“And you are lynching Negroes.”
It’s hard to remember, considering the buffoonery on display at the Olympics, but there was a time when Russia attacked the United States on a social level. While America was proclaiming themselves the “Land of the Free,” it grew increasingly difficult at the start of the 20th century to say that we treated our citizens equally. Yes, we like to say that we freed slaves, but that’s ignoring the hundreds of years earlier that they weren’t. This is to say nothing of the struggle for basic rights afterward.
Director Steve McQueen, who has been no stranger to pointing out the strange absence of minorities in modern American film, turns his unblinking gaze on this unspoken part of the past. For those of you that may object to my calling this period unspoken – look up the names of the editors and writers of most history books. White men won the culture war a long time ago and only recently have we started ceding ground in our shared history. In telling the torment of Solomon Northup, a free man kidnapped and forced into slavery, he explores but one of many untold American stories - the true volume we can only guess at as the film goes on.
We need more films like 12 Years a Slave. It is angry, but focused, using several American forms of storytelling to show the pain and restoration of one man while hinting at the dozens of stories that lie untold. At any time 12 Years A Slave could have left Chiwetel Ejiofor and followed his children, the other slaves he meets in captivity, or the many who die as he is drug from one plantation to another. So many humans were lost and McQueen is able to hint, however briefly, at the brutal lives they led before crossing paths with the camera. This is just one story, and we should be angry that there have not been more told.
12 Years a Slave succeeds so well because of it’s nearly perfect fusion of traditional American film-making on an acting, writing, and directing level. Ejiofor has been a long-favorite performer of mine and his roles, from Dirty Pretty Things to Kinky Boots, show how comfortable he is exploring the dimensions of a minority within a minority. As a free man who is then enslaved, he suffers the worst indignity, but never overplays his hand as this isn’t the space for dramatic moments, no Amistad proclamations of “Giveus-us-free!” There are times when Ejiofor is brutally quiet as his eyes plead for a way to vent and his voice quivers with betrayal at any sound that passes from his lips.
But even during those scenes where Ejiofor is given an emotional release, McQueen’s directing style keeps the focus on the overall picture instead of a flash of violence. McQueen favors a lot of natural lightning and sharp, picturesque backdrops. It recalls historical epics like Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, but instead of favoring the sublime, yet crushing, qualities of nature settles for surrounding Ejiofor with man-made horrors. The beauty of the backdrops offer direct contrast to the sight of Ejiofor’s dark frame hanging from an otherwise majestic tree, or the sudden appearance of blood in the cool plantatian interiors.
McQueen’s control of these images kept me close because I frequently thought how horribly beautiful they are. When taking notes, I started to write about how wonderful the film looked almost in spite of the horror. The growing nausea I felt at contrasting the background beauty to the foreground horror cemented the greatness of 12 Years A Slave for me. This is not my history, as I almost chose to overlook the human horror for the pretty picture, but one that I should have known more about.
The structure, as written by John Ridley, keeps the disquiet going by giving a perverted version of the American road movie. But this isn’t a bunch of stoners or party kids travelling across the country to score a good time. Ridley’s structure keeps the basic framework but instead of a colorful array of characters, he puts an array of monsters into the film. The majority of the time is with Michael Fassbinder’s blatantly evil owner, but inserts other asides with the cold business demeanor of Paul Giamatti, and the moral blinders of Benedict Cumberbatch. This structure allows makes what could have been straightforward, if somewhat illuminating, misery porn into a wide look at the industry of slavery in America. By lifting the structure from road movies, it unconsciously calls back the many times we have seen this format, but without any minorities in view.
As effective as 12 Years a Slave is, and as necessary a piece of modern American education, it has moments that still pull me too far out of Ejiofor’s story. Is it important to learn that there were countries more tolerant of slavery? Perhaps, but not in this film, and certainly not through the arrival of Brad Pitt as a saintly Canadian who comes equipped with a long speech about true respect to your fellow man. McQueen paints the majority of the film in such subtle palettes that when it veers into outright explanation it falters badly. Worse is when Ejiofor is framed as a student, such as when the camera watches him listening at the feet of one of the house slaves. If anyone does not need to learn about the realities of slavery and the structure, it’s the educated Northup, and especially not in so blatant a lesson.
Those quibbles, while minor, still derail from an impressive achievement. McQueen’s film joins The Butler and Fruitvale Station in a year where black film-makers spoke about the past with a variety of images. In truth, we may only need a couple of more films like The Butler. But in 12 Years A Slave we remember there are many years left unexamined, and many who still need to learn whose bones and blood built this country.
Directed by Steve McQueen.
Screenplay written by John Ridley.
Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’O, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Paul Dano.