Spoiler's alert: As with most of my comments, please see the film and then read this, and comment on it as well.
As I was watching one of the most graphically painful scenes in Steve McQueen’s ‘12 Years A Slave’ (the one of young slave Patsie being lashed by fellow slave Platt (the slave name for Salomon Northup, a free man captured and sold as a slave in the south) and then by her infamous Master/lover Epps at the request of his jealous and manipulative wife) images of Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ’ came to mind to enhance the visual and spiritual cruelty. This is, perhaps, the most moving moment in a film filled with many of them and also a deeply uncomfortable one.
Many people fainted or left the theatre watching Gibson’s graphic depiction of the torture and crucifixion of Jesus. It’s like, in years and years of books and paintings and movies, we had never come face to face to the true passion of the Christ, because if he was a man and suffered and sacrificed himself for humanity, then the pain inflicted should have been both in the soul and in the flesh, and it is not pretty. It can never be an “idea of pain” or the beautiful gold crucifixes Catholics wear on their necks. The same way, American history seems to be vanishing into an anecdotal account of some improvable past we don't seem to connect with. Like it never happened in reality. Films like 'Lincoln' need to recreate facts in a way that it relates to the current state of affairs and modern way of thinking. That's why Lincoln sounds so "modern" in Spielberg's film. But what about the people? Not the presidents, not the kings. Just the people who lived through the cruelty of the civilized world and its stratification and segmentation? If it is a given that history is told by the winners, that doesn't erase the victims from it.
If Patsie’s torture scene should serve as a metaphor, it should be Salomon’s own flesh and soul being tortured, subdued and broken in pieces for 12 long years. After all, he was a free man with a family living honorably in Upstate New York when he was tricked (in a simple reference to naive Pinocchio, who wanted to belong and be a grown man) into following a circus troupe as a gifted violinist to find success and financial rest, when in truth he found himself chained, abducted, and sold as a slave in New Orleans where plantations made use of submissive slaves.
But even if there is always the idea of a free man being wronged, Salomon is the spirit of all the slaves, embodying both the transgressor and the submissive man as a way to endure and survive. Here, Chiwetel Ejiofor shows that he is the best choice for the role of real-life Salomon and McQueen makes perfect use of his impressive expressions in long shots of his face looking to the horizon, longing, searching, thinking, just to end up facing us, in a clear breaking of the fourth wall to make us participate. Here the film asks the audience a straightforward question, as opposed to Paul Haggis Oscar Winner ‘Crash’, which seemed to put the responsibility of racism on chance and opportunity, freeing the audience of any connection.
McQueen’s film is structured mostly lineally, interrupted only by the opening scene that situates us right on slave life, from which we can not find a safety net, and some flashbacks that function as Salomon’s internal struggle. And in this perfect structure that allows for the succession of anecdotes giving slavery its full dimension, you will be confronted with show-stopping scenes that immediately make a stronger statement, functioning like the highest notes on a dark and intense symphony. In one of them, Salomon confronts white man Teabeats who can’t accept the knowledge of a black man, and hits him with a whip, not just turning the tables on slavery, as Tarantino did with ‘Django Unchained’, but as a freeman defending himself from injustice and knowing the repercussions they will bring in return. Later on there is a scene of unbearable horror, I can only compare to the song ‘Strange Fruit’ by Abel Meeropol made famous by Billie Holiday, which speaks of “…Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze…Pastoral scene of the gallant south, the bulging eyes and the twisted mouth”… Salomon is hanged on a tree but then lowered so his toes touch the ground. The rest of a long full day he manages to stay alive on his tiptoes while the light of day changes and other slaves go on with their daily responsibilities, not even acknowledging him, for fear of being tortured. So much he respects life that when Patsie asks him to kill her so that she can be free of her terrible life, he is unable to satisfy her. Scenes later he will be forced to torture her and afterwards, abandon her to her fate.
Twice the film shows a black man being freed by a white man who believes in abolitionism, and twice the free men have to silently give their back on the ones that stay behind. The fact that Salomon has to say goodbye to young and determined Patsie, who is trapped not only as a slave, but as Master Epps’ lover and double tortured by vicious and jealous Mrs. Epps, might be one of the reasons why the first words Salmon says when he sees his family again is “forgive me”. He does not feel free in the end, but filled with pain and guilt. That is why the real life Salomon engaged in helping slaves escape for the rest of his life, as well as prosecuted his raptors, wrote a book and influenced abolitionism before he mysteriously disappeared. Like those tortured souls that came from the Vietnam war who would never forget their experience and would never take life for granted again, Salomon’s 12 years of slavery would never let him live in peace, nor would they let us, the audience think that this chapter in the US history is just a distant and unconnected anecdote. It has shaped the life of blacks and whites and continues to be a deep wound in the core of this nation.
Steve McQueen’s film comes in a year that saw ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’ and ‘Fruitvale Station’ become important “must-see” films, lighting again the subject of racial injustice. It may very well be the most intense and influential of them all (even more than 2012’s Oscar winning ‘Django Unchained’) supported by Brad Pitt’s production participation, and 1st rate actors, from the well established (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano and Sarah Paulson) to newcomers like Lupita Nyong’o, whose supporting character is probably the most haunting in the film.
The fact that ’12 Years a Slave’ entered the box office as the 7th money maker speaks clearly of the audience’s need to invest on films that feed the soul, and reshape their thoughts, as opposed to films of pure and simple entertainment. Maybe with this and other “specialty” films that do more than well at the box office, the game will eventually change and we will have access to more challenging films.