Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is tense and unflinching. Its relentless intensity and graphic brutality has been the defining feature in the media, but it is also an essential part of the film and the primary reason it could become the most important portrait of American slavery yet on camera.
12 Years tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in Saratoga, New York in the 1840s. After being kidnapped by two men purporting to desire his musical skill in a traveling show, Solomon spends twelve years in the Deep South a slave to multiple owners. In the few scenes devoted to Solomon’s life before enslavement, we see him function in a society that seems to disregard race. He shops for groceries, walks in the park, plays the violin for houseguests, as would a white citizen. McQueen doesn’t linger on the perfection of Solomon’s former stature. Instead, his Saratoga days are viewed in montage, their serenity contrasted sharply with the anguish of the rest of the film.
Concerning the film’s resolution, I will say this: Twelve Years a Slave, the autobiography, was written by Solomon Northup in Saratoga, New York in 1853. The subtitle is more telling: “Narrative of Solomon Northup, a citizen of New-York, kidnapped in Washington city in 1841, and rescued in 1853, from a cotton plantation near the Red River in Louisiana.” Such a relatively happy ending would seem to undermine the thematic and aesthetic heart of 12 Years a Slave, which evokes the desolation and ultimate evil of a peculiar American institution. There was nary a dry eye in the theater by the last scene. How, then, can we reconcile such Hollywood drama with the brutal realities Solomon spent twelve years facing?
In his film, McQueen attempts to convey what it felt like to be subjected to the torture and the cruelty and the despair of Solomon and his compatriots. A few images warrant individual mention. Early on, we are given a close-up of Solomon as he begins to understand the gravity of his present state. His eyes give him away. Behind him, other slaves on the plantation move shiftlessly, out of focus yet very much at the center of our attention. Here McQueen presents the duality of slavery: the particulars of individual struggle and the universality of an entire race subjected to categorical inferiority. Solomon’s fervent will to survive opposes the conformity and hopelessness with which his fellow slaves conduct their lives.
Later, Solomon is at the funeral of another slave. A few women begin singing. Soon, the congregation of two dozen has joined in. Only Solomon, at the center, is silent. He is nearly defiant. Yet slowly he begins, first quietly yet building in vigor so that by the end he is the loudest voice, and each lyric is cathartic, each harmony rebellious; for the first time in the film we see the frequently contained, calculated Solomon seeking refuge in song.
In both these scenes and elsewhere, McQueen demonstrates the uniqueness of Solomon’s story. These particularities and the happy ending, however, pose some problems. Perhaps Solomon’s specialness is a hindrance to telling a full tale of slavery. McQueen is faced with the same quandaries that challenge all artists attempting to put some universal tragedy to screen. On the one hand, how does one represent the magnitude of such a stain on humanity without sacrificing the individual human element? On the other, how does one represent the individual without losing sight of the bigger picture?
McQueen resolves the issue by exploring the effect of slavery on a vast number of characters. The three or four slaves we follow closely deal with their roles uniquely, and the half dozen slave masters respond differently to their own societal roles and to their property. With its insights into the motivations of multiple slaves and multiple slave-owners, the film is part narrative, part survey of slavery. We see not only how each enslaved person deals with his or her predicament, but also how each slave owner does the same.
Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon with a silent defiance. His intensity is of a different sort than, say, his second master Edwin Epps, played by Michael Fassbender. Epps is the primary antagonist of the film, cruel and heartless and possessed of a tendency to justify his treatment of slaves with the Bible. Fassbender and McQueen are frequent collaborators. In Hunger, McQueen’s first feature film released in 2008, Fassbender played Irish Republican Army activist Bobby Sands, who died during a hunger strike in 1981. He then starred in McQueen’s next film, 2011’s Shame, for which he received a Golden Globe nomination. Here Fassbender plays Epps as evil epitomized, his intensity manifested as insatiable sexual barbarity.
Perhaps the single other most important character is Patsey, played sympathetically by Lupita Nyong’o. Patsey is Epps’ favored slave, the object of his sexual perversion. With this comes some degree of protection: in return for sacrificing her body and dignity she is treated better than the other slaves. For years she avoids daily whippings for insufficient fieldwork. Nyong’o attaches an empty desolation to Patsey, as one who knows she’ll never make it out. In one of the most tragic scenes of the film, she asks Solomon to take her life, to free her. Here we see the depths of human despair in stark bareness. The scene is dark, and her words are nearly inaudible, bordering on tears. Where Solomon attacks his situation, his hope never extinguished, Patsey submits. We are not meant to pass judgment on either.
That both Epps and Patsey are drawn with some degree of complexity is one of the strengths of the film. The other performances—including those by Paul Giamatti, Michael K. Williams, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Paul Dano, among others—certainly contribute, but the film’s success hinges on emotional responses to Solomon, Epps, and Patsey. The intimacy with which we go through the twelve years ignites more passion against slavery than any documentary could. Artistic representation demands a visceral response. When Picasso painted Guernica, he did not mean to represent each death of the Spanish Civil War—merely a snapshot of its horrors.
This intimacy is aided by McQueen’s personal directorial skills. He repeatedly proves himself a master of shot portraiture. What distinguishes 12 Years a Slave is not just the cultural importance of its subject matter, but also the brilliance with which the director frames each scene. The film is painterly: the natural, lazy beauty of the Southern landscape is jarring in contrast to the far reaches of human brutality. And the violence is essential. The scenes of rape, execution, and torture that characterize daily life on a plantation do more to express the condition of slavery than any other single element. One particular scene shows Epps whipping Patsey mercilessly. A woman behind me in the theater started crying. Two rows ahead, a man muttered aloud: “Make it stop. Oh God, make it stop.”
Such is the primary difference between the representation of violence in 12 Years and, say, Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s spaghetti western take on slavery. Tarantino’s violence is gratuitous and of a video-game quality. His take is nearly satirical, exaggerated to absurdity. With McQueen the violence is ingrained; he plays director-as-God, pulling back the curtain on the most terrible truth of this country’s history with brutal honesty. With Django, we cheered on the gunfights, we wanted more. In 12 Years, McQueen gives us more than we want, but just what we need.