Movies, generally speaking, are supposed to be rewarding experiences for their audiences. Different kinds of movies provide different sorts of rewards – whether it be the thrill of action, the vicarious experience of romance, or the release of comedy – all provide some positive emotional feedback for the audience. Most movie reviews could fairly judge a movie based on its success in eliciting one of these responses. It is difficult, then, to know what to make of Steve McQueen’s powerful rendition of Solomon Northup’s memoir, 12 Years a Slave. Can a movie be considered a success when it offers almost no positive emotional response – even the release of catharsis – from its audience? When the subjects are as grim as kidnapping and slavery, the answer is apparently yes.
12 Years a Slave is based on the true story of a free black man named Solomon Northup, a professional violinist from Saratoga, NY (warning: rampant spoilers follow). When his wife and children are out of town on a three week trip, Northup is approached by men purporting to represent a circus who offer him the opportunity to earn money playing for their performance in Washington D.C. While there, after the circus has run its course, they conspire to inebriate him to the point of unconsciousness, whereupon Northup is kidnapped and placed in chains. Northup pleads that he is a free man from Saratoga, but his pleas are met by savage beatings from his captors.
Here, early in the movie, the tone of almost unrelenting brutality is set. Violence, in the hands of Tarantino or Scorcese, becomes almost cartoonish and desensitizing. 12 Years a Slave features none of the dozens of bullet wounds moviegoers are treated to in, say, The Departed, nor the fake blood spattering the camera lens that has become common fare for the Tarantino genre. Violence, in McQueen’s hands, is both more subtle and more terrible, as it is inflicted up close and personal, usually with blunt objects, and accompanied by the Foley artist’s brilliant canvas of auditory carnage. Here, in the cell where Northup’s captors attempt to break him to their will, is the first of the movie’s many scenes which are physically difficult to watch, and is accomplished with virtually no blood, gore, or visible carnage, only the fury of the attacker, the crunch of bones, and Northup’s anguish.
Northup finds himself in a New Orleans slave market where a slave trader (played by Paul Giamatti) begins one of the movie’s major themes – the eradication of Northup’s name. As he calls the roll of slaves and asks them to stand, he approaches Northup and asks why he did not stand when the name “Platt” was called. Northup attempts to respond that his name is not Platt, it is Northup, whereupon he is struck brutally across the face. “Your name is Platt.” The blow is savage more for the lack of anger behind it – it is clearly a matter of indifference to the slaver whether he has to beat this slave across the face all day in order to get him to respond to the proper name. Throughout the rest of the movie, horrible consequences befall Northup any time he attempts to assert the very fact of his true name.
Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is then transferred to his first master, a man named Ford, who is played by Benedict Cumberbatch. In the interplay between Northup and Ford we first see the movie’s only jarring quality. Perhaps unsurprisingly, McQueen has filled this movie about slavery in the Southern United States with an exceptionally British cast. Not just that they are British actors, but the characters they play are almost quintessentially British in their reserve. Even as Northup is shuttled from horror to horror throughout the movie, not until roughly the ¾ mark of the movie are we given any indication that his upper lip is even capable of unstiffening. As Northup acclimates himself in the slave quarters on Ford’s plantation, he becomes exasperated at the constant wailing of a woman who has been separated from both her children when she was sold into Ford’s employment. Northup berates her, “How can you let yourself fall into such despair?”
Indeed, Northup throughout the movie is different from the vast majority of his fellow slaves – he has almost none of their learned helplessness or their resignation. He believes with some surety, even as the years continue to pass and his every effort for freedom is thwarted, that he will someday be free again. But he wears this belief with subtlety and calmness. Ford is, as slave owners go, a relatively benign presence in Northup’s life and initially Northup’s hope seems justified. However, things predictably unravel for Northup when one of Ford’s hired workers becomes jealous of the favors Ford bestows upon Northup for his ingenuity and attempts to beat him for no reason at all. Northup refuses the beating, overpowers the hired worker, and administers him a few lashes while he is prone on the ground. As a result of this insult, the hired worker resolves to have Northrup hanged.
What follows is one of the most disturbing scenes in movie history. Northup is hung from a low hanging tree in the middle of the slave camp, but the hanging is partially botched when one of the other hired hands drives off the would-be lynching party, but does not cut Northup down. As a result, Northup is left suspended in a position where he can reach the muddy ground only by standing on his very tip toes. The instability of the ground forces him to constantly readjust his position. This scene, like almost all others in 12 Years a Slave, is completely unscored. The only sound, for an almost interminable time, is the squish-squish-squish of Northup’s harrowing tip-toed pirouette of death in the mud. Somehow worst of all, after the lynchers are driven off, all the other slaves emerge from their cabins and go about their work – hanging laundry and the like – while Northup attempts to stave off his own strangulation, none daring to cut him down or even make eye contact.
Of all the horrors inflicted in this movie, none is made more vivid or cuts deeper than the slaves’ inability to help curb the suffering of their fellow slaves.
Eventually, Northup is cut down by Ford, who sells him to another master named Epps, who is portrayed by Michael Fassbender as a leering, irrational sociopath. Where Ford was guilty of condescension and callousness, Epps was tyrannical and mercurial. Epps developed an obsession with one of the young female slaves named Patsey, who became tormented both by his unwanted affections and the insane jealousy of Epps’ petty wife. Finding herself in this impossible position, Patsey repeatedly pleads with Northup to kill her and end her suffering.
One Sunday, in a drunken rage, Epps awoke to find Patsey missing, whereupon he went on a tirade, believing her to have visited a neighboring plantation, presumably to sleep with the other plantation owner. When she returns, she reveals that she did go, but only to beg for a piece of soap, since Epps’ wife refuses to let her have any. Epps’ wife demands that Patsey be striped, but Epps is initially unable to administer the punishment himself. In the movie’s second truly horrifying scene, Northup is forced to administer an increasingly brutal lashing to Patsey, in a scene whose brutality is actually physically painful to watch. It is after this scene Northup finally begins to allow himself to despair, and you can sense in subtle ways that he finally begins to feel the sense of despair that has for so long gripped those around him.
12 Years a Slave is a remarkable film achievement in that it achieves emotional connection despite the almost total lack of hero or even antihero. Northup himself, until the end of the movie, seems to drift aimlessly and almost soundlessly from horror to horror. He never permits the audience to feel connection with the loss of his freedom, only with the presence of his suffering. The movie likewise does not permit us even the smallest shred of Stockholm Syndrome for Northup’s many abusers. Even the most benign of them, Ford, ultimately recognizes that Northup is likely who he claims he is (a free and educated man as opposed to a runaway), but refuses to take any action to investigate Northup’s claim for fear of payment on the mortgage he took out to buy Northup in the first place. When Northup is ultimately rescued, he is found by an itinerant Canadian carpenter who he persuades to “write his friends in the North.” Some undisclosed time later, the local Southern Sheriff arrives on the plantation to remove Northup. No emotional connection is permitted to either of these two characters, and even the fact of Northup’s rescue seems like a completely incidental epilogue to the point the movie is trying to make.
This level of grimness – the absence of score, the unrelenting brutality of slavery, the silent stoicism of Northup, and the learned helplessness of the other slaves – would very easily be left a mess in other hands. But McQueen weaves them together masterfully to tell a tale in which elevating a hero is, for once, unfair and unjust to the degradation and shame which must be depicted. As I left the theater last night after watching 12 Years a Slave, I was struck by the silence and introspection of the exiting crowd – seldom have I seen such a sizeable group knocked collectively on their backs, emotionally speaking, by a movie. But this, of course, is exactly to the point McQueen is attempting to make. The majority of times in real life, heroes do not arrive to save the day, and when they do, they are often heroes sorely lacking to the occasion. This is all the more true in the context of slavery, for so many who lived and died for generations under its yoke.
12 Years a Slave is not an easy movie to digest. But its power makes the effort both worthwhile and necessary.