It’s remarkable, when you think about it, how few serious American film dramas have dealt with the subject of American slavery. Of course we think of Roots, and there are others…but not many. Maybe slavery is so painful a subject that most filmmakers just don’t want to go there. I think also there’s shame—shame about this huge ugly stain on our history and on our country.
Now we have a new film, 12 Years a Slave, direct and graphic in the depiction of slavery to a greater degree than any other film I know of. British director Steve McQueen has apparently never minded having the same name as an iconic American actor. He’s made his own mark in his first two features with bold and uncompromising political and sexual themes—and his third feature is his best yet. He and veteran screenwriter John Ridley have taken a true story—the 1853 account by Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, of his abduction and subsequent enslavement for twelve years in Louisiana—and made it into a fine film. McQueen quite deliberately refuses to soften the reality of Northup’s story. Even with the best, most well-intentioned previous efforts on the subject, there was always a sense of distance and play-acting. Here we are confronted, as much as such a thing is possible in a film, with the horrifying truth.
Chewitel Ejiofor stars as the main character, Northup, and the range he displays is astonishing. The film starts in the middle, with Northup on a plantation, cutting sugar cane from sunrise to sunset. After this painful orientation, in which we taste the man’s weariness, loneliness, and despair, we flash back to his life in Saratoga Springs, New York, as a fairly prosperous musician with a wife and two children. Lured to WashingtonD.C. by a pair posing as showmen, he is plied with drink, and then wakes up the next morning in chains. His journey then typifies, in devastating fashion, the many aspects of a slave-based society. There are the vicious whippings and beatings, a constant throughout the film. The sale of human beings at market follows, with men and women displayed naked like animals. His first master has a kind aspect, but he’s still a slave master, and Northup falls victim to an overseer played by Paul Dano, one of those poor whites whose low rank and condition encourages his contempt for blacks, if only to be superior to somebody. Later Northup is sold to a much worse master named Epps, played by McQueen stalwart Michael Fassbender. Here we witness the full corruption and depravity of the institution, with Epps using the Bible as justification for his cruelties. The film also shows us the sexual violence and oppression in the form of Epps’ lust for the slave Patsey, wonderfully played by newcomer Lupita Nyong’o. It is no privilege to be singled out for repeated rapes by the master, while also being persecuted by the master’s jealous wife.
Ejiofor brilliantly portrays the terrible transformation, the degradation of a soul enslaved for a dozen years, in his speech, in his eyes, and in the way he walks. The film also lets us glimpse the unspeakable tragedy of an entire culture sunk in this brutal and dehumanizing system. 12 Years of a Slave is by no means an easy film to watch. It rips the curtain away from the truth many of us would rather not see. It’s a tremendous achievement, a landmark really, and I hope and trust there will be more to follow.