With 12 YEARS A SLAVE, Steve McQueen, the brilliant British director of HUNGER and SHAME, has probably created the first masterpiece of the new black cinema.
12 Years a Slave: The Extraordinary True Story of Solomon Northup, directed by Steve McQueen, Opens October 25th Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner and select theaters
by Tim Jackson
In the last two years there have been a significant number of new films about the African American experience and its history. The success of films such as Precious and Beasts of the Southern Wild were harbingers of this year’s line-up: Lee Daniel’s The Butler, Fruitvale Station, Blue Caprice, Mother of George, Pariah, and The Stuart Hall Project at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art. Let the Fire Burn and Black Nativity are to come. On the music side, there was Muscle Shoals, and Twenty Feet From Stardom. Most of these have received rave reviews. With more films on the way, it’s clear that a new generation of directors and writers have moved beyond stereotype, broad comedy, and exploitation to find important stories that face America’s troubled racial history.
With 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen, the brilliant black British director of Hunger and Shame, might have made the first masterpiece of this new black cinema. The story is based on the narrative of Solomon Northup, an educated free black man and violinist from Saratoga, New York, who has a wife and two daughters. He is tricked, drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery in 1841. Northup is the only black man who managed to regain his freedom and write a first-hand account of his years in bondage. Inspired by this non-fiction narrative, McQueen fashions as authentic a vision of the atrocity of American slavery as possible. The result is uncompromisingly real — the depiction of a world so incomprehensible that it resembles a Grimm’s fairy tale.
As with his earlier films, McQueen’s gaze is steady. He doesn’t judge, lecture, offer solutions, or provide catharsis. McQueen’s approach demands patience and empathy from the viewer. His visual skill is informed by his experience as a video artist. Recently, McQueen was the subject of an exhibition in Basil, Switzerland at the Schaulager art space. His discipline and aesthetic as a video artist eschews quick editing: his imagination is deliberate, marked by a dedication to look for and accumulate details that burrow deep into the viewer’s subconscious. The beautifully shot landscapes, which reflect a keen sense of space and location, serve as ironic counterpoint to the misery they enclose. He spends time gazing on faces, encouraging viewers to read the eyes, the lines, the smallest flicker of an actor’s face.
12 Years a Slave translates Northup’s relentless narrative into a series of indelible images that depict cruelty and subjugation with an at times overwhelming emotional power. McQueen explores the methodical destruction of individual dignity and autonomy. The methods of dehumanization include random punishment, the separation of mothers from their children, the renaming of individuals after their masters, the sexual domination of women, forced entertainments, and the systematic reduction of human beings to the state of exhausted farm animals. Yet McQueen claims the film is about love, and amid the drudgery and barbarity of plantation life he offers glimmers of humanity, random acts of civil behavior, signs of begrudging respect between the races. Hope, human connection, and love supply precious moments of dignity. For Northup, there is the possibility of rescue, while for all the others this life of bondage is all they will ever know. In fact, few of the kidnapped blacks sold into slavery were ever rescued, and rarely was a prosecution for the crime upheld.
None of this would be possible without an outstanding number of first class performances. I first saw Chiwetel Ejiofor in 2005 as the feisty drag queen, Lola, in the British comedy Kinky Boots (now a Tony award-winning Broadway musical). The role of Solomon Northup couldn’t be farther from that earlier triumph. Ejiofor’s face, with its deep frown lines and steady gaze, reveals a man who dies a little everyday but who, through shrewdness and intelligence, maintains his own sense of possibility through each unimaginable situation.
In ironic contrast, Michael Fassbender’s performance as Edwin Epps, the sadistic “slave breaker,” also contains subtle suggestions of a dying soul, of a man lost to himself. He is an ignorant man trying to blot out feelings — for the slave Patsey — that he doesn’t understand. Lacking the ability to love, cowed by his wife, besotted with liquor, Epps seeks solace in domination and sadism. As he did in McQueen’s earlier films – as the Irish prisoner Bobby Sands in Hunger and the disturbed sex-addict Brandon in Shame – Fassbender is frighteningly committed his role. Many his scenes are relentless in their violence, requiring long takes and an intricate choreography with the camera. His total commitment to the often-frenzied behavior of a repulsive character creates a villain who is far from simple.
While these two performances are award worthy, the supporting cast is also strong. Though the lineup of southern antebellum era types comes off as somewhat schematic, the roles resonate beyond their stereotypical function in the story. Paul Giamatti’s Theophilus Freeman is based on a famous New Orleans slave trader who bartered flesh, put together packages of slave types, separated families, checked teeth, and inspected men like meat. Paul Dano plays an ignorant and vicious overseer whose singing of the song ‘Run Nigger Run’ triggers a deadly scenario in the film. McQueen fades the tune in and out over pastoral scenes of Southern plantation life. The heritage of this ‘song’ and its savage rhyme persisted over the decades.
In contrast to Freeman there’s Brad Pitt’s Samuel Bass, a Canadian carpenter and abolitionist who observes but cannot stop the atrocities he sees around him. The figure clearly stands as the voice of humanitarian reason. Benedict Cumberbatch as Master Ford (and currently cast as Julian Assange in the film Fifth Estate), though appearing to be a respectful and reasonably kind slaveholder, does not hesitate to sell his ‘property’ when circumstances require.
Alfre Woodard has the surprising role of Mistress Harriet Shaw, a woman who, by marrying a plantation owner, is spared the degradation of slave field-work. She gently tries to explain to Epps’ mistress Patsey (a riveting Lupita Nyong’o) that, as compromised as she is, being a white man’s mistress is the least awful alternative. Patsey submits to far worse. She serves as reminder of the legacy of sexual slavery. Harriet Jacobs in her 1861 narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl asserts: “My master met me at every turn, reminding me that I belonged to him, and swearing by heaven and earth that he would compel me to submit to him.” She goes on to write that “the secrets of slavery are concealed like those of the Inquisition. My master was, to my knowledge, the father of eleven slaves. But did the mothers dare to tell who was the father of their children? Did the other slaves dare to allude to it, except in whispers among themselves? No, indeed! They knew too well the terrible consequences.”
The experience of early mixed race children is one of the many themes in the film that resonate today. The slaves’ forced and formal dancing, which so entertains Epps in his parlor, hints at the exploitation of black entertainers and minstrelsy. Blues music, field songs, and gospel singing remind us that our greatest American music is rooted in human travail. At one point Northup is left in the hot sun, dangling by the neck from a tree so that only his toes touch the ground: plantation slaves cautiously go about their day and children play in the yard around him. The scene calls up the too recent history of lynching as entertainment.
I’m white, and in 1956 I made my stage debut playing Little Black Sambo in an elementary school play. The inappropriateness of the role never occurred me; did it to my parents? Birth of a Nation was a misguided masterpiece of racist propaganda. The Jazz Singer, often credited as the first ‘talking picture,’ features minstrelsy. Gone With the Wind was a brilliantly sprawling and sentimentalizing entertainment. What are we to make of the Blaxploitatuon films of the 1970’s? I admit to being uneasy about Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, and I don’t disagree with the extremity of Spike Lee’s response to the film: “American Slavery was not a Sergio Leone Spaghetti western. It was a Holocaust. My ancestors are slaves. Stolen from Africa. I will honor them.”
Artists will do what they will, but romanticizing or exploiting this history is not the way to be honest about its legacy. 12 Years of Slavery is more than entertainment. It is a call for a deeper understanding of a still festering national wound.
Tim Jackson is an assistant professor at the New England Institute of Art in the Digital Film and Video Department. His music career in Boston began in the 1970’s and includes some 20 groups, many recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980’s. He has directed two documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater, and Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups. He is currently finishing a third documentary, When Things Go Wrong, about the Boston singer/songwriter Robin Lane with whom he has worked for 30 years. You can read more of his work on his blog.