12 Years a Slave

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Director: Steve McQueen
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt
Review: 4.5 stars (of five)

12 Years a Slave is a powerful, brutal piece of filmmaking that wins entirely on the careful eye and discipline of its director, Steve McQueen, and star, Chiwetel Ejiofor.  It is a relentless chronicle of nearly unimaginable brutality that manages to make that brutality seem almost routine, rather than sensationalized.

12cThat’s an important point, I think.  We’re all used to seeing movie violence, and no instance of singular brutality (and there are a few in this film) can capture the real crime that slavery was.  You don’t need a film set in that world to portray racism or violence or man’s limitless capacity to be utterly shitty to his fellow human beings.  What I found unique about the view of slavery presented in this film was how routinized and institutionalized it was.  It’s not a black man hanging from a tree on the verge of choking to death that tells me how awful slavery was.  It’s the white man who leaves him there and walk away, and the other plantation slaves who go about their business not looking at the gasping victim, because they are afraid to come to his rescue–and there’d be no point, since the net result would be both of them getting strung up, or worse.

Any number of scenes portraying the indignities suffered by a free black man kidnapped into slavery, end not on the note of violence or cruelty, but on the actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor, staring ahead with a pained, helpless expression on his eye.  It was that sense of helplessness, the film’s steady extinguishing of humanity and hope, that made it great, if unpleasant viewing.

The film begins in upstate New York in the 1840s, where a free black man and his family can be respected members of society, politely treated despite, of course, many underlying prejudices and limitations.  Once Ejiofor’s Solomon Northup is kidnapped into slavery, into an immediate world of dehumanizing violence and degradation, a cold rock of nausea settled in my stomach and sat there pretty much throughout the film.

McQueen never sensationalized the violence or the cruelty.  There’s an almost documentary detachment and plain simplicity that makes it all the worse.  Getting fancy with lighting and score and camera angles would only remind us that we’re watching a movie approximation of something.  McQueen makes it feel like his camera has simply gone back in time.

12aThe southern whites that Northup meets are as vile, disgusting a collection of racists as you’ll ever see, but McQueen and writer John Ridley don’t make racism their primary attributes.  They are dense nests of unpleasant attributes whose racism comes across as an afterthought.  There is a scene where plantation mistress played by Sarah Paulson throws something the size of a brick at the head of a slave named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), and hits her at close range, dropping the woman to the ground.  The brutal, ugly act was directed not at the slave, but at Paulson’s husband (vividly realized by Michael Fassbender), who doted on that slave.  She attacked a fellow human being the way she would have smashed a prized vase or keyed a really nice car–she was damaging property to piss off its owner.  Many of the most brutal behaviors in the film are not directly about a distaste for black people, but about greed (didn’t pick enough cotton today, you get whipped), jealousy, etc.

That’s not to say that the people and the actions are not deeply racist, but to say that the racism–the freedom to utterly disregard an entire race of people–was so deeply institutionalized that it was as much a part of the environment as oxygen.  No one thinks about breathing–it’s just what we do.

I’ve read it said that this film should be shown in classrooms.  I agree.  It captures the mundane, banal evil without flinching from the brutal violence. More importantly, it captures the truly dehumanizing power of such crimes on an institutional level.  It also captures a quietly powerful performance from Ejiofor, who deserves an Oscar nomination, and a forceful turn by Fassbender–alongside an entirely excellent cast.