Steve McQueen’s unflinching, almost surreal look at the evils of slavery inevitably pulls us flush up against today. You can change a lot of things about yourself if you’re a black man. You can be a well-dressed educated family man. You can even be a millionaire or a film director or a famous actor. But the color of your skin remains the same. On some streets in America, in some eyes, that’s what very nearly defines you.
In his third collaboration with Michael Fassbender, after the triumphs of Hunger and Shame, Steve McQueen once again takes his film in his own direction, following no preset formula, no well-traveled path. 12 Years a Slave is in no way Hollywood’s typical rendition of slavery. It is not told from the point of view of the white men in power, nor is it told from a white director’s point of view. There is no magical imaginary savior who rides in with a gun to slay the perpetrators, thereby absolving our collective cultural heritage of guilt in these crimes against humanity, or what Spike Lee has called his holocaust.
Delivering a career-best performance, the marvelous Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a free man in Maryland who is drugged one night and sold off as a slave deep down in Georgia. The film is based on Northup’s actual firsthand account, a monumental memoir of his ordeal that has been shamefully overlooked in most classrooms. There are so many stories of slaves that have never been told. The only story that is told again and again is the story of the Civil War, how the slaves were freed — and, tellingly, about the white heroes who freed them.
But in 12 Years a Slave, like never before, McQueen gives us a ghastly and uncompromising look at how it must have REALLY felt to be a slave and at the same time presents a scathing indictment of the sickening enterprise that gave white masters total dominion over black families. One of the more repellent details most people in this country would prefer to forget is how imported African women were abused as sex slaves, and how their black sons and brothers surely were too.
Northrup is traded or sold to two different white owners — one of them relatively benevolent (considering) portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, and the other a contemptible manifestation of evil, depicted by Michael Fassbender in what must be said is a performance equal to his work in Shame. Only McQueen can get this kind of acting out Fassbender. His wickedness will chill you to your bones.
One of the biggest surprises for many will be the astonishing debut of Lupita Nyong’o who plays Fassbender’s sexual obsession, “the Queen” he calls her. McQueen said in the Q&A afterwards that he’d auditioned hundreds of women for the part but something electric about this soon-to-be Yale graduate turned his head. “A star is born,” he said of Nyong’o.
McQueen’s charges into 12 Years a Slave with ferocious conviction. He never backs off any aspect of the prevalent degenerate ugliness of the era. Make no mistake, this is a horror film, but it’s one we all have coming to us. In a country that finally freed the African American people 150 years after we brutally shackled them, now 150 years later we’re still living in a culture when anyone with the wrong color skin can be forcefully stopped and frisked on the street — or worse — followed, hounded, hunted like strays and gunned down point blank.
Despite the repugnant malice he has to relay, McQueen gift for composing unforgettable tableaux shimmers through the horror of it all — the tender sun-soaked portrait of a young woman creating handmade dolls out of corn husks; the sick ritual of hanging being carried out with a casual slouch in the woods; the wind sifting through willow trees that dance in the breeze as they innocently drape shade over a plantation mansion.
McQueen is a supremely confident storyteller who has no problem propelling the plot abruptly forward in seismic shifts, so viewers are expected do a little work to regain their footing. He often likes to hold long takes from a single angle and just when you think the camera has to cut or move away the shot’s meditation will linger on a few moments longer. 12 Years a Slave carries on his tradition of expressing the crushing weight of confinement, the helplessness felt in the face of imprisonment.
In Chiwetel Ejiofor he has found another muse, perhaps, to stand alongside Fassbender. Ejiofor is here required to convey so much with only his eyes. He elegantly sustains the tricky duality of having to speak without being allowed to say what he really means. We follow this tragedy so close to our hearts because Ejiofor places it in our embrace so firmly from his hands. It’s a heartbreaking, searing, mesmerizing performance; one of the very best of the year so far.
By the time 12 Years a Slave came to an end there were tears streaming down many faces in the audience. Some were still too horrified to lower their hands from their eyes. But take your hands away. Look. Perhaps this isn’t what you want to see anymore, or ever did. Maybe many of us want our movies to only always tell stories of the good deeds that we’ve done in our past. But bearing witness to the truth of our wrongdoing is important too. If there ever was a film that announced the truth shall set you free, it’s this one.
We can’t wish our past away. We can’t even cook up a plausible fantasy that it did go away. The bones are buried in unmarked graves, the families ripped apart for generations. The blood of white slaveowners still pumps through the the veins of black descendents. Whiteness flickers through blackness. Scorched sparks threading remnants of our history’s horrid conflagration, forever refusing to let smokey embers cool down. Slave-owner surnames grafted on and intertwined down through the generations, permanent scars of crude branding irons that tag their one-time property even now.
With perhaps his most accomplished film to date it will be hard for Academy voters to ignore Steve McQueen, one of this generation’s most talented directors. Take a moment and look at three films this year that define and question our present by illuminating the crimes of our past — Fruitvale Station, The Butler and now, 12 Years a Slave. The grim consequences and reverberations of those crimes still linger, echoing through our daily lives like a cancer beaten back into remission that can never quite be cured.
The beauty in McQueen’s work is unshakable. The formidable film is still with me, vibrantly, in all of its glory and shame.