“12 Years a Slave” Reveals Physical, Spiritual Wounds of Slavery
It’s probably safe to assume that no modern film has presented the devastating experience of slavery in a positive light. However,12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen, truly leaves no stone unturned in its portrayal of a thoroughly explored, yet perpetually unfathomable subject. Far from a mere historical exhumation, The legacy of the institution, its tendrils coiling menacingly beneath the surface of our daily lives, is as relevant now as it ever has been. 12 Years a Slave gives us the opportunity to observe, with searing clarity, the human cost of an abomination from which the United States will never fully recover.
The physical depictions of slavery in 12 Years a Slave are painful to watch; the film’s 130 minutes contain no shortage of beatings, whippings, hangings and sexual assaults. It is a testament to the integrity of the film that such depictions are always instructive, never exploitative. That being said, as horrifying as it is to watch human beings suffer and perpetrate such atrocities, the spiritual toll slavery takes on all involved is even more devastating. The myriad ways in which slaves cope with abuse and dehumanization ring true in a manner that few other films, books, or TV series can match. The same thing goes for the damage slavery wreaks on its perpetrators.
Many stories about slavery understandably portray slaveholders as embodiments of absolute evil, and 12 Years a Slave does not in any way attempt to whitewash their actions. Nevertheless, it is simultaneously devoted to treating its “villains” as human beings rather than caricatures. One might worry that such an approach would evoke sympathy for men and women who have committed unspeakable crimes against humanity. On the contrary, though, it accomplishes the opposite. Viewing slave masters in Manichean terms counter-intuitively serves to sanitize their evil. It is the nature of a servant of darkness to fulfill a role ordained by its nature, but human beings, in contrast, always have a choice. In possession of conscience and the capacity for reflection and introspection, men and women can be evil in a way that caricatures, no matter how diabolical, can never match. Thus, in presenting slave owners as human beings with good and bad qualities, 12 Years a Slave directs the audience to question how they could possibly abide the institution on which they rely on for their lives and livelihoods.
Ambitious themes aside, the narrative of 12 Years a Slave is actually quite straightforward; the brilliance is all in the details. Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a freedman residing in Saratoga Springs, New York, makes a living playing a fiddle for affluent whites. Astute viewers may pick up on a vaguely minstrel-like quality to the relationship between performer and audience in film’s first scene. While far removed from southern slaveholders, there is a sense that the white audience values Solomon more for his folksy, black charm than his qualities as a person. Their beaming smiles and enthusiastic applause belie a tinge of exploitation.
Subsequently, a pair of slave catchers con Solomon into captivity with the promise of employment in a circus, alongside clowns and elephants, further implying the devaluation of African Americans as sources of entertainment instead of equals, a recurring theme that persists north and south of the Mason-Dixon line. In the north, this commodification is subtle, so much so that Solomon seems either oblivious or so inured to it that he does not protest. This is understandable, given that Saratoga Springs is a place where Solomon and his family live with a level of comfort and status rare for African Americans at the time. Even so, director Steve McQueen does not let northerners off the hook, sprinkling just enough clues to imply that prejudice is not exclusively the domain of the south.
This is a fascinating observation; one almost wishes that McQueen spent more time exploring Solomon’s life prior to enslavement. But the heart of the film, as its title suggests, takes place in the south, specifically New Orleans. There, the commodification of blackness is obvious, with masters ordering their “property” to perform for them as a means to flaunt power. Solomon’s fiddle, the source of his livelihood in Saratoga, reveals itself as a physical manifestation of subservience; he does not own his own talents, which are subject to the whims of his enslavers. When Solomon smashes his instrument, it is simultaneously sad and empowering, symbolizing both a tragic severance with his past and an empowering unwillingness to have his musical gift exploited. Similarly, Solomon’s burning of a letter to his family, which he has tried and failed to send, represents the acceptance of his new life.
Although virtually every white person in 12 Years a Slave on some level views African Americans as tools rather than people, their ensuing behavior differs substantially. Solomon’s first owner, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), shows some level of humanity, selling Solomon to another plantation when, in a foolish yet understandable act of defiance, the protagonist whips and incurs the wrath of cruel overseer John Tibeats (Paul Dano). Solomon’s act of defiance lands him at a far worse plantation, presided over by Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a cruel man who justifies his barbarism with the Bible. The product of Solomon’s rebellion touches on the question of why slaves “submitted” to their enslavement; fighting back would, by the design of their masters, make their lives more unbearable.
Epps treats his slaves worse than beasts and Solomon, with his stubborn sense of dignity, becomes a frequent target of abuse. Perhaps the only one worse off is Epps’ sex slave, Patsy, played by Lupita Nyong’o in a breathtaking performance that merits the highest praise. The slave owner’s wife, Mary (Sarah Paulson), seized with violent jealousy over her husband’s infidelity, participates in Patsy’s abuse. Despite their power, the couple is, in a way, more pathetic than the slaves they brutalize. The experience of owning other human beings has decimated their marriage and corrupted their souls, hammering home the spiritual toll slavery takes on its perpetrators.
Just when you think Solomon is doomed to live out his life in what can only be described as hell on Earth, salvation arrives in the form of Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt), who convinces Solomon to explain his plight. Moved and convinced of the fact all human beings deserve freedom, he precipitates Solomon’s release and transport to the north. Relieving as it might be, this is the one part of 12 Years a Slave that doesn’t ring entirely true. To be sure, an altruistic individual willing to free slaves is consistent with the time period. Yet, on an emotional and narrative level, Bass’s intervention feels abrupt. This is in part because, with the exception of a short monologue, we are not given any context to illuminate why he, unlike all other white people in the film, is so inviolably good and noble. Perhaps without the restriction of a 2-hour running time, the filmmakers would have devoted more time to this character, but as things stand, this one minor flaw stands out otherwise impeccable film.
Quibbling aside, 12 Years a Slave is one of the best films of the year. It is exceedingly rare that any film, no matter how sublime, redefines and raises the bar for all other films in its genre. Schindler’s List did so for the Holocaust, Saving Private Ryan for World War II, and now 12 Years a Slave has done so for films about slavery. It possesses subtleties and thematic depth comparable to any great novel, with the additional benefit of a flawless cast composed of stars and relative unknowns alike. There is literally not a single bad – or even mediocre – performance in this film. No film is perfect, but 12 Years a Slave comes damn close and deserves to seen and contemplated by all. If there is any justice, 12 Years a Slave will go down in history as a seminal work of art.