12 Years a Slave: Power, Understanding, and the Lack
Copyright © by Jackson Hawley, 11/10/13
“Art can't fix anything. It can just observe and portray. What's important is that it becomes an object, a thing you can see and talk about and refer to. A film is an object around which you can have a debate, more so than the incident itself. It's someone's view of an incident, an advanced starting point.”
With this quote, Steve McQueen – a great artist whose work continues to go unappreciated for what it really is, by most - aptly captures the basic underlying foundation of art: that it is, beyond all else, an object. It has a specific reality that exists independently of any individual percipient. Getting at that aesthetic and qualitative actuality ought to be the job of any good critic, for it is in such spheres that art transcends the enjoyable-yet-base facts that structure a human experience of life – food, sleep, sex, and the like, things whose only real potential for meaning lies in the hermetically-sealed consciousness of those partaking of them – and becomes a way for man, in the general sense, to get at what reality really is, in a larger sense. It often can offer multiple possibilities for interpretation, of course, but this has often been stretched into the facile conclusion that all such interpretations are valid (and that they’re basically equal). However, as McQueen points out, art is an object, meaning that there must necessarily be parameters to it, physically and conceptually, or else it may as well dissolve into anarchic ethers.
Thus, good criticism should generally be an attempt, not necessarily to sublimate the self, but to elevate understanding of a work by highlighting what its pieces actually are, and how they fit together, for good or ill. This is objectivity: letting the object lead the way, rather than one’s own id and its attendant tendrils – emotion, prejudice, preference, etc. That’s not to say that these things do not matter, that one cannot fold them into an ultimate personal understanding transcending both objectivity and subjectivity, in their purest forms, but unless this is done with, at bare minimum, an ability to perceive, understand, and articulate (via words or actions) a work’s essence, the whole endeavor is doomed to fall into the same pit of provincialism that marks so much of human experience and history. It was my realization of this possibility that opened art up to me in a way it might not have, otherwise, and though it is not original nor unique to me, it seems to me the only consistent, logical view – yet, paradoxically, also the view that offers the most creative possibility, for creativity (and the understanding of it) flourishes best within boundaries.
Thus, it often galls me when critics seem to miss the basic essence of a work, whether they see its quality or no. In reading reviews of Steve McQueen’s latest film, 12 Years a Slave – based on the 1853 memoir of the same title by Solomon Northup – just that very thing seems to have happened. When critics say the film is “about slavery”, or “about one man’s experience of slavery”, they are not “wrong”, as it likely is the definitive dramatic portrayal of that institution’s brutality and evil, but what they fail to notice are the ways in which the film’s particularities give it a universality, allow it to reflect much, even with the distortion of time and culture’s curlicues, of human experience in all societies.
The plot is a pretty simple one. Solomon Northup, a free black man, lives in Saratoga Springs, New York, in 1841, where he lives with his family – a wife, a son, and a daughter – making a living as a violinist. While his family is away for a few weeks, he is offered a job performing in Washington, D.C. by two white men, who drug him at dinner one night and sell him to a local slave pen, where he is unable to prove that he is a free man without his freedom papers. He is shipped by boat to the South, where he is first sold to a semi-benevolent Baptist preacher and plantation owner named William Ford. However, after retaliating against a vindictive field hand who had threatened to beat him, Northup is almost lynched, and though Ford saves his life, he must, for Northup’s own safety, sell him, and as he has a reputation throughout the area, he must be sold to a psychotic plantation owner named Edwin Epps. Epps is a man who – as one reviewer aptly described it – enjoys “performing ownership”, lashing his slaves daily when they don’t pick enough cotton, repeatedly raping one, even tormenting them in minor ways, like making them dance in the middle of the night. Eventually, after 12 years of captivity, Northup meets Samuel Bass, a Canadian carpenter opposed to slavery, who he convinces to write home to his family. He does so, and the Epps plantation is visited by the local sheriff and a white friend of Solomon’s and, after all the horrors he’s seen, is finally liberated and returns to his family.
The plot, itself, is simple, and the broader arc is less important than what Solomon sees and experiences during his ordeal, as well as what such a depiction can reveal. Telling is the fact that the film actually starts at a later period of his captivity, when he is working in a sugarcane field. The film opens with a white man on an antebellum plantation explaining to a group of slaves how to harvest sugarcane. His description is full of color, yet matter-of-fact, with little condescension. Hatred and cruelty may have been the backbone of such a system, but this – commodity, and its pursuit – were its true purpose – indeed, have been the “purpose” of America throughout its whole history. Solomon is among them, among all this. The camera crawls through the grass. We see him executing the task, before cutting to a scene of him lying on a floor, at night, amid many other black bodies. He cannot sleep. He rolls over, only to be met with the eyes of another insomniac, this one a woman younger than him. She pulls his hand to her breast. He resists, at first, but she coaxes him into fooling around for a few moments before rolling over and sobbing. He can do little other than listen. Whatever that small scrap of connection was, it did not truly matter, save as a reminder of how even the few fragments of free human experience left to them cannot be enjoyed without knowledge of the context that will engulf it, eventually.
From here, the film cycles back to the beginning, not to return to this time until about ¾ of the movie have passed – though diegetically, it’s almost as though all takes place in a single moment of reflection. It is now when we realize that what we are seeing is actually a classic tale of an outsider integrating into a society (and, in this case, a system ), for despite Solomon’s blackness, the experience he has as a free man in the North cannot compare in any way to what he will soon experience. No experience of existence is perfect, but his is the right life for him in such a time and place. In a great early scene, we see him haggling over the price of a handbag with a shopkeeper, and a black slave wanders in. The shopkeeper offers him help, but he simply stands still, mystified; this being a piece of society to which he simply has not ever been privy, the wonder in his face shows. His owner comes to collect him and apologizes for the intrusion, but Solomon pushes the man’s buttons anyway by, well, simply speaking up and accepting the apology on behalf of the storeowner. The look on the owner’s face at being so spoken to by a black man is priceless. Solomon, clearly, is a man who relishes his freedom, and uses it; the world of that slave that had wandered in is, as the sphere of stores had been to the slave, simply alien to him.
It might, perhaps, be a slight flaw that the movie portrays his life in the North as so idyllic, but the fact that the movie takes place entirely from his perspective justifies this tack, as that is likely his perception of matters. He would not remember the money troubles nor the prejudice; what would stand out is his children’s laughter when he leaves the room after tucking them in, the passion and eros he and his wife share simply laying in bed and staring at one another. One of the first things we see of that past is a series of closeups of his violin as he tunes it, and one senses that he’s calibrated his life with similar precision. Thus, as I said, what might be a slight flaw is justified by the film’s structure, and the psyche of its protagonist.
Northup is shown, again and again, as a talented musician, but he is, in truth, a bit of a Renaissance man, for when he reaches William Ford’s plantation, he proves useful by solving the challenging problem of moving cotton from the far end of the field via a series of narrowly-connected waterways, and he mentions having helped to build the Champlain Canal. Yet in this new society, his skill and intelligence are detriments. “You are an exceptional nigger, Platt, but I fear no good will come of it,” Ford tells him before selling him (Platt being the name he is forced to adopt as a slave). Certainly, it arouse the ire of Ford’s field master, John Tibeats (played by Paul Dano, who usually chews scenery but whose odd look and whiny voice are actually perfect for the part), a man who puts new slaves in what he sees as the proper state of mind by making them clap as he sings a long folk whose title says it all: “Run Nigger Run”.
Northup’s exceptionality is important, though, for its contrast to the many white wretches who torment him precipitates an important, oft-neglected fact: namely, that while men like Ford and Epps were the architects of slavery, the ones who stood to gain the most from it, it is poor white men like Tibeats, as much as the slaves themselves, that were the pillars holding the whole edifice up. In another life, such a man would wither away at a bureaucrat’s desk, or stocking shelves at a Wal-Mart. But the slave system gave their lives a sense of meaning, a sense of purpose – even if that purpose was something as small and heartless as keeping black folk in check by indulging the human beast’s innate capacity for cruelty. It was in such a system that their ugliness, fatness, stupidity, and sheepishness could be sublimated, and in it, they found themselves with implicit value they otherwise would not have had, simply by virtue of their skin color. They’d almost be pitiable, were it not for their acts of bastardy. Yet this realization is only possible because of McQueen’s choice to use someone of talent and versatility as an in to America’s “peculiar institution”, for it is the contrast to Solomon’s sensitivity and intellect, as exemplified by Tibeats’ puerility and insecurity, that makes their indulgence in viciousness (often for very petty reasons) stand out all the more as what it is – a lashing out by those who would otherwise be nobodies against the squalor that marks their inner and outer lives.
This is further fleshed out when, later in the story, Northup meets Armsby, a white man who is humiliated by the cruel Epps when, on his first day, he cannot even pick 70 pounds of cotton, let alone the 200 pounds expected of every slave, though unlike Solomon, he does not get lashed when he does not meet his quotas – though Solomon, for his part, seems to (at least sometimes) miss his quotas intentionally, for being beaten for being “not even an average nigger”, as Epps puts it when Solomon’s first cotton haul falls shy of the 200 lb. minimum, is better than being killed for being excellent. Armsby helps him clean his wounds, later, and says that he had once been an overseer before finding that lashing other human beings for a living was tearing his own soul to tatters, as well, thus causing him to become a drunk (to dull the guilt) and lose his job. He speaks of slavery’s false promise to poor whites, laments that plantation owners are the only ones who truly profit. Solomon sees a kinship in this broken promise and goes to Armsby one night, tells him of his identity, and offers to pay him to mail a letter to his family back home. He agrees, and Solomon writes said letter by candlelight, with a mixture of water, blood, and berry juice for ink. However, before he has a chance to deliver said letter, Armsby rats him out to Epps, and it’s only by thinking quickly and telling Epps that Armsby is a drunk trying to get hired as an overseer by stoking his paranoia that he escapes lashing, or worse. Even with the motive and the opportunity, the Armsbys of the world simply will not transcend their time and place but will instead keep trying to play within the systems history deals them – systems “designed”, intentionally or not, to concentrate power and control in the hands of a few, while keeping the rest running with invisible immobility.
Like other McQueen movies, the story is really all in the writing and characterization, and as he has in the past, McQueen excels at letting moments of silence and reflection reveal much of his main character. This would not work, were it not for the truly great performance of Chiwetel Ejiofor, a British actor who brings the dramatic gravitas to embody Northup’s charisma and charm while also bringing a great internal vulnerability, such that even a slight movement of his face can communicate so much about his character’s state of mind at key moments, as well as who he is, in a deeper sense. Consider, for example, a scene early on when Solomon and a group of slaves come across a handful of Native Americans. The slaves sit in a circle and watch the Natives chant dance, yet as Solomon listens to one of them play a string instrument not unlike a more primitive version of his own violin, Ejiofor’s face communicates much of how hollow this experience really is. Even this moment of spontaneity exists within a larger experience of oppression and loss, a fact that Solomon cannot escape.
Yet what marks this film as different from other McQueen films is its wider scope, its branching into the society that surrounds it via a whole ensemble of strong characters. Ford, for example, played by current rising star Benedict Cumberbatch, projects an air of classical Southern gentility and sophistication that would not be out of place in a Gone with the Wind-like film, and to his credit, he seems a decent enough man, relative to the times. When, at a slave auction, a woman he’s bought begs him to also buy her daughter, her son having already been sold, he tries to do so and only fails because the slave trader (played by Paul Giamatti) refuses to sell at a reasonable price, knowing she’ll be worth more when she’s older. “My mercy extends as far as the end of a coin,” he states. Ford, as slave owners go, is open-minded, tolerant, and kind. Yet given all Solomon does for him, the fact that he can’t muster more of a compliment than telling Northup that he’s “an exceptional nigger” says much of how condescending and paternalistic his seeming benevolence really is. In a later time, he’d be the embodiment of White Liberal Guilt – like Mr. Dalton in Native Son, a slumlord who obliviously tries to “help” the very people kept disenfranchised by his own high rent prices. Nevertheless, he’s a good “first owner” for Northup, for he basically lets Solomon be Solomon (though of course he must, externally, be “Platt”), even going to the expense of purchasing a violin for him.
The woman whose daughter Ford tries to buy, Eliza, is also an extremely interesting character, played with a concentrated intensity that allows her to match Ejiofor’s performance, when necessary, beat for beat. In one of the most dramatically rich moments of the film, she sits on the porch of her slave house, wailing for her lost children, and Solomon gets sick of her crying and tells her to stop, lest she be consumed by her sadness. She turns to him and asks him, venomously, if he would ever forget his own children, drawing much anger from Northup and a response that, basically, they are his lifeblood, what drive him forward. She rues the fact that, had she been a more disobedient slave, she would probably be in much the same position, only she would not have been so complicit in her own self-annihilation, a remark that seems to leave Solomon at a loss for words. She asks to be left alone to her wailing, for given her situation, being sad is easier than being herself. This is one of the dramatically richest scenes in the film, showing that even with a modestly bigger budget, and more “prestige” on the line, McQueen’s primary interest is still in unleashing well-limned characters on one another and seeing what ferments. Yet others are not so understanding nor interested in Eliza’s psyche, for Ford’s wife – who had previously expressed sympathy for the pain she must feel for losing her children – is soon annoyed by Eliza’s wailing during a sermon and has Ford sell her off. When she is taken away, Solomon cannot help but flash back to the time when they were in the slave pen in Washington, together, and she told him of the seeming love she’d shared with a former master, who’d promised to set her free, only to fall ill, leaving his jealous wife to run his business affairs. And, naturally, rather than be displaced by a slave woman, she simply sells Eliza off.
Edwin Epps, Solomn’s second owner, on the other hand, is shown as being a sadistic, delusional man who takes great pleasure in having the power to use his slaves as he wishes, and he’s a truly great villain, in no small part due to the towering ability of portrayer Michael Fassbender, who knows how to push his characterization to various extremes – gritty realism, chamber drama, poetic monologuing, even slapstick – without going overboard or losing the sense that, while larger-than-life – after all, Epps must epitomize not only the slave owning class, but the whole system of power of which they were, collectively, the apex – he is still very much a human being. He is involved in many great scenes, but the one that best captures the strange reality of the Epps plantation is one in which he wakes up all of his servants, brings them into the house, and forces them to dance as Solomon passionlessly fiddles a jig. One senses that he takes more pleasure in his own ability to make other humans do such a thing than in the act, itself, yet the scene takes a turn when his odd, jealous wife throws a bottle of liquor at the face of a young slave girl, Patsey, on whom Epps is fixated. She writhes in pain as she is taken out, and Epps’s wife demands she be sold. Epps, however, calmly tells his wife that she should not issue such ultimatums, for he would gladly ship her back to the Podunk town from whence she came before he would get rid of Patsey. While, consciously, Epps claims to see his slaves as property, nothing more, such a scene seems to indicate that both he and his wife unconsciously use the slaves as, basically, extensions of themselves: pawns in their hateful marriage, pieces with which they can fill their deficits of character and self.
The other well-fleshed-out personality of the Epps plantation is Patsey, the object of Epps’s lusts – though to call them such may be reductive, for he does not merely worship her physically, but drools over every aspect of her. As mentioned earlier, Solomon’s first cotton weighing falls short of the expectation that each slave pick 200 pounds per day, but in this same scene, we learn that Patsey consistently picks over 500 pounds per day, far more than anyone else. In this moment, Epps takes the time to wax poetic of her, and one gets a sense of how deep his desire – nay, his need for her runs. In a smart choice by McQueen, there is only one scene in which we see her raped by him. Even in that scene, we see only the upper chest and above, yet while the pain and disgust in her face is obvious, yet the look on Epps’s face is one of pure rapture, as he kisses her nape and collarbone. Yet, for all he imbues into her, she seems a normal, sweet-natured girl. She smiles as she takes tea at a nearby estate, and in one scene, we see her making dolls out of discarded corn husks, perhaps ruminating over what she’s lost – or, alternatively, what she will never have, in such a life. Taken on her own, little stands out. What Epps sees in her is not what she has, it’s what he doesn’t have, for because Patsey is not human, to him, he can see in her all the things his actual spouse lacks. Where his wife is odd-looking, frigid, loathsome, jealous, and manipulative, a woman who seems to have married him for little more than his money, Patsey can be beautiful, smart, capable, and his, utterly.
All three characters – Solomon, Epps, and Patsey – reach their apotheoses near the end of the movie, when Epps erupts in a fit of jealousy after he has trouble finding Patsey for a time. She returns and tries to slough off his questions, and he accuses her of being at a neighboring plantation owned by a notorious letch. She admits to such but insists that she went there merely for soap, for Epps’s wife refuses to give her any, and she feels that, for all the indignities she suffers, she ought not have to be the worst-smelling slave on the plantation. This is not unreasonable in the least. Yet Epps, in his monomaniacal obsession with her, does not (or cannot) accept this and orders her to be whipped.It’s not so much that he doesn’t believe her as it is that she simply must be whipped; given the chain of relationships and circumstances that have built up, this is almost an inevitability. She is tied to the whipping post, but his “affection” for her – or whatever you might call it – leaves him unable to go through with it, himself. So he forces Solomon to do it. For Patsey, this is the moment she has been waiting for. Earlier in the film, she asks Solomon to take her to the edge of the nearby swamp and drown her, for she has not the nerve to do it herself and wants to escape the hell she inhabits. Solomon refuses and says that he will not be damned for such “sinfulness”, but given he has seemed profoundly uncomfortable at all religious services shown to this point, one sense his reason may relate less to religiosity and more to simple lack of stomach for the task. Patsey begs him further, tells him God is forgiving, himself, and that he would redeem Solomon’s sin for the ultimate mercifulness it represents, but Solomon merely rolls over and goes back to sleep. Now, Epps has told her he will whip her into oblivion, and she expects, at first, that this will be her end. Solomon cannot bring himself to whip her hard, at first, and though the first few lashes hurt, Patsey seems almost laughing through her cries of pain. Yet as the blows come down harder and harder, her fantasies of death evaporate, and she is left only with the pure, concentrated misery of the experience, without even a death at the end to enclose it all. Life will go on like this, endlessly, and even if this is the worst it ever gets, externally, it will still never really get better, in its totality. This is reality, and all that that means.
For Solomon, too, this is a pivotal moment. He has, at this point, learned to subordinate everything individuating about himself in order to survive – having even destroyed the violin Ford had gifted him – yet he could always hold on to his Northern, lofty ideals and ethics, at least, for such things can idle inside. Yet now, he is forced to put such foundational things aside and whip a young woman – probably only a little older than his daughter – to whom he has grown attached, in spite of his seeming proclivity toward detachment. As mentioned, he can only bring himself to whip her lightly, at first, but when Epps threatens to start shooting other slaves until he whips harder, he becomes enraged and starts rending the flesh from the girl’s back, as has been done to him so many times. The anguish in his face at having to do such a thing is palpable. Armsby had said, earlier in the movie, that one cannot whip another human being without doing the same thing to oneself, spiritually, and the truth of these words illuminates itself in Ejiofor’s eyes. He tells Epps that he will be punished for his sin, but Epps simply retorts, “There is no sin. A man may do as he wishes with his property.” As Solomon watches the slaves clean Patsey’s wounds, every dab of alcohol like reliving the pain all over again, she looks up at him with accusatory eyes, the great irony being that had he killed her, as she’d asked, and lived with it, he could have spared her such suffering, and his having failed to do so will likely weigh heavier on his conscience than merely killing her would have. “Right” is wrong for such a world as he now inhabits. Whatever he was before this, one senses that “Solomon Northup”, as he once existed, is done, leaving only Platt, and the emptiness that fact represents.
Speaking of Epps, this scene is a complex one for him, as well. As said, Epps seems to use his slaves as a way to patch over the obvious holes in his own being, and his view and treatment of Patsey epitomizes this. Yet for all this, she is still black, and as he says, many times, he sees black folk as property to be bought and sold, little better than baboons he’d seen in traveling circuses. Thus, whatever his feeling toward this girl, they must be accompanied with a self-loathing over this violation of his own inner blueprint, this affront to his conception and perception of how things are and ought to be. Thus, when he sees Solomon whipping the girl, he goes into a frenzy, making him hit harder and harder until he can no longer simply watch, taking the whip from Solomon and lashing her even harder, the bloody gashes on her back mirroring the scarring of his own inner terrain as the two dissonant sides of his psyche clash. One senses that Armsby’s prognostication (that one whips oneself in whipping another) is no less true of Epps’s whipping, but the difference is that he seems to want to shred his soul in such a manner. At the end, when Solomon tries to shame him, he simply says that “Platt” would do well not to disturb the “good mood” he now has.
As the movie heads toward its conclusion, we are introduced to Samuel Bass – played by Brad Pitt, in perhaps the only significant casting misstep - a Canadian freelance carpenter helping to build some kind of structure on Epps’s property. He chuckles when Epps asks him if he’s comfortable, noting the terrible condition of Epps’s workers, but Epps simply retorts that they are his property. “You say that with pride,” Bass notes. “I say it as fact,” Epps retorts. This line was included in the trailer, and as a friend noted, it captures, with simplicity and precision, the slaveowning mentality. Bass tells Epps that, whatever the law, God judges all men equally, and that slavery is wrong. Epps, however, says that Bass is a notorious contrarian and that such arguments will not have any truck in the South, which Bass assents to. After this, Solomon witnesses another slave keel over and die in the field and helps to bury him, tossing one of his shovelfuls of dirt right at the camera. The slaves then stand around the grave and sing a spiritual, “Roll Jordan Roll.” Throughout the film, Solomon has avoided joining in the spirituals, the religiosity and solidarity of his fellow slaves drifting right past him. Now, however, he is overcome with emotion and joins in, enunciating each syllable with passion, every note carrying galaxies of his inner life (and carrying it into new ones). In nearly 12 years of captivity, one senses that he has never truly seen himself as a slave, but now, he finally accepts his circumstances for what they are and allows himself a little of the life he’d claimed to value so much early in the movie.
Perhaps it is this he needed to overcome his fear and inertia, for the next time we see him with Bass, he confesses his identity and asks Bass to write his family. Bass admits to being fearful but agrees to do so. Bass is a well-written character, but Pitt’s performance really clunks, making this final section of the movie sag just a bit. Pitt is a good actor, generally, but he never really seems to gel with the film’s overall aesthetic, sounding mannered and silly. He is also, quite frankly, too good-looking for such a working-class character, for one of the film’s great strengths is its verisimilitude to the ugliness of the real world, on many levels, of which the fact that none of the characters are made up to look like Hollywood mannequins is a part. Pitt does, however, at least to some extent, and it is this – not the recognizing of his being Brad Pitt – that breaks one’s immersion upon his arrival. As well, his long hair, his beard, and the fact that he’s a carpenter tie the character unmistakably to the Christ mythos, and this religious symbology is absolutely wrong, even accounting for the fact that the tale is from Solomon’s perspective, in such an otherwise secular film.
Nevertheless, Bass is a man who finally comes through for Solomon, for the Epps plantation is soon visited by the local sheriff, and after cursory questioning, we see that he is accompanied by a white friend of Solomon’s from Saratoga Springs. The hug the two men share is genuinely affecting, yet Epps must always be Epps, for he attempts to tear the two men apart and throw the sheriff off his land. He runs quickly, gets back on his horse, and proclaims that “Platt” will be back by sunset. Before leaving, Solomon shares a hug with Patsey, but this moment cannot last. He gets on the wagon, and the camera focuses on Solomon’s face as the wagon rolls away, the plantation – and all it represented – blurs behind him. Yet when he returns home to his family, the expensive, tailored clothing that had seemed perfect for him earlier in the film now looks wrong. It’s not that it’s ill-fitted for him so much as he’s ill-fitted for it. His fine clothing is now as much a costume as the slave shirt he donned at the beginning was. Slavery is in the material past, but it will always be his metaphysical present, at least in part. When he gets in his home, he sees his wife – now older, and gray – and children – now grown, his daughter having married and given birth to a grandson, who she’d named Solomon – yet cannot say anything to them other than, “I’m sorry.” “No apology is needed,” his wife replies, and the film ends with the family’s embrace. There is the potential, here, for much mawkishness, but McQueen undercuts it, in two ways.
unlike it would be in a typical Hollywood production, is marked by a stiffness
and discomfort for all involved, even in the final embrace, for it seems McQueen
is perceptive enough to note that most reconnections, even under the best of
circumstances, are colored by such awkwardness.
moment is moving, in a small way, simply by virtue of having seen what Solomon
had gone through to reach it, there is, in truth, something very empty and dour
about it. Despite his having dreamt of this moment many a time – at one point
in the film, he carves his wife’s and children’s name into the side of the
violin, where he holds it against his neck – the inescapable fact that the
relief of returning to his family, to “things as they were”, is not a good
nor satisfying enough end, for all he’s gone through. (And just as troubling
is the realization that, in actuality, nothing ever could be.)
Point #2 is confirmed by the title screens after this final shot, wherein we learn that, while Northup was able to do speaking tours for abolitionist groups and work on the Underground Railroad, the men who kidnapped and sold him, as well as the slave pen owner in Washington, never hated justice meted out upon them, for laws at the time prevented a black man from testifying against a white man at trial. As well, we learn that the date, location, and circumstances of Northup’s birth are unknown and realize that, truly, Solomon’s experience was, in its own time, meaningless, save for his memoir depicting it all having made money for publishers, and for all we know, he never even lived to see the system die. One can only hope that he may have found some happiness and peace in his final years.
As I said, this is basically the definitive filmic depiction of slavery, one that does not shy away from the true brutality of it yet does not render those caught in it, victims and perpetrators, to mere caricatures, for good or ill, does not remove the essential humanity of it – and I use that word in its fullest possible sense, as I think the tendency to use it as a synonym for generosity, selflessness, and nobility is quite naïve, for of course both man’s history and our own daily lives continuously reveal that flaws, lack, and outright evil are as much a part of us as anything else. There are many poetic scenes throughout the film, but the one that crystallizes the situation of Solomon, of all who lived within such a system, comes when Solomon is nearly lynched for retaliating against and whooping John Tibeats, who had threatened to beat him despite his not having made any mistakes. He is saved, at the last minute, by the overseer, but the overseer cannot risk cutting him down, lest he cross the emotional Tibeats (or, worse, his boss, Mr. Ford, who may well want Solomon lynched for his disobedience, as many slaveowners would). Thus, Solomon is left dangling there as the overseer goes to find Ford and apprise him of the situation, staying alive only by standing on his tiptoes on muddy ground. The situation is unbearably tense, but the difficult of watching it is compounded by seeing life on the plantation start back up around him, such brutality being normal. Such a shot is perfect filmmaking, a poetic and visceral representation of both the corporeal reality and the mentality that afflicted all who lived in a system reliant upon slavery, whether they were directly complicit in it or not. Yet in many ways, this is the lot of all who are inferior. For a slightly “higher” man like Armsby, the reach could be as subtle as the press of pelf on fingertips, even as he’s admitted that the power (and concomitant fulfillment) that money represents will never come to him and is not even worth grasping, anyway. But for Solomon, the reaching will always be a very real struggle for well-being, material and spiritual.
Yet to say that the film is “about slavery” is to ignore the many complex ideas – sociological, political, and philosophical – it contains. Even the last section of the previous paragraph illustrates how easily moments in the film reach into universality, as though my words simply cannot avoid it higher layers. Yet this delimiting is just what critics have done. Granted, it has been praised almost unanimously and is expected to be a serious contender come Oscar season, but the true extent of its greatness has barely been scratched. Here, for example, is how Mahnola Dargis begins her review in the New York Times:
“12 Years a Slave” isn’t the first movie about slavery in the United States — but it may be the one that finally makes it impossible for American cinema to continue to sell the ugly lies it’s been hawking for more than a century. Written by John Ridley and directed by Steve McQueen, it tells the true story of Solomon Northup, an African-American freeman who, in 1841, was snatched off the streets of Washington, and sold. It’s at once a familiar, utterly strange and deeply American story in which the period trappings long beloved by Hollywood — the paternalistic gentry with their pretty plantations, their genteel manners and all the fiddle-dee-dee rest — are the backdrop for an outrage.
While she’s not wrong that the movie guts many Hollywood and cultural stereotypes about the period depicted, it’s telling that she begins her review with PC grandstanding regarding Hollywood’s sins. This would not be a big deal, had she expanded outward, but the sentiment seems to dominate her review:
In large part, “12 Years a Slave” is an argument about American slavery that, in image after image, both reveals it as a system (signified in one scene by the sights and ominous, mechanical sounds of a boat water wheel) and demolishes its canards, myths and cherished symbols. There are no lovable masters here or cheerful slaves. There are also no messages, wagging fingers or final-act summations or sermons. Mr. McQueen’s method is more effective and subversive because of its primarily old-fashioned, Hollywood-style engagement.
It’s a brilliant strategy that recognizes the seductions of movies that draw you wholly into their narratives and that finds Mr. McQueen appropriating the very film language that has been historically used to perpetuate reassuring (to some) fabrications about American history. One of the shocks of “12 Years a Slave” is that it reminds you how infrequently stories about slavery have been told on the big screen, which is why it’s easy to name exceptions, like Richard Fleischer’s demented, at times dazzling 1975 film, “Mandingo.” The greater jolt, though, is that “12 Years a Slave” isn’t about another Scarlett O’Hara, but about a man who could be one of those anonymous, bent-over black bodies hoeing fields in the opening credits of “Gone With the Wind,” a very different “story of the Old South.”
She’s right that the movie tears apart stereotypes, but it does so in a passive way, by simply depicting something that evokes a sense of reality more effectively. One is reminded of an old Elijah Muhammed quote: “Don't condemn if you see a person has a dirty glass of water, [.....] just show them the clean glass of water that you have. When they inspect it, you won't have to say that yours is better.” But when it comes to explicating how McQueen achieves this, Dargis flubs, big time. While the film is very engaging, it is engaging precisely because it so avoids Hollywood conventionality. Unless Dargis is claiming that Hollywood either invented or has a monopoly on film language, then she totally misses the boat on the fact that McQueen’s aesthetic is still a decidedly European one, with an oft-distant, roaming camera, narrative elision, visual poetry, and other such hallmarks. A Hollywoood version of this story would have started at the very beginning, fetishized the goriness of the violence more, and given Zoe Saldana a meaty supporting role as Northup’s wife, “following her own desperate, courageous journey to find her husband and cope with his absence”. Predictability, too, can guide one’s words, into easy tropes and sentimentality, but those paths deadend quickly. It’s McQueen’s avoidance of such traps that allows the film to be what it is. But she continues, lest her prior mistakes be lonely:
In his memoir, Northup refers to Ford charitably, doubtless for the benefit of the white readers who were the target of his abolitionist appeal. Freed from that burden, the filmmakers can instead show the hypocrisies of such paternalism.
It’s on Epps’s plantation that “12 Years a Slave” deepens, and then hardens. It’s also where the existential reality of what it meant to be enslaved, hour after hour, decade after decade, generation after generation, is laid bare, at times on the flayed backs of Epps’s human property, including that of his brutalized favorite, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). Mr. Fassbender, skittish and weirdly spiderlike, grabs your attention with curdled intensity. He’s so arresting that at first it seems as if the performance will soon slip out of Mr. McQueen’s control, and that the character will become just another irresistibly watchable, flamboyant heavy. Movie villainy is so easy, partly because it allows actors to showboat, but also because a lot of filmmakers can’t resist siding with power.
Mr. McQueen’s sympathies are as unqualified as his control. There is much to admire about “12 Years a Slave,” including the cleareyed, unsentimental quality of its images — this is a place where trees hang with beautiful moss and black bodies — and how Mr. Ejiofor’s restrained, open, translucent performance works as a ballast, something to cling onto, especially during the frenzies of violence. These are rightly hard to watch and bring to mind the startling moment in “Maus,” Art Spiegelman’s cartoon opus about the Holocaust, in which he asks his “shrink” to explain what it felt like to be in Auschwitz. “Boo! It felt like that. But ALWAYS!” The genius of “12 Years a Slave” is its insistence on banal evil, and on terror, that seeped into souls, bound bodies and reaped an enduring, terrible price.
The movie is existential, in a number of respects beyond slavery, itself, but Dargis does nothing to illustrate such, seeming to see the movie as, basically, a work that “tells the truth about things”, as the PC canard goes. She’s not wrong, but in focusing so tightly on the film as a mere document of slavery, she misses much. She’s right about Fassbender’s performance, but Ejiofor’s performance doesn’t really function as “something to cling onto” (even if that is, perhaps, what it inevitably provides, simply given how trying the subject matter is, emotionally). McQueen doesn’t linger silently on faces for emotional or cathartic reasons, and he never has; he does so because he understands that, when you do a closeup on a good actor, seeing their reactions and reflections can reveal as much as pages and pages of dialogue. It really is that simple, at its root, and it amazes that any could miss the elegance of this tack. Yet, it’s unsurprising that she so misunderstands McQueen’s artistry, for earlier in her review, she manifested her own ignorance of his earlier masterpieces:
Mr. McQueen is a British visual artist who made a rough transition to movie directing with his first two features, “Hunger” and “Shame,” both of which were embalmed in self-promoting visuals. “Hunger” is the sort of art film that makes a show of just how perfectly its protagonist, the Irish dissident Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), smears his excrement on a prison wall. “Shame,” about a sex addict (Mr. Fassbender again), was little more than glossy surfaces, canned misery and preening directorial virtuosity. For “12 Years a Slave,” by contrast, Mr. McQueen has largely dispensed with the conventions of art cinema to make something close to a classical narrative; in this movie, the emphasis isn’t on visual style but on Solomon and his unmistakable desire for freedom.
Her characterizations of the two earlier McQueen movies are, quite frankly, ridiculously off-point and show Dargis’s own limitations as a critic. Both are great, and both are great for, basically, the same reasons that this movie is great, as there is a real continuity to McQueen’s artistic aesthetic, even as he expands his scope and dips a few millimeters of toe into greater conventionality. Not only is there great audiovisual similarity, but his basic approach – using one subject as an “in” to something larger, and unexpected – is the same in all three. Also, while Northup’s desire for freedom is constant, it is only externalized and made a part of the plot a few times. The movie’s title, lifted from the original memoir, is apt, for it is about life within the system of slavery, and even a never-ending wish for freedom is only a part of that overall experience. The film is about what we can learn from Solomon’s life as a slave, not his desire for freedom, which is what the more conventional movie Dargis apparently wanted to see would have focused on. Yet what’s funny is that Dargis’s critical sins are not hers, alone. Here is the opening of Michael Phillips’s review for the Chicago Tribune:
At this point “12 Years a Slave” has only its own publicity to conquer. Moviegoers reeling from “Gravity” may well approach director Steve McQueen's patient, clear-eyed and altogether extraordinary adaptation of the 1853 slave narrative with a combination of preconditioned shock and awe (given the subject matter) and misleading expectations of classy, eight-cylinder Hollywood melodrama.
I was almost agog when I noticed the overlap, and I couldn’t help but chuckle at the generic ideas and expressions both critics gravitated to. Phillips is less outraged, but he too must wag his finger at Hollywood, must praise how “cleareyed” the film is, and (later in the revew), as Dargis does in her review (from a section I didn’t excerpt), quotes directly from Northup’s memoir – as though they need the “authenticity” of the original source to feel they had any authority in discoursing on the adaptation of it. And in the end, he reveals that the real essence of the film eludes him, as it perhaps inevitably will for all who rely on critical cribbing, rather than critical thinking:
In that scene, as with so much of this supple achievement, “12 Years a Slave” reminds us: Behind one person's story, there are others, millions more, whose stories demand equal time and films of their own.
What allows the film to work, of course, is the very fact of focusing on this single, extraordinary, unique individual. This is manifested in the fact that, as has been elucidated in interviews, it was finding Northup’s story that really allowed McQueen to precipitate his general ideas on American slavery into something concrete. But even just thinking logically, without such outside knowledge of McQueen’s process, the simple fact is that a narrative focused on the less dimensional character of Patsey would have been a good deal more generic and not been a tenth as cogent. Her experience and personality are simply too typical, whereas it is the very abnormality of Solomon’s travails that prompts larger thoughts, in the first place. That’s not to say that Patsey is a bad character, or that the “real” Patsey did not matter. But while Patsey the Slave by Steve McQueen have been every bit as visceral, this movie offers so much more than the stomach-turning and outrage that most narratives of slavery and oppression limned to this point in history have.
Of course, while both reviewers have rather obviously missed the artistic essence of the film, they have, at least, correctly identified its quality, which is more than can be said for some of the film’s negative reviews, such as this one from Stephanie Zacharek, in the Village Voice:
Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave is the movie for people who think they're too smart for The Butler.
But is there any blood in its veins? 12 Years a Slave is a pristine, aesthetically tasteful movie about the horrors of slavery. Aside from a characteristically nuanced lead performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor—plus an oak-tree-tall supporting one by Benedict Cumberbatch, as well as a breath of movie-star vitality from Brad Pitt in a very small role—it's a picture that stays more than a few safe steps away from anything so dangerous as raw feeling. Even when it depicts inhuman cruelty, as it often does, it never compromises its aesthetic purity. In one scene, Fassbender's creepy plantation owner forces Ejiofor's Solomon to whip a female slave who has sneaked away to a neighboring plantation for a bar of soap. The camera moves slowly, in a partial arc the shape of a comma: It takes the measure of the grisly brutality of the scene, and of Solomon's anguish, without really breathing it in. The moment is terrible, yet it comes off as weirdly antiseptic, history made safe through art.
There's no reason a movie dealing with an ugly subject should be ugly itself. And there is an upside to that remoteness: McQueen isn't out to punish or scold us with his filmmaking. Northup's story is anguishing, and McQueen seeks only to tell it; he knows there's no need to bludgeon us. But compared with Lee Daniels's The Butler, a movie about another angle of the African-American experience, 12 Years a Slave is buffed to a dry, prestigious sheen. You could go to a European cocktail party and profess your love for it without having to apologize. Try doing that with The Butler, a messier movie with an unapologetic pop sensibility—it features a supporting turn by Oprah, after all. It's not nearly as pretty, but it's alive.
So excerpted, the review’s anti-intellectual sentiment shines through, without substantive loss. She totally misreads the whipping scene – which is less about the moment’s horribleness, and so has no need to “breathe it in”, than it is about the psychological effect the whole occurrence has on the characters – and, bizarrely, laments that the film is not more like Oprah’s latest PC mediocrity (which I’ve not seen, but my mother, who generally has little problem accepting Hollywood conventionality, could not help but notice the clichés and triteness of the flick). This is someone who has no ability to appreciate “art for art’s sake” but instead has a solipsistic need to “feel” something. How she managed to avoid feeling while watching a film so viscerally affecting is beyond me, but the film has other kinds of richness to offer, nonetheless, which she has no interest in exploring.
Alternatively, another negative review, by Donald Levit, posted on ReelTalk’s website, has this to say:
A Film Comments Magazine Presents special with “director and cast in person” at the New York Film Festival, 12 Years a Slave arrives to exaggerated awards and box-office expectations and PC praise.
Apart from those characters, the cinematography itself is over-prettified and distracting. Composition and framing admire themselves in incessant dark sequences, nighttime, belowdecks, in lockups and slave cabins, in which strategic limited lighting reflects off facial contours. In others, flooded with light, the subject is sharp foreground, while, lest we forget, the nasty cracks a whip in depth-of-field-unfocused back. Or paddle wheels make nice regular wave patterns into the lost past and sick sunsets peek through spindly trees draped in Spanish moss.
This is not a judgment on the rightness of the film’s outrage, but to insist that art not be untrammeled ire or emotion and that neither it nor life is literally or metaphorically pure black and white. While no one would argue that this nation’s peculiar institution was not evil abomination, most real people then and now are not categorizable as absolutes. The film’s only true “grey,” in that he has inner conflicts, is not an American at all but liberal Canadian Bass or Boss (co-producer Brad Pitt), who along with the audience questions why he has stayed in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, these twenty years.
Amidst frequent brief time shifts, for the most part Ejiofor looks down at his chest hair in a pose to suggest suppressed emotion. For only seconds he lets it loose in a graveside spiritual “Roll, Jordan,” a group scene of soul power or ironically an unintended implication of stereotyped racial proclivities. The white males are duplicitous Bible thumpers, cruel, venal, convinced of the sinlessness of treating blacks as property, and screwed up; their females (Liza J. Bennett, Sarah Paulson) are overtly powerless but vicious, steely and sexually jealous.
A dozen years seems eternity. Screen redemption, on the other hand, gets almost no time and then an awkward teary coda preceding a non-dramatic printed summary of people’s afterwards. In their different directions, Bobby Sands and Solomon Northup found freedom through self-control. Cinema, too, needs control, in artistic distance, over its own indignation.
Whereas Zacharek seemed, implicitly, to get what McQueen’s film was, even as she rejected it for whatever foolish, biased reason, Levit seems to have watched a copy of Schindler’s List that had dirt on the frames containing the actors’ faces, for literally none of his descriptions match the film in the least. He’s right that most of the praise for the film is PC, but that doesn’t mean the film, itself, is. He bizarrely trashes the beauty of the cinematography, while totally missing the point of the “Roll Jordan Roll” scene, which is an undermining of racial stereotypes, as it shows Solomon finally accepting his lot via the embracing of something representing it, rather than escaping it with simplistic religious solidarity. And the film is told with a distance that is more than appropriate. Perhaps Levit was simply sitting too close to the screen? Regardless, the fact that these two negative reviews cannot even agree on why the film fails is almost an indirect praise of the high level at which McQueen’s artistry functions.
By far, however, the worst negative review I’ve seen was written by a man named Ed Gonzales for Slant Magazine. While he rightfully opens by praising the “Roll Jordan Roll” scene, he unfortunately destroys his credibility by continuing to share his thoughts:
But that flash of emotional intensity is scarce in 12 Years a Slave, because McQueen, as is his wont, is largely content to craft images and sounds that strongly convey atmosphere and evoke great horrors, but are less visualizations of human feeling than artistic posturing. Take the film's opening shot, an artfully framed overhead of a plate containing a drab piece of meat and bread and a few blackberries whose juices the educated Solomon, who's warned to feign illiteracy for the sake of his survival, will use to craft a letter to potential saviors back in New York. McQueen only implies Solomon's realization of how he can repurpose the blackberry juice as ink, transfixing us instead with the beauty with which the juice circles around the plate as Solomon tilts it from side to side. This manner of giving primacy to the fastidiously composed image over human emotion is repeated when Solomon, after his intentions have come to light, burns the letter he's written, the embers of the flame suggesting a vast universe's dying stars. It's an impossibly gorgeous image, poetic in its implications, though it isn't preferable to the one that was meticulously left off screen: the dissolving of hope from Solomon's face.
It’s hard to know where to begin, even, for he simply gets so many things wrong. First, while he may have noticed the beauty of the pooling juice, the point of that scene is that Solomon is transfixed by them. That McQueen was able to act similarly upon Gonzales is a testament to the quality of his directorial eye, but even had he not, the reason Solomon is able to have the realization of the juice’s potential as ink is because it caught his eye. Solomon is an artist, and it is not at all uncommon for those with artistic temperaments to find themselves so caught by small, seemingly arbitrary things, and to find beauty and meaning in them. A liquid, after all, can take the shape of its container without losing its essential character. Given he no longer has the freedom most artists richly yearn for, either to practice his art regularly or even just to enjoy being, such small moments are all he really has. That Gonzales would deny Solomon such moments says more of his lack of understanding of human feeling than of McQueen’s. Likewise, his desire to see Solomon’s face in the scene with the burning letter, rather than the shot he admits is “beautiful” and “poetic”, only shows his own conventionality, for the burning of the letter perfectly encapsulates such feelings - the feelings of all “inferiors”, in all societies, probably – yet also signifies ones that are more unique to Solomon, which I shall elaborate on in time. In short, this is an astonishingly bad paragraph, one that evinces no understanding of what the artistic impulse even is, let alone what it can achieve, or why it is preferable that it achieve those things in the way it does instead of indulging the pedestrian, the everyday.
Like Hunger and Shame before it, 12 Years a Slave is a chronicle of the body as a prison. In Hunger, his debut feature, McQueen rendered the brutal captivity of Irish Republican Army martyr Bobby Sands as an ostentatious museum exhibit. His follow-up, Shame, was a heroically performed peep show as art installation, and one that confirmed McQueen's fixation on bodily experience and almost pathological aversion to psychological inquest. In the equally cagey 12 Years a Slave, Solomon remains a mystery to those around him, as knowledge of his previous status could lead to his execution, but like the tortured souls Michael Fassbender played in McQueen's earlier films, he also remains a cipher to audiences.
Like Dargis, Gonzales manifests his total lack of understanding of McQueen’s previous films, for “psychological inquest” is exactly what his bravura visuals convey, to one willing to look. McQueen’s “fixation” is on what human bodies put in brutal or odd circumstances can tell us about those individuals, their situations, and the human condition, more generally. You might call his style “bodily contortion poetics”, were you an insecure type with a need to affix labels, but what it really is, regardless of McQueen’s intent, is an intellectual, high-art counterpoint to the pretentious, Burroughs-esque babbling that colors the body horror of David Cronenberg’s cinematic corpus. Gonzales misses such nuances, though, so of course he sees these deeply-limned characters as mere “ciphers”. Funny, how someone claiming to want “authentic” human feeling doesn’t know what it can actually communicate, when it’s given to him.
Let us venture further:
Solomon plays the violin, yet we're not allowed to understand what drew him to the instrument. If he seeks solace in music, you wouldn't know it, even in a scene depicting his sale to William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) wherein Solomon plays his violin in order to soothe the nerves of a slave trader, Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti), and a slave, Eliza (Adepero Oduye), who's cruelly separated from her children. McQueen, an unmistakably unsentimental aesthete, even denies us a rich sense of Solomon's love for his wife and the life that he built in the North with her and their two young children. McQueen indulges lightly in flashbacks throughout, but the juxtapositions he creates between the horrors of Solomon's present and the freedom of his past feel emotionally disingenuous. He abstracts Solomon's body as a female slave reaches for him sexually with a hunger that stems as much from lust as it does from loneliness, then cuts to a scene of Solomon and his wife up North going about their everyday lives. This may remind us of what Solomon lost, but there's no feeling to the flashback because McQueen can't express that it comes from Solomon's remembrance beyond strictly formal terms.
First of all, why Solomon gravitates to the violin is unimportant. As with most artists, the reason may just be as simple as innate skill and ability – and, in Solomon’s case, the opportunity and freedom to indulge such. What matters is what it signifies to him, the way his tuning of it reflects the control he enjoys and employs in his life; not to mention that he actually carves his wife and children’s names in the side where it touches his neck, manifesting pretty concretely the fact that it represents his prior existence. Second, it seems apparent Gonzales must have been looking for stray popcorn kernels under his seat when we see the shot of Solomon and his wife in bed, for the look they share says more than enough of the richness of their love. But even if it weren’t there, would we really need it to understand Solomon wanting to return to his wife and children? For someone claiming to want “real human feeling”, Gonzales is sure incapable of employing such in his own analysis. I can’t comment on whether these scenes “feel” emotionally disingenuous, but his overly-reductive view of how the flashback functions totally ignores Ejiofor’s performance, which makes Solomon’s ruminations and remembrances more than apparent.
There’s almost no reason to continue, having seen Gonzales’s many conflations and misreadings, but as the review is relatively short, I see no reason not to power on:
To be fair, McQueen's impersonal approach to his subject matter isn't solely to blame for the failure of 12 Years a Slave, a safely anecdotal mosaic closer in spirit to Edward P. Jones's The Known World than to Toni Morrison's radically constructed Beloved. John Ridley's adaptation of Northup's autobiography cheapens Solomon's experience by presenting it as an educational string of episodic horrors. The film, which really only hints at the length of Solomon's ordeal in the old-age makeup a customarily nuanced Ejiofor dons in the last scene, moves from one stately, platitude-rich set piece to the next, featuring characters who enter and exit their scenes after having unimaginatively illuminated a different facet of the slave narrative. There's never a sense of how these people, by and large distractingly (though not unimpressively) played by a who's who of actors, live their private lives in between the very hectoring scenes that spotlight their public role in the history of slavery, and the effect is off-puttingly manufactured.
Walter Chaw persuasively argues to the moral compromises that were made in bringing this story to the screen. Not having read Northup's autobiography, I can only attest to how audiences, through Solomon's interactions with different white men, are dully schooled on the sliding scale of racism. The extent of William Ford's characterization is that of a gentleman who comes to understand Solomon as one too, but if he doesn't free his slave it's because his humanitarianism is easily understood as being subservient to his thirst for property. Solomon's subsequent master, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), sees his racist psychopathy staged as a sideshow attraction; as the filmmakers are unconcerned with the roots of the man's many contradictions and conflictions, he registers only as a fumbling, drunken archetype. It's almost a given that he cheats on his wife, Mary Epps (Sarah Paulson), with one of his slaves, Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), and almost unbelievable that, when Solomon is sent by his master to a neighboring plantation, his meeting with Mistress Harriet Shaw (Alfre Woodard) is only an excuse for us to learn how female slaves spared themselves a lifetime of horrors by marrying their masters.
First of all, the idea of comparing McQueen’s high artistry to Morrison’s obvious PC gumming of Faulkner, himself a deeply flawed artist, in any kind of negative light is ludicrous. Second, what he misses is that the episodic nature of the script is important, for it makes the film less about plot and more about Solomon’s increasing understanding of the world surrounding him. Again, he misreads something that exists for its effect upon Solomon as something intended to hit the audience in a particular way, but he misses the bigger picture. Yet even within his own misreading, he is wrong, for there is much imagination in the way the slave narrative is depicted, though given Gonzales’s constant misreadings, it’s not surprising he does not notice. Thirdly, he seems to ignore the scenes between Epps and his wife, in which the public reality of slavery intersects with the private life of an unhappy marriage, to disastrous results for Patsey, Solomon, and all others caught in the purview of such axes. Fourth, the scene with Woodard is a key scene in the film, for as we already learned from Eliza’s tale, such positions of privilege are precarious, at best, and illusory, at worse. A friend mentioned this scene as being a “scary” one, for this implicit knowledge. I don’t really agree, but the very possibility of such an interpretation shows how reductive Gonzales’s view of things really is. (Not to mention, Woodard is simply an interesting character, a woman who smiles as she speaks of her husband’s lechery, knowing that such a marriage, flawed as it may seem to us, was infinitely preferable to the physical and spiritual indignities of life in the lashes’ fields. Why does Gonzales want to gut the film of an interesting character?)
The Walter Chaw review he quotes is, itself, quite a silly one, wherein he endlessly compares the film to the book upon which it’s based and simply throws up his hands in lack of understanding at every divergence from the source material, forgetting that this is McQueen’s Solomon, not the real thing. Chaw is a critic capable of insight, but he misreads the film as little more than an anti-slavery movie, a catalog of horrors a la Spielberg’s atrocities about of historical atrocities. He totally misses the characterization, philosophy, and poetics that allow the film to be a perfect catalog of what slavery was, on a surface level, while touching on issues much deeper. Yet his argument against the film is, again, completely different from Gonzales’s, arguing that the film is too sentimental, too much emotion without enough intellect. Both are wrong, but Gonzales undoes both himself and Chaw – and, as the cross-critic contradiction noted earlier did, pays unwitting compliment to McQueen - by unintentionally bringing attention to this incongruity.
Let’s take this home:
Long before Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt), a Canadian carpenter and abolitionist, arrives on the scene, just in time to remind us, virtuously though not fallaciously, that the freedom of blacks from slavery wouldn't have been possible without great risk on the part of whites, 12 Years a Slave has announced itself as a compromised vision. The film's immaculate score, by Hans Zimmer, and sound design, so thick with thunder, wind, the chirping of crickets, hammers beating nails into wood, whips tearing black bodies to shreds, work in tandem to strongly convey the bucolic, sinister atmosphere of the antebellum South. And yet, Solomon almost appears deaf to the world. This is because the film practically treats him as passive observer to a litany of horrors that exist primarily for our own learning. And because McQueen, unlike Steven Spielberg, Jonathan Demme, hell, even Quentin Tarantino, lacks the passion, with one transcendent exception, to truly connect his affectations to the spirit of human struggle.
He does well to praise the film’s great score and sound design – though he doesn’t speak of how these things improve the film and probably could not articulate such, anyway, given his previous misreadings. Solomon is an observer, but the horrors exist for him, and those around him; they are for us only indirectly. That he would denigrate McQueen by raising up such puerile, limited, and – sometimes – outright shit artists only allows McQueen to stand out more for the marvel he has proven himself to be, to this point in his career.
So, having seen the way critics can mangle appreciation of a work by not looking at it with objectivity and instead letting their emotions rule their understanding, let me finally probe some of the film’s depths. I will start first with the film’s technical achievements, for they provide a window through which to enjoy its heights. As in past McQueen films, Sean Bobbitt’s photography is great – a mix of color-saturated nature photography, interiors awash in candles’ twilight, shadow-contoured faces in darkened cabins, and a host of minor details that make each shot memorable, or at least interesting. As in past films, McQueen employs many long takes without making a show of them, creating an almost stagelike effect that gives the storytelling a sense of continuousness, allowing nuances and subtleties to creep in that I know will only manifest themselves on subsequent viewings. The tack also makes the actors’ performances all the more impressive, for you know they’re not being created in editing but are instead happening in real-time, meaning that, as with the writing and storytelling, you know there are things waiting to be discovered upon rewatch.
The sound design is, as I said, up to McQueen’s usual snuff, each sound effect coming through clearly and with a tangible physical intensity. Hans Zimmer’s excellent score features a recurring, emotional string ballad that seems to come in after events that have in some way expanded Solomon’s understanding of the context he has come to inhabit, as well as its meaning in the larger system it occupies. Yet the real novelty comes when, in a few scenes, the music is almost like that of an action movie. When he’s on the boat, for example, there is a driving tune one might more associate with a chase scene in a Jason Statham movie. Or when he’s being dragged to be lynched, one notices the deep, bass-heavy thumps that have become action movie staples since Zimmer’s popularization of them in his score for the Christopher Nolan film Inception. These seem like odd choices, at first, yet there is far more intensity and urgency (not to mention potential for excitement in viewing) in these scenes than in a thousand banal chases through European capitals, for the stakes the characters are facing are real. When I realized the driving staccato track playing on the boat was actually in perfect tempo with the slap of a waterwheel against the waves of the river its ship was on, the sophisticated synergy of the film’s technical aspects washed over me. The film is less audiovisually showy, in some ways, than either Hunger or Shame, yet this is a good fit for the film’s broader narrative versus the more intimate glimpses into characters’ psyches provided in those films.
From reviews I’ve read, most appreciate the film’s visuals and music, yet few critics have spoken of the essential dissonance that suffuses the film, stylistically. For example, editing is used to juxtapose the stunning shots of the natural world in the Old South and the ugliness of the human world depicted, in ways big (the violence, the lying, the dissolution of self) and small (the unhealthiness of most folks’ miens, the tattered clothing, the poorly-wrought shacks, etc.). There is also a large contrast between the realism the film assumes on a visual level and the artifice of the dialogue, for the film maintains much of the original memoir’s dialogue, which was limned in a very 19th Century style, as you might expect for the time. That’s not to say there aren’t moments of verisimilitude, but it is not “realism”, in the strict Ibsenian sense. These contrasts create a tension that runs through much of the film, and one might venture it has an almost Brechtian effect of allowing for the distance necessary for reflection. Yet where Brecht, ever the Communist loyalist, seemed to have much contempt for real human experience, and left little to reflect on other than how banal his poetry was and how flat his characterizations and stories were, McQueen makes this marriage work by making the visual reality of the film so stomach-turning that one simply cannot lose his sense of investment in the film. He trusts viewers’ intelligence enough to know such thoughts will come.
Yet for how nauseating the violence depicted is, it’s surprising how judicious McQueen is about showing the gorier details. For example, when Northup is beaten shortly after waking up in the slave pen, you see the blows land on his back, yet you do not see blood at the time. It is only later, after he is forced to remove his shirt, that the blood is made visible – and even then, the gashes on the back are not shown directly, only implied by the red stains on the back of the shirt. Probably the most wrenching scene of violence in the film is during Patsey’s whipping, where you do see the lash strike her back, do see the blood spatters, yet even this visual is delayed a good while, the camera lingering far longer on the looks on the faces of Patsey, Solomon, and Epps before showing us what is causing such reactions. Thus, in the scene after, when Patsey is flat on her stomach, her wounds being treated by other slaves, the carnage still has the power to disgust, for the viewer has not been overexposed to it at that point. The film is more concerned with the effect the violence has on the slaves’ spirits, the way it seems to zombify them, locking them into pacified patterns. When Solomon first arrives South, we see grown men muzzled, scarred backs, wrists and ankles in chains, yet what really sticks in the memory is the shot of a wearied older black man – eyes deadened, selfhood flayed away.
McQueen’s technical skill being established, let us now look at the deeper questions the film touches on. It is ironic that I will achieve the objectivity I accused other critics of lacking by first looking outside the object in question, at another object (and, I think, the most obvious point of comparison) – 1967’s The Prisoner, the toweringly great TV series from another “Mc” artist, Patrick McGoohan. Oddly, I’ve found only one review (http://deadshirt.net/.../) even mentioning such a connection, despite the fact that both works share basically the same premise, in broad strokes – a man is drugged and made a prisoner of a world he does not understand, at first, and which he cannot escape. And, like McGoohan’s masterwork, the basic philosophical dilemma of 12 Years a Slave is the same – the struggle of an individual in a systemic framework of power and control that despises nonconformity. But whereas McGoohan set his story in a kind of hyperreality - The Village, a comic exaggeration of British society at the time, a timeless European hamlet peppered with parodic Art Deco designs and populated with bourgeois functionaries seemingly oblivious to the machinations of monitoring and control that surround them – and spun it into motion with a postmodern deconstruction of the clichés of then-popular spy fictions, McQueen instead thrusts us into a wholly different world, one temporally near our own and yet almost alien in worldview and temperament. Thus, whereas McGoohan’s show was more specifically a response to modernity’s encroachment on the individual, McQueen’s movie is a more universal tale of the way all societies, all institutions will be at odds with individuality, particularly of the exceptional kind.
The erosion is a slow one, lasting the entirety of Northup’s ordeal. He is beaten over the back with a paddle until it breaks when he is first captured, then whipped on top of that. This is a blow to his dignity, but he still has faith that the “fellow artists” who’d hired him will come and save him. He must be reminded that it was probably them who brought him there in the first place, though we never see this; the two men were fishy from the first, but they were skilled enough liars that they never let their façade slip while he was conscious, giving his doubt room to linger. When on the ship, another captive suggests they fight and overthrow the white sailors, but this hope is quashed when he is stabbed to death after showing even the lightest of resistance. That the man is played by Michael K. Williams, best known as The Wire’s Omar, a.k.a. the epitome of televisual black badassery in the last decade, foreshadows that this will be no tale of triumph, deliverance, nor catharsis, as Qunetin Tarantino’s rather juvenile Django Unchained was. Northup and Clemens wrap his body up and dump it into the river, and in a poetic shot, the dark-colored tarp in which he’s wrapped seems almost to merge with the color of the water as the camera, from the boat’s POV, pulls away. It’s just another thing, in the bigger scheme. But for Solomon, it’s a sign that, whatever happens, the system cannot be changed by him, individually, that “resistance is useless”, that there really is no other option than to hide his provenance and hope to survive.
(Having “name” actors in small roles, as Williams is, or as Paul Giamatti is as the slave auctioneer, or as Alfre Woodard is as the black, former slave wife of the notoriously lecherous plantation owner Patsey is accused by Epps of cavorting with, has a peculiar effect. There is that tinge of recognition, the comfort of familiarity – or, at the very least, some kind of vague positivity. Yet when the first is killed unceremoniously, the second turns out to be a money-grubbing bastard who can dispassionately slap Solomon’s face for refusing to acknowledge his new name of Platt, and the last smiles and accepts her husband’s sexual dalliances, knowing that the alternative – a return to slavery – is far, far worse than a cheating husband, even that thin sense of identification is pulled away, untethering us into a world of mentalities even more alien to us than they are to Solomon. He plays on your associations, undercutting them, a reminder that this is not the world as we might think of it, that what (and who) we understand as “good” is contingent on much outside our direct control. Many critics have commented that the casting of fairly well-known celebrities in such comparatively minor roles is “distracting”, but they said the same thing of Terrence Malick’s masterpiece The Thin Red Line. There, the use of big stars in minor parts imbues them with a kind of grandiosity, a sense that there are many more stories of consequence overlapping the one we are viewing; he used his audience’s implicit familiarity with such visages as a way of expanding his tale outward, in contrast to McQueen, who plays against such in order to put his protagonist’s state of mind into a sharper, more relatable focus by subtly reinforcing in us the way his own understandings of things have been pulled away.)
After having his name taken away, the next thing removed is the purity of his art, as, in a truly bizarre scene, he is forced to play a stuffy sort of proto-muzak at a slave auction held by Giamatti’s character in a stately mansion, the naked black bodies looking like miserable statues against the Neoclassical architecture. Yet when he is sold to Ford, the indignities can cease for a while, for on Ford’s plantation, he can maintain his own self-conception a while longer. His wife and children are gone, which pains him deeply, as is his name, yet for how different the facts and feelings of his life are, he is still able to be exceptional, here, even recovering his violin, for a time. And he does good work, for enabling the quicker, easier transfer of crops means a little less work for him and his captive peers. Given all this, it’s little wonder that he might be so annoyed with Eliza, yet he seems not to have realized that, unlike him, she never had the luxury of “finding herself” in the first place, meaning she has not a well-defined, fleshed-out self to fall back on when her children are torn away, as Solomon does. She never got to build canals, never got to travel internationally playing a violin. She had a love with a former master, which was denied her. She had children, one of whom was his, and they were stolen. What else has she? All this strikes Solomon in a very apparent way, yet is on the Epps plantation that he begins to erode. He cannot read, cannot write, must play hollow jigs for his hollower masters to bedevil his fellow slaves, becomes little more than a piece of others’ lives, cannot even bring himself to escape a beating by picking enough cotton, lest the fraudulence of his incompetence be uncovered.
Thus, when he burns the letter to his family after he’s narrowly escaped Armsby’s betrayal, it is not merely “the loss of hope”, as Gonzales implies, something that could easily be discerned in his countenance. “Hope”, in Solomon’s case, was not only the hope of seeing his family again but the hope of being able to inhabit his former self, and as the embers fade to ashen darkness, one gets a sense not only for how much he’s lost, but for the thousands of little burnouts that will define his daily life the longer he is stuck in such a hell. Yet for all this, for the way the movie maintains such a tight focus on Solomon, himself, it is not just about him, specifically, but about the way he and everyone around him are forced to act and be in order to mesh with the heavily flawed world surrounding them, the authorities and strictures that delimit them. Few critics have noted how limited most whites’ options are in this film, how constrained they are by the system in which they find themselves (look at how even the mere suggestion by Bass of slavery’s ethical bankruptcy draws a veiled threat from Epps), yet this is an essential part of the story that, if missed, renders the film’s overall narrative much more simplistic than it actually is. A man like Ford is as decent as he can be, though he has not the spine to challenge the corruption in a system that so privileges him. A man like Epps indulges it as much as possible, perhaps knowing that it is only with dozens at his beck and call that he can escape his delusions, the inner vacuum. The poor whites hold tightly to the small sliver of opportunity afforded them, take pleasure in beating the blacks the way they feel society has beaten them. And a man like Bass, rare though he may be, does whatever small thing he can to spite a system whose new outfit he can see for what it is: naked, necrotic flesh, nothing more.
Thus, in the grandest sense, what the film is really "about" – to the extent that you can ever peg complex works down to a single phrase - is the struggle of the individual to conduct an existence within the flaws of the time and place in which he finds himself. This is a timeless, complex human struggle, difficult to articulate, but McQueen cleverly uses the antebellum South – a society whose flaws are so manifold and obvious, and so severe, yet so idiosyncratic and odd, that witnessing its tangible effects, over time, on a lone soul allows one to extrapolate, to imagine the billions of little adjustments and compromises made over the course of an entire population living in such a system. Yet slavery, itself, is not the root of this, for even our modern society is riddled with flaws – callousness, materialism, wastefulness, obliviousness, pacification by technology, lack of appreciation for artistic and cultural peaks, ignorance, and so on. Heck, we have not even managed to abolish the slavery that so entrapped Northup. There are anywhere from 12 to 27 million of them throughout the world, and billions are little better off, working long hours for poor wages to keep the Western way of life afloat. Meanwhile, the descendants of the black folk in this film, while the world they inhabit is better, still live disproportionately often in in poverty, in overcrowded abodes, and for every Martin Luther King, Jr., every Malcolm X - individuals willing and able to organize such disadvantaged minorities to fight for their individuality (by, paradoxically, working collectively to actively alter their destinies) - there are a dozen wannabe gangsters who would be lucky to drag a dozen of their fellows into oblivion with them. (Though ironically, even those who rebelled were privileged, in a relative sense, to be able to do such, for look at what becomes of the lone dissident slave in this film.)
But even looking past the obvious horrors, consider the indignities countless millions must suffer under bosses whose inner architecture looks more like Epps's exterior actions in this film than we might want to admit; the "humanists" who would show compassion by stripping away free will and accountability with an endless parade of vaguely defined "psychic disorders"; or the great (or potential great) artists toiling away in meniality, as Solomon was forced to, while mediocrities (like Spielberg, whose filmic atrocity Schindler's List has been facile watchers' primary point of comparison) soak up all the profit and acclaim. This is not to try and draw equivalence - for of course we are lucky to live in the time we do – but to draw attention to the timelessness of the struggle against powers that eat away at the potential for humans to be all that they could, for the race to achieve all the good it should. And the intellectual movements of the day – Postmodernism, the politically correct wing of Academia – do little to alleviate matters, and indeed usually get in the way of the true reflection and understanding that are necessary to even identify such problems, let alone address them.
Yet even were to solve many of these issues, it seems unlikely to me that the conformity, the little indignities, the provincialism, the lack of empathy, the many other little things that can evaporate the self, over time, in ways subtler and with less obvious solutions than the crack of a whip, will go away. One may not be owned, but even a scientist in an egalitarian space station utopia can be demeaned and degraded by a bad boss, have their sense of purpose or order stripped away by an unexpected firing or divorce, fall into cultlike mentalities big and small. Society seems to get better, with time, yet perfection – if it even exists - simply is not in man’s ken, and likely never will be, at least as long as he’s recognizably human. Far into the future, long after racism and slavery, maybe even race itself, have become mere historical curios, hurdle in man’s early development, this movie will be no less relevant, for the barbarism therein will still be within them, and the lot of the characters to live with such societal deformities will still be of them. It may overreach in ways subtler, but overreach it will; of this human history is a nigh-total guarantor.
What’s more, they
will probably not understand their sins until the deeds are unretractable.
Return, a moment, to the quote at the beginning of the essay. McQueen gave
critics a great, clear “advanced starting point” into matters of depth,
complexity, and import – yet that point was the forest, itself, not the
lynching tree on its outskirts. In time, I have to hope that more critics will
see this, just as critics eventually came to see that Moby-Dick was more
than another nautical adventure, that The Grapes of Wrath was more than
just Communist agitprop, that 2001: A Space Odyssey was more than druggie
pretension, etc. But the critics of now have chosen their place. This kind of
cluelessness marks so much of human existence, but such only really becomes
clear with time. I can see this lack of theirs, but what of my own worldview is
as divorced from reality as Epps’s views on blacks in this film?
And what of Solomon? Is there any consolation in being the subject of a great work of art 150 years after your death? Is there even anything left of the original Solomon, the one who’d been kidnapped? His physical self has almost surely replenished itself totally, shedding what cells were left him after the lash had spilled so many on the ground, but is there anything of the original pattern left? He wishes, at the beginning, “to live”, rather than “to survive”, but while this has personal meaning, for Solomon, there is something illusory in it, as an audience member, for we have seen more of what life truly is through his tribulations and indignities, whose overcoming is mere survival to him, than ever we could have learned from watching him fiddle from town to town. That’s not to wish such a horrible fate on the man, obviously, for of course I wish that none of this had happened to him. But the film seems as good a proof as any of the fundamental oneness of reality and experience, good and bad, that Walt Whitman will so aptly describe in his poetry a few short years after this film ends.
So, is there anything left of what once was called “Solomon Northup”, at the end? Perhaps, but his river of selves has emptied into a vast sea, where the current is not a unidirectional snaking but an intricate web of pushings and pullings. Yet a sea is but a part of an ocean of water, itself but a percentage of a spherical lump of chemicals, itself adrift in a nigh-endless emptiness broken only by a few scattered flakes of matter - itself, perhaps, a mere electrical blip in the microchip of a higher reality, or a single atom in an omniversal whole. Such things are beyond him, perhaps, but the slavery, for how much it’s taken from him, has expanded his engagement with and understanding of the world, albeit in ways that, perhaps, he never intended, or wanted. His waters are still there, but diluted among many others. He has learned, as have we, that one lives always within power, that comfort is something allotted, not earned. If ever a work could disprove the concept of “natural rights”, it’s this one, for the only “natural” right is that of reality to have its way with you. This is tough, for him, as he seems to inhabit a nether-region of the soul somewhere between the lives of freedom and slavery, unable to leave behind what he has seen, what he has experienced, what he has come to understand. He wants desperately to return, but when he does, he finds that he is not the same – or perhaps that it isn’t. Yet must there not be something there, some inner continuity tying together the man who is kidnapped to the man who is delivered. In an unpublished manuscript, novelist Jessica Schneider asks of her protagonist, “Were [he] not himself, what other selfhood could command his essence?” Solomon, it seems, embodies the answer, yet given what he must go through for the proof of such, perhaps not all knots in the line of Being need untying. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that such is not our lot, and that – if it is – there will eventually come a McQueen to give it structure.
Solace? Redemption? Such things, dear fellows, are contextual, unpredictable. But to be given meaning! To matter…
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