12 Years a Slave (2013)

12 Years a Slave

Directed by: Steve McQueen, US/UK 2013

12 Years a Slave is a nightmare – a fever dream.  It sends you to a distant past, surrounded by men and women in worn-through garments.  Gradually, images flash by of a family, a kidnapping, torture, and the unique evil that causes men to dominate other men.  Even the lulls in the storm are frothing with menace, as around every corner there is a sadist with a whip or a noose.  Eventually the horror ends, but the images remain.

The film tells a story of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free African American man who was kidnapped by slavers in 1841 and shipped from the North to Louisiana.  Aside from his memoir, which shares a title with the film, little is known of Northrup.  For over a century, his book was buried in the stacks of abolitionist literature, beneath better known works by Harriet Beecher Stowe and Frederick Douglass.  It was re-discovered by scholars in the 1960’s, who verified the accuracy of the story.

That Northrup is a relatively unknown figure in history is important.  While McQueen’s film tracks Northrup’s story, it isn’t designed or structured as a biopic.  The audience isn’t meant to sympathize with Northrup, but to experience American slavery through his eyes and, by doing so, understand a small piece of the horror that millions of American experienced before 1865.

Northrup’s story was an anomaly, and his experience was largely that of an outsider.  Much like Spielberg does in “Schindler’s List” (1994), McQueen uses this to great effect.  The audience, after all, is an outsider too, and can only view the events of 12 Years a Slave through that perspective.  This is especially important when one considers that the institution of slavery has passed from living memory.  We can’t interview the victims, the participants, or the bystanders. All we have are ghosts, like Northrup’s, screaming to us from a distant past.

Take for example McQueen’s depiction of Northrup’s life in Saratoga Springs.  It feels a bit too modern, but McQueen isn’t reaching for historical accuracy, he’s trying to ground Northrup’s experience in our modern sensibilities.  It helps prevent the audience from mentally checking out from the story with a “oh this happened a long time ago.”

Other than the title, McQueen uses flashbacks and repeated scenes to avoid grounding Northrup’s experience in time.  The film is shot in drab earth-tones, like a dream in which your mind tricks you into seeing colors.  The film isn’t nearly as non-linear as  Alain Resnais’ “Last Year at Marienbad” (1961), but is definitely Marienbad-esque in it’s shot selection and tone.  Likewise, Ejiofor’s performance is subtle and observant enough to let these elements carry the film, yet forceful enough to pull the audience along when needed.

Finally, it is one of the few films, like Louis Malle’s “Au Revoir les Enfants,” that conveys helplessness in the face of oppression.  We love stories of resistance, but to the vast majority of the victims of oppressive regimes, resistance means nothing but death.  Stories like “12 Years a Slave” help us recognize evil but also explain how, in the face of evil, many people will look the other way, or worse, go along with it.  Resistance is  necessary to defeat evil, but it isn’t simple or easy when that evil has been allowed to entrench itself in a society.  It is much easier to defeat evil before it has become institutionalized.

You might like 12 Years a Slave if: You want to experience one of the definitive depictions of evil and oppression in cinema.

You might not like 12 Year a Slave if: You’re not prepared for its intensity.

(c) 2013 D.G. McCabe