Published on October 28th, 2013 | by Dan Gvozden0
12 YEARS A SLAVE – REVIEW
The image of a man hanging from a tree is one that no matter how many times I see it depicted in a film will never lose its horror and gruesomeness. I have such a hard time psychologically connecting with the persons doing the hanging, as if they were some strange aliens whose link to humanity is scattered and confused. Yet, I am keenly aware of how closely tied these images are with the history of the country that I call my home. Very few films have ever allowed me the opportunity to understand the circumstances that allowed for the subjugation of my fellow man as this film did.
12 Years a Slave, the newest film from director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame), is that rare film that not only highlights the cultural birth of all of America’s racial problems but does so by moving away from fairytale-like romanticism into a realistic depiction of the country in the 1840s. It does this by presenting the story of American slavery from the most logical, yet novel, viewpoint: that of a black slave. How is it that it has taken this long for cinema to produce a film that does nothing to sensationalize our history of slavery?
McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave explains so much about our country’s racial identity and its culture of oppression in one of its finest images, a man hanging from a tree. Despite the numerous times that I have seen this image, I have never seen it portrayed like this. In it, our protagonist Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) has his arms tied behind him, neck in a noose, and feet barely touching the earth. Neither foot has a solid foothold on the ground, a slippery and shifting patch of mud, and each footfall practically guarantees another eventual struggle for balance. We hear the light tapping of his feet, short gasps for air, and straining of the noose against his neck and it is all sickening.
Time stretches on as children play around the struggling Solomon. An onlooker from the stately mansion peers at him for a moment before returning to her comfortable home. Solomon hangs as a representation of the power dynamic that exists on this estate, a sign that revolt will not be tolerated. The longer he struggles the more powerful that message, one that echoes from that time in the 1840s to today, becomes.
Solomon Northrup’s true story is one of survival and fierce determination to regain humanity despite overwhelming odds. Solomon starts the movie as a free black man in the northern states who is drugged and sold into slavery, leaving his family behind. Every aspect of his humanity is slowly and calculatedly stripped away, beginning with his name. He is made an object in the eyes of his captors and sometimes even in the eyes of the camera. As the slaves are shipped around the country, McQueen lifts the camera overhead and casts the men and women as mere cargo packed into a shipping vehicle. Much of the struggle in the film comes from Solomon’s desire not only to survive but as he so eloquently puts it, “to live.”
Later in the film, slave-owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a raging drunk and rapist, leans against a young boy as if he were furniture. The boy stands unblinkingly still. The objectification circle is complete; both he and the boy understand the nature of their demeaning relationship. I could not help but be reminded of Miley Cyrus’s performance at the this year’s VMAs where she utilized her black backup dancers as objects, placing her face into the privates of one of the dancers, to support and bolster her own sexual awakening. It reinforced for me that this unfortunate cultural relationship is still alive in our society, if not quite as obvious.
McQueen’s casting of the British Chiwetel Ejiofor (Children of Men, American Gangster) allowed for the film to be approached from an outsider’s perspective and for the narrative to be freed from any history that might have led to sensationalism. His Solomon has to ride that fine line, between appearing withdrawn and complacent, without coming across as completely submissive. Through Chiwetel’s magnificent performance, I sensed his undying desire to escape despite his circumstances and the actions he’s made to take. He is a man stuck in a world with no options and even less people to trust. To watch him slowly be stripped of every freedom and hope he has left is terrifying and left me praying that any aspect of this wonderful man would be left intact. Solomon starts as an accomplished violin player and even his love of that instrument, which begins as his hopeful tool for redemption in the eyes of his masters, quickly becomes just another tool for survival that carries no joy.
12 Years a Slave is far less sensationalistic than McQueen’s previous films, Hunger and Shame, and is full of broad imagery and raw character drama that utilizes its shocks to do more than just that. Instead, it uses them to build character relations and dramatic importance. While most films dealing with this subject matter try to appeal to our nobility, earned or not, 12 Years a Slave presents a more honest truth about the situation. Despite their good intentions, films like The Help and The Blind Side that attempt to apologize for our racial history only end up praising the whites that assist their black brothers, who in those film’s presentations are deserving of our charity. It is refreshing to get a story that goes beyond a half-hearted apology and further marginalization of a people and goes straight into condemnation of our country’s twisted racial legacy and those involved.
12 Years a Slave deserves to be discussed, alongside films like Schindler's List, as an essential film in the world's cultural language.