From the first moment I walked out of the theater during a private press screening of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, I knew this film had the potential to spark discussion on the subject and history of race and race relations in the United States. It is a story rooted in that peculiar institution of American slavery, but it should be noted from the outset that the memoir (Twelve Years a Slave) upon which McQueen’s film is based is not a slave narrative. No, this is something much more than that because Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was not initially a slave. Northup was a free man, born free in New York, where he lived with his wife and children. He had worked in various fields over the course of his lifetime, prior to his 12 long years as a slave in Louisiana, but he had made a name for himself as a musician of some renown.
Yet, the film has triggered unusual backlash among black filmgoers, a sense of weariness from a perceived deluge of films about slavery. “Enough is enough,” callers seemed to be saying, when I appeared a month ago on a Nathan Ivey’s Sunday morning talk radio program, The Buzz, on 1230 AM. This story has been told and it’s time for Hollywood to unearth other narratives from black American history.
I caught myself doing a double-take in the studio, one that fortunately no one but Ivey could see. What about the panorama of experiences and perspectives that we’ve been privy to from the Holocaust? Since 1999, think of The Pianist, Schindler’s List, Life is Beautiful, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas or the soon-to-be released title The Book Thief compared with Lincoln, Django Unchained and now 12 Years.
Django is pure escapist fantasy, while Lincoln, a presidential biopic, pushes black folks to the historic periphery. There simply aren’t that many compelling and unique takes on slavery, at least not enough to inspire an overwhelming sense of fatigue. And what about the idea of a truly artistic, critical examination of this period?
12 Years captures the salient events in the ordeal of Northup in stunning detail, blunt and raw and perplexing, all of which comes across in Ejiofor’s quiet, haunting performance. While there is extreme violence — the likes of which could have easily crossed over into exploitative excess — amazingly, McQueen wisely relegates the harshest aspects to the imagination. We watch Northup as he is forced by a sadistic slave owner (Michael Fassbender) to whip a fellow slave (Lupita Nyong’o), but the focus during the beating is on Northup. Thus, we see only the horror of a man caught in an untenable situation.
In another instance, we see Northup, hanging by the neck from a tree in front of the house of another of his masters; his dangling feet dancing for purchase, tiptoeing in the hopes of relieving the pressure of the noose, if only for a moment. Of course, his struggles play out before every eye, black and white, on the plantation. The other slaves fear coming to his aid. The whites go about their business, assuming that he merely got what was coming to him.
McQueen, the visual stylist that he is, uses the frame as a canvas, a moving compositional landscape to present the details in stark relief. Whereas with earlier works (Hunger, Shame), there was almost a desire to mash our faces in the misery of his characters and their situations, here he finds a desired boundary and stands ramrod straight at the mark, never stepping over it.
Northup’s hanging reminded me of the senselessly brutal rape sequence in Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible (a 10-plus minute assault on Monica Bellucci’s character in an abandoned subway station in Paris), but McQueen is not punishing us with the brutality simply because he can. He is showing us a reality of that time. The inhabitants of those surroundings would have seen such sights, likely on a daily basis, and would have reacted as they did either out of fear or indifference, and McQueen wants us to appreciate and own our response to the inhumanity on display.
Writer Italo Calvino (author of If on a winter’s night a traveler and The Baron in the Trees), quoted in Gates’ foreword to the new edition of Northup’s memoir, defined a classic as “a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” That sounds like a better definition of history.
McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, a rich and distinctly faithful adaptation of Northup’s experiences, begs us to continue this conversation by offering an artful and critical reflection on our past, present and future as a nation. (Opens Friday at Esquire Theatre) (R) Grade: A
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