12 Years a Slave
by Nandia Foteini Vlachou
Based on a true story, written by the film’s main character Solomon Northup and published in 1855, 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen’s latest film, keeps coming back to the theme of writing. Solomon is one letter away from freedom for the entire duration of his captivity and his efforts to find or devise the instruments (pen, ink and paper) of this freedom lead to several memorable scenes: such is the one where, in a thwarted attempt to address a letter to his family, Solomon is forced to burn it secretly at night, watching the letter being reduced to a few glowing strips and then nothing. Hope engulfed in darkness.
The ability to read and write, a civilizing and emancipatory process systematically denied to slaves and then used as evidence to prove their biological inferiority, becomes in the case of Solomon, a free man stripped of his name and true identity and sold into slavery, a useless and dangerous burden. In a world where blacks are compared to baboons and treated as property, and where the Bible is used as justification of oppression and exploitation, a slave who can read, write and think for himself must have been indeed an explosive element.
It is precisely the fact that Solomon was a free citizen, a literate man and talented musician (as well as family man), that makes the source material upon which Steve McQueen draws so compelling. A lot of films have been made on the subject of slavery (and racism) and will undoubtedly continue to be so. Yet it is unlikely that one so powerful and effective will appear again, anytime soon. Without a hint of sentimentality, melodramatic flourishes or need for historical preaching, McQueen plunges his viewers directly into the unimaginable horrors he portrays by confronting us with a reality that, suddenly, anyone can relate to. What if it were you, or me, abducted, separated from our family, and forced into a lifelong existence of menial labor and inhumane cruelty? The surprise, the perplexity on Chiwetel Ejiofor’s face (one of the most expressive that have ever been captured on film) fully transmits the dread, the irrationality, the injustice of his situation.
The depiction of racial violence in the film does not depend on gory details for effect, despite McQueen’s welcome and necessary insistence on verisimilitude. Some of the cruelest scenes (such as the separation of Eliza from her children) do not involve a single drop of blood. In fact, it is scenes like that where the system of slavery is revealed in all its terrifying nuances. Benedict Cumberbatch, portraying a more compassionate plantation owner, nevertheless decides to separate mother from daughter, as dictated by financial concerns that obviously trample human ones. In a later scene, his wife – who heartlessly suggests to Eliza that her children will soon be forgotten – has her unceremoniously removed from her presence, because her constant crying distresses her. Solomon’s consequent fate is even worse as he is transferred to Edwin Epps (played by the formidable Michael Fassbender), a monument of cruelty and contradictions. His relationship to Lupita Nyong’o’s character, Patsey (a heartbreaking performance), dominates the second part of the film, as the sexual exploitation of the female slaves comes forcefully to the fore.
Another shocking element was the way that blacks behaved towards each other, as a result of the continuous state of terror they lived in. Numerous instances stand out: the abducted black man who is eventually rescued by his owner after the ship that transported them to the South docks, and does not turn his head once to glance at Solomon who is left back nor does anything to aid him; the black mistress of the judge, who offered Patsey a cup of tea every Sunday and reveled in having others serving her, while being aware of her having escaped the hardships of working in the field and being punished by the whip etc. Perhaps the most disturbing scene of all was the sight of Solomon hanging from the nook, while other slaves in the background went about their daily chores, and black children chased one another, turning away from the misery they were not allowed to relieve (with the sole exception of the hurried offer of a few sips of water).
It seems almost inappropriate to praise the film for its excellent direction, beautiful cinematography, gripping storytelling, superb acting and a most evocative and melancholy musical score (one of Zimmer’s best). In the end, 12 Years a Slave works by transcending the medium. It’s not so much a film, as it is an experience that shakes you to your very core. And the fortunate conclusion of Solomon’s personal drama does – wisely – nothing to lighten the mood. As I stumbled outside the theater, I was still shocked by the extent of human depravity, cruelty and viciousness, and by the system that allowed it to go on for so long. Solomon’s writing gave voice to the sufferings of slaves; McQueen’s film lent them visual impact. Let us never forget.