Film Score: Hans Zimmer Cinematography: Sean Bobbitt
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Williams, and Michael Fassbender
12 Years a Slave won. It’s a beautifully told story that is simply heart-wrenching, and yet still has a hopeful ending. In fact the title itself indicates the very temporal nature of the story. Oddly, however, this is a bit like The Monuments Men for me. While that story tells of the rescue of thousands of objects of art that were stolen by the Nazis, what it failed to do was to really address the tragedy of how many thousands were lost forever due to Nazi destruction, their way of saying if we can’t have it no one will. While watching Steve McQueen’s carefully crafted story, I couldn’t help be aware of how many millions of stories there were in that era that didn’t end so hopefully. Of course, there were glimpses of this in the characters played by Lupita Nyong’o and Adepero Oduye who have no one to rescue them. Even so, it is an undeniably powerful story that is well told and realistically rendered.
The film begins in the middle of the story, with Chiwetel Ejiofor working on a sugar plantation, chopping cane. From there the story flashes back to his home in Saratoga, New York. A free man, Ejiofor and his wife, Ashley Dyke, have two children and an upper middle-class existence. When his wife takes the children away to cook for a celebration that some white neighbors have every year, Ejiofor takes the opportunity to be seduced by some traveling showmen who want to hire him to play the violin to accompany their magic act down to Washington, D.C. But when the engagement is done, the two men drug Ejiofor and sell him into slavery to avoid paying him. Thus begins a long and tortuous existence for the formerly free black man. In a moment onboard a ship bound for New Orleans he is told by another free black who has been captured, to not say a word about his education or where he is from or he will eventually be killed. Once at the mouth of the Mississippi, he takes the advice to heart. First he is purchased by Paul Giamatti, a slave trader, then sold to the seemingly benevolent Benedict Cumberbatch. But when the taunts of overseer Paul Dano become too much, he fights back and is sold to a psychotic cotton farmer, Michael Fassbender.
While picking cotton for Fassbender, he discovers that the man has no use for his wife, Sarah Paulson. Instead, he enjoys the affections of slave Lupita Nyong’o which puts her in the middle of their conflict. Paulson abuses her as often as she can, while Fassbender rapes her, and eventually Nyong’o begs Ejiofor to kill her. But he can’t. His plan is to bide his time until opportunities to get word to New York present themselves. The first thing one notices about the picture is the claustrophobic telling of the story. In screenwriter John Ridley’s Oscar-winning adaptation of Solomon Northup’s story he chose to take the first-person narrative directly to the screen. As such, there is nothing shown in the film that isn’t from Chiwetel Ejiofor’s point of view, nor is there any first-person voiceover from Ejiofor. The audience is trapped, just like he is, in this bizarre world of cruel and inhuman treatment of other human beings. In fact, it’s not until nearly the end of the picture that we meet anyone who has the temerity to speak his mind about the evils of slavery, and that comes in the form of one of the film’s producers, Brad Pitt, an architect from Canada who speaks plainly to Fassbender of the evil he is perpetrating. And yet even Pitt’s presence, as heartening as it is, only reinforces just how isolating the deep South is for Ejiofor because of the utter lack of opportunity to escape. That is, while the slaves may leave the property at their leisure . . . there is absolutely nowhere to go in which they can remain free.
Interestingly, there were a couple of fascinating things I heard in a discussion of slavery by author David Brion Davis about his series of books on The Problem of Slavery. One was about the institution of the Fugitive Slave Act as a way to placate Southern slaveholders in an age that was moving increasingly toward Emancipation. While over forty-five thousand runaway slaves were living in the North by the time the Civil War began, less than three hundred runaways were actually returned using the fugitive slave laws. Slave trading, on the other hand, had been outlawed for many years, which allowed for the kind of kidnapping that is shown in the movie, capturing free blacks and selling them “down the river” with almost no hope of being returned home again in order to supply plantation owners with new slaves when they couldn’t be imported from Africa. But the other thing Davis talked about, when the film was mentioned directly, is that the community in which Solomon Northup lived did not represent the experience of a majority of free blacks in the North. Racial discrimination was very much a part of their experience and also accounted for many Northerners looking the other way when things like his kidnapping happened.
There are certainly some fine performances in the film. Chiwetel Ejiofor could not have been a better choice. The naiveté that he displays in the beginning of the film and his eventual transformation into a hardened survivor are what earned him an Oscar nomination for best actor. Michael Fassbender also earned a nomination in a supporting role for his portrayal of the brainwashed slaveholder. But it was the suffering and anguish of Lupita Nyong’o that won the third of the film’s Academy Awards last year, for best supporting actress. Steve McQueen’s direction of the film is not very flamboyant, and the film is the better for it. It many ways it is a small film, focusing on one man’s experience. The careful attention to historical detail was also recognized by nominations for Patricia Norris’s costume design, and the production design team of Adam Stockhausen and Alice Baker, while Joe Walker’s film editing and director McQueen earned the film’s remaining nominations. 12 Years a Slave is a disturbing and moving motion picture that captures a moment in American history that has, unfortunately, not entirely left us. Race inequality is still one of the embarrassing legacies of a country that trumpets its own moral authority around the world but has yet to fully come to terms with it at home. Films like this need to be made in order to remind us of our continuing failure as a society to address these issues in a way that will truly close the book on our past.