12 Years a Slave the Definitive Slavery Film
- Jeffrey Huston Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- 2013 18 Oct
DVD Release Date: March 4, 2014
Theatrical Release Date: October 18, 2013 limited; expands through November.
Rating: R (for violence, nudity, sexual assault)
Run Time: 133 min
Director: Steve McQueen
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Alfre Woodard, Paul Giamatti
We've seen slavery depicted on film before, but not like this.
12 Years a Slave is the adaptation of a little known memoir by 19th-century African-American Solomon Northup, a free man by birth living in New York who was kidnapped into slavery. It's a visceral, relentless look, one so unflinching that I became genuinely concerned for the welfare of the actors.
It also examines the business of slavery in detail. Seeing the system at work compounds the oppression. This shame didn't happen just by force but by calculation, one of perverse sociopathic indifference. Human bondage was not just circumstantial; it was societal. The scope communicates the hopelessness.
Indeed, slavery was the very foundation of an entire economic culture, one on which a civilization was built and sustained. It required people to be kept, moved, and treated worse than animals because there is a spirit and soul in humans that must be dehumanized. We see how the intricacies of a Slavery Society do that, and why slave uprisings – which may make for provocative historical fiction – rarely, if ever, occurred. Violence breaks the body, but it's the system that breaks the soul.
The title is an effective summary of the film's plot, which is very basic and straightforward despite the myriad of cultural, economic, psychological, and religious complexities explored. The narrative simplicity allows director Steve McQueen (a Brit of African decent) to plunge into the experience and live there. He does, we do, and the end result is much more than a story; it's an odyssey.
McQueen doesn't necessarily show us things we don’t already know, but his unforgiving observation causes us to comprehend the things we know at a much more primal level. In numerous scenes he takes us to the point where we get it, and we're ready to cut away – but he doesn't. Because we really haven't gotten it, not yet. Duration, severity, and endurance reveal an understanding that facts alone cannot.
In grueling fashion, it’s not just the scenes that go on at length but actual shots too, well past the point one would think an actor could tolerate. McQueen breaks from the normal film language of depicting torture. Traditionally (and driven by safety as much as anything), beating sequences have been crafted through a series of quick, specifically framed shots, edited together, accentuated by sound effects. Here, McQueen uses single takes at length, widely framed, with no inserts or safety-valve cutaways.
Northup's first beating is a prime example: repeated blows to his back with a thick slab of wood, followed by repeated strikes with a whip, while both Northup and his abuser remain in the frame, all in one prolonged take. And that's not even the worst of it. While concern for the actors does take us out of the cinematic illusion momentarily, follow-up thoughts pull us back in even more deeply. Just imagine what actual slaves had to endure. Repeatedly. This is very tough to watch.
The agonies Solomon wrote of, seen here, are ones born not just by the body but by the soul. The greater struggle is to somehow let the soul arise to a place of strength that overcomes the ever-increasing physical toll the body must bear. To somehow believe there is an end to this, other than death. For many, all hope is lost. Death is the only conceivable out. We see that nihilistic despair in Patsey (Kenyan newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, in a stunning debut of tender, raw anguish). She is a young slave whose beauty captivates her owner, but who then must endure not only his abuse and rapes but also the jealous (and physical) wrath of his wife.
That slave owner is Mr. Epps, played by Michael Fassbender (Prometheus), a McQueen regular. Epps is a man of complex sadism. He indiscriminately terrorizes and abuses his slaves while also being tormented by a self-loathing he cannot reconcile with the accepted standards of the time (and its distortion of Scripture to validate such cruelty). Epps and Patsey bring our attention to one perverse strain within the Master/Slave relationship, but they also represent the extremes within which Northup’s life hangs – the literal and the existential.
And yet, 12 Years a Slave is ultimately a story of hope. Its hope is not sentimental or even sensible. It is a determined faith, forged by will, in the face of overwhelming persecution. For many years, Solomon’s faith is primarily in himself. His will is all he has, but eventually it’s not enough. As Solomon observes the spiritual faith of his people, and as his own despair overwhelms, there is a moment when Solomon goes from respecting the spiritual community around him to actually embracing it. It happens as his fellow slaves sing the old Negro spiritual “Roll Jordan Roll,” and it’s the film’s most powerful moment – one of true transformation. As Solomon, Chiwetel Ejiofor (Salt) lays bare everything within him, carrying the internal agony as heavily as he bears the physical suffering. He gives as much to the role, the film, the legacy of the man and his people, as you'll ever see in one performance.
For as intimate as most scenes are, their cumulative power is epic. What McQueen has accomplished is singular to its subject, and comparable to the depths Steven Spielberg plunged us into through the Nazi’s Jewish Holocaust in Schindler's List. It's not for the faint of heart, and its brutality in all forms – including sexual – cannot be morally defined merely by its visual depiction alone, or the simplification of its R-rating. 12 Years a Slave is an achievement as towering as it is necessary; it's not the first film about slavery we’ve seen, but it's quite possibly the most definitive.
- Drugs/Alcohol Content: Alcohol is consumed. Drunkenness occurs, leading to violence.
- Language/Profanity: Pervasive use of racial slurs. Infrequent sexual slurs, used to demean.
- Sexual Content/Nudity: A female slave is raped by her master. Slaves are completely naked (including male and female full-frontal) while being sold, kept in pens, etc. Nudity of slaves during beatings and torture. Fondling. Two slaves kiss and engage sexually (no nudity). Sexual references and innuendos made.
- Violence/Other: Frequent explicit violence throughout, of slaves being tortured by beatings, lynchings, whippings, shootings, killings, and various forms of brutality. Chokings, stabbings, and other forms of violent fighting occur. The psychological torture of slaves, including the tearing apart of families. The threat of death is always present. Blood and wounds are at times explicit. Lengthy scenes of torture. Whipping slaves while naked. All violence depicted in graphic and realistic manner.
Publication date: October 18, 2013
Jeff Huston is a writer/director/editor for Steelehouse Productions, a film & video production company in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He also publishes a movie blog that can be found at icantunseethatmovie.com, and is a member of the Oklahoma Film Critics Circle. In 2015, his short film Pink Shorts was a finalist in HBO's Project Greenlight competition, and was one of six winners in that show's online "Greenie Awards."