12 Years a Slave
Steve McQueen has an extraordinary knack for catching us off guard; landing a punch before we know that it has been thrown.
There was his once seen and never to be forgotten video art masterpiece, ‘Deadpan’, which went a long way to securing a Turner Prize win during a period that he found filmmaking too restrictive. It was an unexpected reworking of Buster Keaton’s legendary slapstick stunt from ‘Steamboat Bill, Jr’, where an open window embrasure saved an absent minded character from a collapsing wall. In McQueen’s hands, he replaces Keaton’s oblivious bystander and during an extraordinary battle of willpower, stands dead still trying not to blink when the wall crashes to the ground around his body. The image was massive, compounding its overwhelming physical impact and it took a few moments for us to realise that McQueen had recreated, in the most emphatic way, what it felt like to be on the receiving end of mindless racism, transforming Keaton’s trademark ‘deadpan’ comic look into a silent expression of powerless indignation.
That same silent expression is present in his third feature, ’12 Years a Slave’, and this time it belongs to the talented Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Solomon Northup, a real life and refined free black man living with his wife and children in New York until low life scumbags unlawfully abduct him into slavery. John Ridley wrote the screenplay, adapting Northup’s own 1853 memoir, which became a bestseller in its day.
And we see other silent countenances, no less powerful and affecting, but these are the look of resigned desperation where the choice has always been between death and absolute degradation. Most accept the later – any life is better than no life – but for one, Patsey, death becomes a form of hope; one that blends solace and liberation in a terrible morbidity, which, ultimately defies words in its bleak darkness but does not elude the brilliant young actress Lupita Nyong’o in her astounding performance. How lucky we are are – and perhaps 2013 will be remembered for this – to have two truly great actresses emerge at the same time; the other, of course, being Adèle Exarchopoulos in ‘Blue Is the Warmest Colour’.
But this is a film as much about their capturers, their torturers; the vile plantation owners who refer to slaves as their ‘property’ but, deep down, seem to know otherwise. Solomon encounters two: they are very different but one is no better than the other. There is the very weak Ford – the ultimate coward – who acts kindly towards Solomon until the first sign of resentment from his own men and he metaphorically runs a mile in the opposite direction, selling Solomon to the barbaric and depraved – bestial even – Epps.
Enter Michael Fassbender. Occasionally, actor/director partnerships – Scorsese/De Nero is the obvious example – take cinema to that special undefinable but unique place, where fiction touches reality. That is what happens when McQueen and Fassbender work together and here, Fassbender’s deeply disturbing Epps is psychologically the most complex character on view. His feelings for Patsey teeter on that dire boundary between love and hate when a rejected affection turns to an unforgiving humiliation. Epps responds with appalling sadistic acts, condemning himself to a miserable hell on earth in a vicious cycle of inhuman punishment and self-disgust. In another film, things might come to a head when he commands Solomon to whip – absolutely thrash – Patsey’s bare body seemingly forever, ripping the skin from her back. Yet, in this world – the heinous real world of plantations – things just carry on as normal.
Paul Giamatti’s slave trader is no less chilling but in a different way. “Very likely he will grow into a fine beast” he says of a young black boy, highlighting his physique as a cattle farmer might at market. What a brilliant cameo performance this is, callous in his business like matter of fact manner, provoking a discernible outrage amongst the audience without raising his voice or looking towards the camera.
Not even occasional moments of astounding beauty that McQueen and cinematographer, Sean Bobbitt, pick out from the Southern landscape – they could be stand alone video art pieces – relieve the ugliness. The visual poetry, with its soft glow, takes on the same warmth as a Claude idealised landscape, which within the context of the lynchings, rapes, beatings and routine use of the N-word compounds our absolute disgust. And when McQueen blends the two together – a long take of Solomon dangling from a tree in the shimmering afternoon sun with only tiptoes coming between life and death – it’s unbearable to the point of being unwatchable.
This is the grotesque side of Western history, which cinema has acknowledged but usually no more, preferring, instead, to brush it under the carpet. McQueen forces us to face our predecessors’ demons by identifying with an outsider, whose middle class lifestyle in New York is as remote from sadistic slavery as ours. Stripped of his clothes, possessions and identity – even renamed ‘Platt’ – gradually, he becomes undistinguishable from other slaves; the silent expression of powerless indignation mutates into resigned desperation but, so subtle is Ejiofor’s acting, the change is seamless. When he eventually returns to his family by order of court, Hans Zimmer’s score seems to be reaching a Spielberg/Williams climactic high and then holds back, introducing a foreboding tone; a reflective moment, an acknowledgement – as surely Solomon would have demanded – that there was no cause for celebration until every last slave was free.buy levitra pills online
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It’s a film that sends the audience home with a sense of unavoidable shame.
- Year: 2013
- Country: USA
- Filmmaker: Steve McQueen
- Screenwriter: John Ridley
- Producer: Dede Gardner, Anthony Katagas, Jeremy Kleiner, Steve McQueen, Arnon Milchan, Brad Pitt and Bill Pohlad
- Cinematographer: Sean Bobbitt
- Editor: Joe Walker
- Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti and Brad Pitt
- Duration: 133 mins