Unflinching look at humanity

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To Slave - leads Francois Duhamel

12 YEARS A SLAVE
DIRECTOR: Steve McQueen
CAST: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Garrett Dillahunt, Paul Giamatti, Scott McNairy, Lupita Nyong’o, Adepero Oduye, Sarah Paulson
CLASSIFICATION: 18 VP
RUNNING TIME: 134 minutes
RATING: ****

 

The opening scenes of 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen’s searing adaptation of the true-life account of a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the pre-Civil War South, tell you all you need to know about the cinematic experience you are about to have.

A lush, unnerving tableau of a group of black men being taught to cut sugar cane reminds viewers of McQueen’s gift for evoking atmosphere and stark, highly charged emotion, whereas a scene that follows – in which the protagonist, Solomon Northup (Ejiofor), attempts to write a letter home with the juice of a few berries – brings viewers into intimate contact with a place and time too often rendered as distant and abstract.

Intense, unflinching, bold in its simplicity and radical in its use of image, sound and staging, 12 Years a Slave in many ways is the defining epic so many have longed for to examine – if not cauterise – America’s primal wound. But it’s also a crowning achievement of a filmmaker whose command of the medium extends beyond mere narrative and its reductive, sentimental snares to encompass the full depth and breadth of its most expressive and transforming properties.

The film isn’t just a cathartic experience that happens to be an astonishing formal achievement: it works its emotional power precisely because it’s so elegantly constructed, from the inside out.

From those unsettling initial scenes, 12 Years a Slave flashes back to 1841, when Northup, a fairly prosperous musician, is living with his wife and children in Saratoga, New York. While his family are out of town, Northup is introduced to two self-described talent scouts who assure him he can get good work as a fiddler with a travelling circus. After a trip to Washington and a night of wine and dining, Northup wakes up in a holding cell, shackled by chains and enshrouded in heavy, unremitting silence.

What follows is a journey of unimaginable suffering and horror, a sort of anti-picaresque during which Northup is beaten for insisting that he’s a free man, then bought and sold and bought again, finally landing up at a plantation owned by the merciless Edwin Epps (Fassbender).

Much of 12 Years a Slave centres on Northup’s relationship with Epps, who is smart enough to know he should be threatened by his enslaved servant’s superior intellect and sense of culture – and who processes those conflicting feelings the same way he accommodates his sexual attraction to a field worker named Patsey (Nyong’o): with growing and increasingly psy- chotic violence. Epps’ methods of annihilation extend to the subtle as well, such as when he casually leans on his servants, as if they’re pieces of furniture or wooden fence posts.

But 12 Years a Slave, which McQueen directed from a courtly, admirably economical script by John Ridley, isn’t content simply to be an index of human cruelty. Rather, the film offers a panorama, not just of the African-American experience in the antebellum South – from the inconsolable wailing of a woman separated from her children to a former slave con- tentedly ensconced as the wife of her former owner – but of the varieties of racist pathology.

White audience members may find it impossible to identify with the sadistically extreme abuse perpetrated by Epps and his desperate and cruel wife, played in a chillingly good performance by Paulson. But what of William Ford (Cumberbatch), one of Northup’s more benevolent owners, and his passive paternalism?

The challenge in presenting oppression in the traditional grammar of feature films is that the director winds up aestheticising violence, or keeping it at a safe, deniable distance. McQueen solves this problem by refusing to blink, or at least knowing precisely when to allow his audience to do so.

As he did in the films Hunger and Shame (also starring Fassbender), McQueen doesn’t go in for a lot of flash edits or self-conscious visual flourishes to put viewers at ease; rather, he invites the audience to sit with him as he gazes, amazed, at man’s inhumanity to man, an unnerving encounter that in this case is heightened by a percussive, adamantly non-period musical score by Hans Zimmer.

Whether the filmmaker is holding his camera on Northup as he struggles on tiptoe, his neck caught in a lynching noose, while the life of the plantation deliberately goes on behind him, or an excruciatingly protracted whipping scene, the net effect is less an indictment of slavery than a far more nuanced portrait of the violence, intimacy, obsession and constant psychological con- tortions that defined its most toxic enmeshments.

At its most profound, 12 Years a Slave is a captivating study of humanity at its most troubled and implacable, as Ejiofor masterfully portrays Northup’s fight to retain his dignity and identity in an ever-widening nightmare.

As such, McQueen’s film deserves pride of place alongside Gravity, Captain Phillips and the upcoming All Is Lost as a breath- taking, ambitious essay on physical and existential isolation.

Arguably, the stakes here are higher, not just for Northup, but for the viewers who find themselves caught up in his wrenching journey.

It’s improbable that anyone will feel lighter after watching 12 Years a Slave, but they’re likely to find that their moral imaginations have been newly liberated. – Washington Post

If you liked Captain Phillips or Mud you will like this.

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