As a plantation-based slave narrative, it’s hard for me to conceptually separate 12 Years a Slave from Django Unchained. And though I find myself in the minority of Tarantino fans in that I actually quite liked Django, 12 Years a Slave surpasses it on every front. First and foremost is its beauty. McQueen has made two feature films before, Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011), but he comes from a visual art background, making experimental and conceptual films for gallery installations. Still, more than in either of his previous films, McQueen is showing his visual arts roots. His camerawork and focus is comparable, in my mind, only to Terrence Malick, whose famed reverence for the natural world is so close to his heart. McQueen’s roving camera floats its way in and out of swamps, brush, plantation houses, and cane fields with ease, making everything look simultaneously sumptuous and vulgar. It’s a far cry from Django, whose own beauty is a cartoony one. Where Django’s world is an uncomfortably bright hyper reality, 12 Years a Slave presents one that simply is reality, as lush and beautiful as it is soul-crushing and devastating.
Director: Steve McQueen
Producers: Dede Gardner, Anthony Katagas, Jeremy Kleiner, Steve McQueen, Arnon Milchan, Brad Pitt, Bill Pohlad
Writer: John Ridley, based on the book by Solomon Northup
Editor: Joe Walker
Cinematographer: Sean Bobbitt
Music: Hans Zimmer
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Dwight Henry, Kelsey Scott, Quevanzhané Wallis, Scoot McNairy, Taran Killam, Chris Chalk, Adepero Oduye, Michael Kenneth Williams, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Liza J. Bennett, Paul Dano, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, Lupita Nyong’o. Alfre Woodard, Garret Dillahunt, Brad Pitt,
Premiere: August 30, 2013, Telluride Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: October 18, 2013
US Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures
And indeed, McQueen’s honest and harsh portrayal of the realities of America under slavery is devastating. Solomon Northup makes a perfect avatar for our entrance into the American South, since he has been so insulated from it. He is as new to slavery as we are; sure, as an American (and particularly as an African American), he certainly has read and heard a lot about slavery, as have any of us who have taken history classes. But the first hand experience is something entirely different. As soon as our Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is thrust into the South, the cultural shock is intense. As a recently enslaved Northup rides a boat down to New Orleans where he is to be sold, another slave, Clemens (Chris Chalk), gives him the low down on how to survive. Keep your head down, say and do as little as possible. Northup’s response is powerfully telling of his free northern mentality: turning to Clemens he says, “I don’t want to survive, I want to live.” Essentially the rest of the movie is spent testing that resolve, as Northup and all of those around him are abused in hundreds of abhorrent ways. We watch him learn how to survive and forget about how to live.
Comparing 12 Years a Slave to McQueen's Shame, he seems to have totally reinvented his aesthetic. Yes, both films (and indeed all of McQueen’s cinematic work so far) feature Michael Fassbender in leading roles, and some formal elements are similar, but where Shame is sleek and stylized, 12 Years a Slave is raw and emotive. I went to see it twice in order to try to wrap my head around it, and it was even more emotionally impactful the second time through, which demonstrates the mysterious power of this film. The most compelling part of McQueen’s filmmaking style, the element that makes this film so emotionally successful, is his trust in his actors. The film is stuffed to the gills with impressive long takes, but in them McQueen relies on the performances of his actors, rather than effects, montage, or cross-cutting, to create meaning and emotion.
When Orson Welles made Citizen Kane, he, like McQueen, came from a different background. Welles was a theater (and radio theater) director who was given the opportunity to direct his first movie, and since he was such a celebrity after the famous War of the Worlds broadcast, he was given full authorial control. He worked with Gregg Toland (the incredible cinematographer who worked on Kane and many other masterpieces like John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940) or Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire (1941)) and using his theater background, Welles did all of the fade-ins and fade-outs manually on set by actually dimming all of the lights in synchrony. Usually these techniques are done in the lab, but Welles was a rookie coming from another discipline, and he legitimately didn’t know you could do that. The result is a marvelous one. Many of the fades are specifically tailored so that the light lingers the longest on one character or one part of the frame, adding a whole depth of subliminal meaning and understanding to what is ordinarily a rote film technique. I mention this because I feel like McQueen’s long takes are the same thing. Coming from conceptual and visual art, where there is no requirement for overstimulation in entertainment, McQueen approaches film storytelling from a different angle. Where most directors would intercut to keep a scene moving quickly, McQueen really lets the camera linger and intimately watch the actors. And working with Michael Fassbender and Chiwetel Ejiofor, they are more than up to the task. So the most powerful scenes are the extended long takes where we simply get to see these characters fully embodied.
The portrayal of slavery is also fascinating in its horror, and McQueen touches on many oft-overlooked aspects, always carefully showing the world from the perspective of Northup. The camera feels uncomfortable inside the plantation houses or on their porches; it really lives outside or in the shabby hole-ridden huts the slaves have to live in, and occasionally goes into a place that feels strangely different. It’s hard to pinpoint the practical stylistic choices that effect this ephemeral feeling, but somehow the natural outdoor light feels so real that the indoor scenes gain a discomfiting aspect. It’s as if the camera itself doesn’t want to be there, and wants to get out where it is safer and more comfortable, just like the Northup does.
In its portrayal of culture, 12 Years a Sleve seems to fully understand the overarching politics of the plantation, showing each of the three plantations we spend time at as if they are separate city-states, operating under their own laws and maintaining uneasy alliances with the others. The interaction between slaves is equally fascinating, most trying to keep their heads down and stay out of trouble, and so not interacting with each other when they can avoid it. This is particularly striking in a scene where a lynching takes place in the middle of a plantation, and the other slaves, some of whom no doubt share the same hut with the lynchee, just go about their business. It goes to show another strength of McQueen’s adaptation: as much as this film demonstrates the physical warfare of slavery, it shows the emotional and psychological warfare even more starkly. And this is saying something, as the film includes six whipping scenes (one of which being among the most brutal things I have ever seen) and three hangings, but the psychological conditioning is even more intense. The slaves undergo what would be seen today as rudimentary brainwashing—religious indoctrinations, whippings and sexual abuse, and mandatory dances, not to mention the perpetual fear of death. It goes to explain the almost unbelievable system in which dozens or hundreds of slaves would serve a household of three or four “masters” without killing them in their sleep.
As a portrait of systematic oppression it is comprehensive, but as a story of one man who is uprooted and thrust into a dehumanizing system, it is heartbreaking. By the film’s ending it’s nearly impossible to keep a dry eye. In the climactic scene, the story, the adaptation by McQueen, and Ejiofor’s unbelievable performance all accrue into one of the most emotional moments in cinematic history. If I were to have any qualms with this movie, they would be minor. The score can be a little bland, with a little too much of Zimmer’s Pirates of the Carribean flair, and the script, though perhaps historically accurate, comes across as stagey and almost Shakespearean. Like many performances of dated diction, like Brontë or Austen adaptations, not everyone can pull it off; while most of the stars sound fine, a few supporting characters—most notably Brad Pitt’s Canadian carpenter—sound like they are reading a script. Still, it does little to take away from the power of this film. It’s odd that it took a British man to make it, but we may now have the quintessential film about American slavery.