With nine Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor, a host of 5* reviews, and the ringing endorsement of leading academic Henry Louis Gates, Jr (who dubbed the film ‘the most vivid and authentic portrayal of American slavery ever captured on screen’), I went to see 12 Years a Slave with very high expectations.
Based on the 19th-century memoir of Solomon Northup, Steve McQueen’s third film (after Hunger and Shame) follows the often unbearably brutal and violent trials of a musician from New York state who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the south in 1841. Northup (played by Chiwitel Ejiofor) is stripped of his former life, his humanity, and even his name, as he is trafficked from one plantation owner to another.
Much has been made of McQueen’s unflinching portrayal of the violence meted out to slaves who were forced to work long, back-breaking hours in the unbearable southern heat. Yet is it to McQueen’s (and the film’s) credit that he portrays the dehumanisation, the rapes, the flayings and the beatings so graphically? Yes, it’s gripping in a disturbing way, but does it force us to confront anything about the evils of slavery we don’t already know? Does it really force us to see? I found myself asking what the cumulative effect of this torture and savagery was, particularly in the extended scene where the slave-girl Patsey (in an Oscar-nominated performance by newcomer Lupita Nyong’o) is tied to a tree and whipped for being in possession of a piece of soap. The endless punishments meted out by the sadistic plantation owner Edwin Epps (played by McQueen favourite Michael Fassbender) begin to lead 12 Years a Slave down a different path: the film becomes less about slavery and more about one man’s inner demons which make the lives of all those who come into contact with him – even his wife’s – a living hell.
One of the problems McQueen faces is the constraints of working from Northup’s own memoir: there’s very little dramatic tension as we know the ending from the start and are simply waiting for the inevitable moment when Northup will be rescued. McQueen also doesn’t seem to have tried to find much complexity or subtlety of character, except perhaps in those of two women: Sarah Paulson puts in a brave performance as Sarah Epps, almost managing to make us feel sorry for her, even though her own intense jealousy and insecurity makes her just as cruel; and Alfre Woodard does her best to steal the film, despite only being on-screen for 4 minutes in just one scene as Mistress Shaw, a former slave who married a white man and has become head of her own household. In every modulation of her voice, in every turn of her head and movement of her hands, Woodard is educating Patsey on how to survive the brutal realities of her current existence.
What McQueen has done, however, is give us a visually stunning film: there are beautiful shots of cotton plants, of rolling water, of Northup writing by candlelight. McQueen also knows how to make the most of silence, and there’s an incredibly powerful scene where Northup is strung up by his neck and left to balance on his tiptoes for the whole day while the rest of the slaves continue to go about their duties, walking past him but rarely looking at him, and he’s hanging there, struggling to breathe. We watch for minutes as the light fades, hardly daring to breathe ourselves, and the quiet and stillness here is far more powerful than anything McQueen offers in his savage, extended scenes of torture.