict he played in Shame. A fair bit more intelligent than Leonardo DiCaprio’s sinisterly bearded villain in Django Unchained, Epps is a more willfully hideous creature free of public disfavor, bent by his utter lack of accountability into a form of violent, perverse pleasure seeking. However if Epps makes his entrance with a rumbling growl, Sarah Paulson infiltrates his stranglehold of monstrous magnetism with a roar as his wife, the kind of seething manipulator that will certainly spur many “she’s the real master” declarations as Amy Adams did in The Master.
For all the obvious power the alabaster players lord over them, the slave girls wield their own defiantly spirited kind of intensity. Pariah devotees will be particularly pleased to see Adepero Oduye hasn’t vanished to neglect, here displaying a strong devotion the heartbreak of her character, a woman who has world even further shattered beyond repair than Solomon’s own. The film’s most startling surprise turn, be it one already turning into a star Oscar juggernaut, comes from newcomer Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey, a slave whose degradingly simple moniker is just another constriction placed upon her freedom. For all the centrality placed upon her as Epps’ “favorite”, it’s attention more likely to scald than flatter her. And scald it does in the film’s most sustained set-piece of abuse, drenching in sweltering daylight as to light every nuance of vitality in her face, but also to highlight the utter wrongness of the act that’s forced upon her.
If 12 Years a Slave is only about Solomon’s courageous journey, why is he shown riddled with guilt at the sight of every atrocity he witnesses, but doesn’t prevent? This is but one contradiction in a film that’s alive with and predicated on such contradictions. It’s a time capsule of the darkest period in American history, but shot in unforgivably naked sunshine by Sean Bobbitt, whose signature long takes take on an eerie obviousness that transcends simple dark-versus-light visual keys to create a searing, unprecedented look. It’s an intimate look through the eyes of one man, but blown out upon a vigorously overgrown landscape, Bobbitt’s lens almost acquiring a Malick-esq gaze in its refreshing aside to the sunset lit swamp foliage just outside the plantation Northrup is bound within. It’s seemingly geared towards mass audiences who get a self-esteem boost out of cultural and historical awareness, but it denies them the satisfaction of feeling separate from the onscreen atrocity. As we sit in the safety of a dark room, somewhere there is somebody in pain that nobody has the time or care to help.
Even the film’s title is a contradiction, a statement of immense, elongated scope that the film willfully dilutes through careful, unshowy makeup and Joe Walker’s patient but prompt editing. What’s 12 years in actuality may only feel like 12 months, time being suspended in such a way so that, when it is finally put back into motion in the film’s final scene, it hits with a full force of heart-mulching loss. When the film finally caps off with its ending titles revealing the fate of Solomon Northrup, they don’t read as a matter-of-factly historical post-it note, but a validation that this journey has not been for nothing. In any escape there is experience earned, and it’s not meant to be left on the dresser while you talk about how much it made you feel.
Bottom Line: 12 Years a Slave is as universally resonant as it is fiercely demanding, a landmark of open daylight injustice stretched irrepressibly across the screen.