12 Years a Slave opens with a remarkable shot, notable both for its composition and the length for which it’s held. A group of slaves stand in a sugarcane field, bedraggled but resolute, looking into the camera. It’s clear from the start that this movie isn’t content to simply be viewed. The picture stares back.
Based on an 1853 memoir by Solomon Northup, a free black man who lived in New York, the movie recounts what Northup himself documented: his kidnapping at the hands of slavers and the years he spent enduring a life of forced labor in Louisiana.
12 Years a Slave is a master class in turning history into cinematic drama. Speeches are few and far between, while sound and imagery are at the forefront. Director Steve McQueen, who worked similarly in Hunger and Shame, captures the past with an aching artfulness. As Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is beaten into submission by a kidnapper in a cell, his face is hidden in darkness, emphasizing that his identity is being obliterated along with his freedom. Later, while Solomon is en route to Louisiana by paddleboat, McQueen fills the screen with the inexorable churning of the paddle in the water, suggesting that he is now part of an industrialized, unstoppable system of abuse. Another shot works similarly: as the camera peers down from above, a carriage rushes in, its rectangle bed entirely filling the frame. The tarp is pulled back to reveal a number of slaves, tightly lined up in rows to maximize efficiency.
Even the movie’s sound design drips with sorrow. When Solomon first arrives in Louisiana, he finds himself on a plantation where the owner (Benedict Cumberbatch) holds interracial church services on the front lawn. The first time the owner is reading from the Bible, we can’t really hear him because the mocking song of an overseer from the previous scene bleeds into this one. Later, during another Bible reading, his words are drowned out by a slave weeping over the loss of her children. With those two subtle moves, the film illuminates the hypocrisy of the dominant church of the time.
Speeches are few and far between, while sound and imagery are at the forefront.
It must be said that these are some of the gentler moments in 12 Years a Slave. Elsewhere, the awfulness of slavery is graphically depicted and overwhelming to watch. Yet I don’t think the film can be accused of emotional manipulation, even if some of the whipping scenes have the intensity of The Passion of the Christ. Consider the mise en scene of the most difficult sequences, which often involve a slave enduring punishment of some kind. Nearly every time, we notice other slaves walking by blithely in the background. In the movie’s most interminable moment, when Solomon is tied by his neck to a tree branch, his toes squishing in the mud as he desperately tries to stay upright, children even play in the field behind him. We’re reminded that slavery was a system so entrenched in American culture that it had become terrifyingly unremarkable, even to some of its primary victims.
This is where Ejiofor’s performance is key, for his stoicism is part of the tragedy. Throughout his journey, Solomon is witness to all sorts of despair that he is powerless to stop. As a musician, he’s often ordered to play cheery music in hopes of drowning out the vile things that are happening. And so these are double crimes: the injustice itself and the forcing of another to watch.
There are moments when Ejiofor shifts gears, however, and reveals a vacant hopelessness settling in for Solomon. It’s crushing to watch. At other times we get a glimmer of defiant attentiveness. In the picture’s most moving moment, we see the former give way to the latter as a group of slaves sings “Roll, Jordan, Roll” and Solomon, despite himself, joins in.
12 Years a Slave boasts several strong performances – Michael Fassbender, who starred in McQueen’s previous features and plays a particularly cruel slave owner here, proves once again he’s best as a man possessed by demons. But the standout performance in the film comes from Lupita Nyong’o, making her feature debut as Patsey, a slave on the plantation of Fassbender’s Edwin Epps. Patsey has come under Epps’ favor, which offers a few benefits – soap – but other abuses of unimaginable pain. Her midnight plea that Solomon murder her as an act of mercy reveals – in the manner of Toni Morrison’s great Beloved – how a sin as heinous as slavery can upend the entire moral universe.
What do we do with all of this? Besides remind ourselves of the bitter realities of slavery and acknowledge how its legacy might linger still today, it’s hard to say. 12 Years a Slave leaves you exhausted. Yet I admire the movie for throwing this burden back at us, the audience. There’s a brief throwaway moment toward the end, in which Solomon scans the horizon, his sober eyes eventually coming to rest on the camera, and us. It’s a jarring touch, yet it echoes the movie’s opening image. 12 Years a Slave begins as the story of witnesses. By its end, we’re witnesses too.