There is a scene in 12 Years a Slave – about halfway through its two-plus hour runtime – that perfectly encapsulates the film as a whole as well as its overall viewing experience. Like the film itself, the scene is prolonged, brutal to watch, and yet stunningly captured – all for maximum emotional impact.
Solomon Northup, a free black man kidnapped and sold into slavery, is being lynched. After back-talking to and defending himself against a vindictive overseer, Northup (renamed Platt, a slave moniker) is attacked by three white men and beaten down. A rope is effortlessly tossed over the drooping limb an old oak tree and Northup’s head is place through the noose. With a grunt and skin-tearing jerk, Northup is lifted off the ground.
Solomon hangs for a few long seconds before the head overseer arrives and stops the men from killing him. The rope, still tight around Northup’s neck, is lowered, but tied up just short of the ground, leaving him dangling a few inches off the ground. He strains, tries balancing himself on his tiptoes, and fruitlessly grasps at the rope, trying to loosen it.
Fellow slaves watch him squirm, helpless to come to his aid out of fear. They keep their heads down and go about their work. One slave girls braves a few seconds to give him a sip of water but does not dare cut him down. All the while, Solomon struggles.
Minutes pass almost in silence as the camera continuously watches the scene from several different angles (front, back, a wide shot, closeup, etc.) with distressing, but poignant long takes. Finally, the plantation owner arrives to cut him down. Northup drops to ground gasping for air and thankful for firmness of the earth now underneath him.
Northup barely survives this one incident and his entire life as a slave is essentially the same arduous and precarious situation – albeit on an even grander scale. He and his fellow slaves are struggling to keep alive with a perpetual noose around their neck, always just a few inches and tiptoes away from pain and death.
Though it feels like almost ten minutes, the entire scene likely only lasts two to three. That is the intense effect the film has on the viewer. This is just one scene in film full of them.
It should not come as a complete surprise that it took a filmmaker like Steve McQueen, a British visual-artist-turned-filmmaker know for his two previous stark and honest films (Hunger, Shame), to make a slavery film like this. While McQueen knew the importance of showing the brutality of slavery, he is the rare filmmaker who can find beauty in the darkest and most dismal of places. His camera often lingers on the smallest of things, highlighting their simple, but profound place in the world. Many shots in the film take on an eerie, old-time feel like the rare, real life antebellum photographs that inspired the look of the film. He loves his long takes, low angle shots, and close-ups and uses them all to great effect. The film is ultra-realistic, but McQueen's stylistic touches are hard to miss (not that that is a bad thing).
Though similar in some key ways, 12 Years a Slave is markedly different film from his previous, more minimalist works. Perhaps because it is so faithfully adapted from a true historical source, there is much more of an emphasis on letting the story play out in a straightforward fashion. There is also more heart and emotion to go along with the assertive brutality.
When the film opened the New Orleans Film Festival last month, McQueen discussed his desire and willingness to make a film about slavery.
“Though this story is about American slavery, slavery itself is not American. Slavery is universal. Some ships went one way to America, while others, like the ones with my ancestors, went the other direction to the West Indies.”
“Someone asked me the other day how I first learned about slavery. I was taken aback by the question. I didn’t know how to answer it. How does one learn things like that? No one remembers when you first learned your name. But as I got older and became more aware of slavery, I was ashamed and embarrassed.”
“Years later, when I got the opportunity to do this film, I decided I didn’t want to be ashamed. I want to own it.”
With a raw and emotional film like this, the actors’ performances are the most important. McQueen’s affinity for long takes and close-ups give each actor their moment to shine, much of the time dialogue free. As Solomon Northup, British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers an awe-inspiring performance – magnificently constrained at times, yet powerfully explosive when needed. Michael Fassbender plays a conflicted, but vicious slave owner, who you almost feel sorry for before he quickly and repeatedly reminds you that he is a vicious monster. And Lupita Nyong'o is beautiful and heartbreaking as the young slave girl who catches both his unwelcome fancy and fiendish ire.
Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael K. Williams, and Paul Dano all give great, though all-too-brief turns as well. While on the other hand, Brad Pitt (who also produced the film), is expectedly solid, but distracting once he appears on screen so late in the film. It takes the viewer a bit out of the moment, but by that time, the film has worn on the viewer so much, you are glad to see him, or anyone, show some compassion and finally help Solomon.
On top of all that, 12 Years a Slave does basically everything else flawlessly, particularly the gorgeous cinematography by Sean Bobbitt and Hans Zimmer's pounding musical score. And everyone – director, writers, actors, and more – will be more than recognized come awards season.
A lot has been said of 12 Years a Slave since its festival premiere just over a month ago – mostly about its graphic and brutal nature (and how necessary that is), its overall cinematic and historical importance, and whether or not it is "the defining film about slavery." While it is true that slavery is a well-worn tread in cinematic history, it has largely been tiptoed around. Most people, understandably, do not want to watch a movie about the severe and tragic history of slavery. Even films that do meet it more head-on have a tough time conveying realism and the overall impact (mentally, physically, socially, economically) it had on all people and throughout history.
Not 12 Years a Slave. The film is a truly unflinching and demanding cinematic experience. I will say that again: cinematic experience. Because in the end, even as powerful as it is, 12 Years a Slave is still only a film, depicting heinous acts that took place over 150 years ago. Saying it is the first or best true depiction of slavery is a hollow statement. Critics (myself included) like to make grand statements like this because it is more eye-catching and buzzworthy.
Is it a great film? Of course. Is it socially and historically important? Sure. But is it the be-all, end-all depiction of slavery? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. It is just a film, granted it is probably the best of year, but slavery is far too extensive and diverse to be generalized and summarized with one film (or any piece of art) – no matter how good it is.
* * * * * out of 5 stars
12 Years a Slave opens in local theaters on Friday, November 1 at Prytania Theatre, The Theatres at Canal Place and AMC Elmwood Palace 20. The films also opens next weekend (Fri, NOV 8) at Chalmette Movies.
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