Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave made me angry — and grateful — in ways I didn’t always anticipate.
Perhaps you’re already thinking this is a movie that I think you should see, rather than a movie you would want to see. Perhaps, no matter how I might praise the brilliant direction and stunning cinematography or Chiwetel Ejiofor’s riveting lead performance, you might even be wondering whether, in 2013, we really need yet another movie about slavery. Haven’t we seen it all before?
What if I were to tell you that, until now, there has never been a major historical motion picture about the slave experience in America? Could that possibly be true?
Hollywood has produced plenty of historical dramas about race and racism — many dominated by white protagonists or major characters — from The Help to Glory. Steven Spielberg’s Amistad was more about abolitionists than slaves. The cultural impact of the TV miniseries Roots was enormous, bringing the ugliness of slavery to mass audiences for the first time. Yet the purported historical basis for the story of Kunta Kinte was undermined by a plagiarism lawsuit exposing Haley’s dependence on a 1967 novel by a white author, Harold Courlander.
There is no shortage of firsthand source material on the actual experiences of American slaves. Scores of ex-slave memoirs were published and disseminated by abolitionists prior to the Civil War. After the war, writers and journalists recorded thousands of interviews with former slaves. A few of these accounts are famous for the post-enslavement careers of their authors, such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. Why haven’t either of these notable figures been the subject of a major motion picture?
In the annals of firsthand slave narratives, the story of Solomon Northup, published in 1853, is particularly poignant. A free-born New York native, a husband and father of three, Northup had been lured in 1841 to the slavery city of Washington, D.C., where — like countless other free blacks during this time period — he was kidnapped, shipped to the Deep South (Baton Rouge, La.) and sold into slavery.
Generations of schoolchildren have learned about the Underground Railroad; why are they not taught about this horrifying "Reverse Underground Railroad"? Why had I not heard about it until now?
The choice of this story lends the first act of 12 Years a Slave a greater immediacy and impact than other slave narratives might have. When we first meet Northup, he’s a working family man, a violinist married to a cook, with both jobs occasionally taking them out of town. They are respectable, well educated and relatively comfortable — a family with lives and challenges recognizably similar to our own.
All of this makes the shock and abhorrence of what happens to him all the more crushing. Ejiofor brings a dignity and warmth to the early scenes with his family and a horror and bewilderment over what unexpectedly befalls him that makes the viewer feel his disorientation and disbelief. He responds as any of us would — with outrage and defiance — against these professional predators whose livelihoods depend on crushing the natural human assertion of right to freedom.
Even so, Northup’s self-possession is never entirely eradicated. Set apart from his fellow slaves by his vocabulary, worldliness and assertiveness, Northup impresses his first master, William Ford, a gentle Baptist preacher (Benedict Cumberbatch), with his competence and vision — qualities that only make Northup a target to stupid, cruel men like Tibeats (Paul Dano), who works for Ford, and Epps (Michael Fassbender), a plantation owner who becomes Northup’s second owner.
Making some effort to accommodate himself to the role imposed on him, Northup learns to hide what may be — other than his indomitable determination to be reunited with his family — his greatest asset: his dangerous ability to read and write. The logistics of composing a letter and getting it to friends in the North, who could produce copies of his papers of freedom, may be seemingly insurmountable, but he keeps trying.
The screenplay by John Ridley is largely faithful to Northup’s memoir, from the most harrowing incidents (such as a ghastly, lingering punishment meted out to Northup for daring to resist a beating) to the appearance of a character one critic called "too good to be true," a religious Canadian abolitionist-carpenter named Samuel Bass (played in a cameo by producer Brad Pitt).
Bass’ brief but striking speech about the equality of all men "in the sight of God" and the injustice of slavery is an important counterweight to the misuse of religion by the likes of Tibeats and Epps to justify the status quo.
Perhaps even more crucial is a powerful scene depicting the subversive power of faith to strengthen and unite the oppressed, when Northup is emotionally caught up with other slaves defiantly singing a spiritual following the death of one of their own.
A few critics have quarreled with the simplicity of the film’s uncontroversial theme: Slavery is evil. It has been argued that McQueen could have taken greater risks and challenged his audience by highlighting more provocative, less politically correct angles on the story of slavery: the role of black slavers, for instance, or more kindly relations between some masters and slaves. For that matter, I would have welcomed more of Bass’ principled religious abolitionism.
But such objections fall away in the face of two simple observations: a) Solomon Northup’s story is important and worth telling; and b) this is that story.
Following the source material, Northup is in practically every scene; the whole story is told from his point of view. There is no need or place for a subplot making Bass a bigger character (yet another white hero in a black story). Likewise, a story about kindly relations between masters and slaves might be worth telling, but a free man kidnapped and sold into slavery is likely to have a different story to tell.
This does mean that, insofar as the film occasionally heightens the barbarity of Northup’s oppressors, it can be criticized for that. One of the few moments that struck me as false involves the casual murder of one of Northup’s fellow prisoners on the slave ship bearing them to Baton Rouge — an improbable way to treat valuable "cargo" for which a price has been paid on which one hopes to make a profit. I wasn’t surprised to learn from Northup’s memoir that, in fact, the man died of smallpox. And while a devastating betrayal late in the narrative is related much as it happened, the story suffers for the absence of a kindly British sailor on the slave ship who collaborated in Northup’s first attempt to contact his friends in the North who could verify his identity and obtain his freedom.
But these are minor issues in a generally unimpeachable, haunting film that has only about two hours to relate 12 years of injustice — and to redress decades of cinematic silence.
My friend and colleague Peter Chattaway once commented that "we live in a culture where something doesn’t seem ‘real’ until a movie has been made about it."
12 Years a Slave is an important contribution toward filling an immense gap in cinematic history.
Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of DecentFilms.com.
Caveat Spectator: Much harsh content, including scenes of vicious abuse and cruelty; a brief sexual encounter and scenes of sexual abuse (no nudity); a slave-market scene with nudity; profane and obscene language. Mature viewing.