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Film

Film Review: 12 Years a Slave

Posted by David / November 28, 2013

Smiley faceA tidy 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, I had yet to see a picture or series really about American slavery till last Saturday. That's a shameful realization, especially for anyone who's people were at some point born into it.

Some have tried, of course, but Roots was watered down to the point of a mostly meaninglessness show of face-saving hindsight, and Django Unchained was mostly a sordidly tasteless, self-congratulatory marriage of Boss Nigger and Last of the Mohicans. Spielberg's Lincoln and Amistad, on the other hand, mostly missed the point with their particular brand of white-collar heroism; I even thought the latter was OK, but mostly in comparison to how much Django had the white and black halves of me gagging. In fact, most relevant pictures I can think of were about the war that revolved around slavery, or the folks glad enough to grow a conscience at its periphery, or merely alluded to it as a broader context--sometimes just as the setting for a romance, i.e., Cold Mountain. Slavery still mostly loomed hauntingly blurred in the background--a matter largely submerged, or ornamental, and surely not focused on.

Meanwhile, Englishman Steve McQueen, much of the same mind, was actually trying to fill that hole in the canon. 12 Years A Slave is his adaptation of Solomon Northrup's 1853 account of his own abduction in D.C., enslavement in Louisiana, and regained freedom. Northrup was born free in New York and his memoir, with the perspective of a freeman, is a deeply affecting one and a parable for the history of American slavery. Costing a mere 20 million to make and taking only 35 days to shoot, it is the best film I have seen all year.

What sets 12 Years A Slave apart is the principle that all its parts are, and must be shown as being, human. Where Tarantino, Spielberg and the rest fall short, McQueen wisely opted to rely on the righteous frame of a firsthand account--one populated with individuals, not types. Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northrup, Michael Fassbender as Epps, the cruel plantation owner, and Lupita N'Yongo as Patsey, Epps's prized cotton picker and the object of his love and aggression, all provide powerful performances guided by McQueen's relentless insistence that they must portray real people under everyday antebellum circumstances.

As such, the film's characters all warrant understanding, though it is at times painful to give; they are all wading through a horrible system that is the norm of the world they live in. This is the vital strength of McQueen's portrait of American slavery: a system of power, in a long line of systems of power, premised on money, dependent on racism, and in which everyone's survival--whether slave, indentured servant or even slave owner--relies most often on abiding by its rules. Under those rules, everyone occasionally falters and no one is simply evil.

Epps, for instance, upholds his wrath with scripture, keeps the slaves that greatly outnumber him in line with more lashes than required, and rapes Patsey at will, but his wife still finds him too lenient; she's furious and grossed out at his obvious feelings for Patsey, and always sharply reminds him that they are merely as good as animals. While in one instance he compares his property to monkeys while arguing with Samuel Bass--a hired carpenter and the man who will eventually deliver the letter that later begets Northrup's freedom--in another he cuddles a little black girl one must assume was born of Patsey and, unnervingly, shows her the common sweetness and love a good father might. In contrast, Northrup's first owner, William Ford (portrayed by Benedict Cumberpatch), demonstrates undeniable kindness and caring for Solomon; and Solomon, the man's property, shows him a great deal of respect. But it's also undeniable that he is essentially "prized livestock," as a fellow slave puts it to Northrup, and Ford's commitment to ensuring he breaks even on his investment surely outweighs any consideration he may have for his favourite slave. Even more telling, perhaps, is Solomon's own 12-year-long inability, regardless of pride, to give any name as his own other than Platt--the slave name given to him to cover up his own--if only to survive.

There is soul-deep disturbance in the lines these people walked--and often blurred--and a tragic shame borne by both slaves and slavers. These people's struggle, on all sides of the divide, to retain their mind, their place and, continually, their dignity within antebellum society makes 12 Years A Slave the most honest, unyielding and tragic account of slavery I have personally encountered.

Amidst that sobering spirit, the great justice of Solomon Northrup's story is that he made it back to freedom. It's a happy, moving climax, but there is a bitter sweetness in it. While he was fortunate and brave enough to convince Bass to deliver his letter, and while relief surely washes over his face as he we watch him roll away from Epps plantation, for good, with a white friend from back home, one can also discern the guilt he feels in his exceptionalism.

As a black man, he was never able to testify against the whites that had wronged him, but Northrup was still lucky enough to have a status that allowed him, in the end, to put an end to his twelve years of bondage. Patsey--forever bruised, miserable, suicidal, and left standing in the carriages dust--and the dozens of other fellow slaves left behind at the plantation weren't so lucky. Nor were millions of other slaves in the country. Nor were the innumerable masses enslaved and born into 400 years of slavery before all of them. Luck, a fortunate legal birthright, is what Solomon's freedom came down do, regardless of his astonishing will to persevere. As his later work in the abolitionist movement indicates, Northrup is reeling with that realization as he rolls back into freedom. His twelve year a slave taught him to never forget that he had no more or less right to freedom than those still enslaved. That those other slaves holding on for dear life--surviving, not living--should have been free all along.

There's heartbreaking shame in that realization, and I hope it washes over everyone who sees the film. It left me and ma rather puffy eyed, for sure. I wish I could send McQueen a big, soppy thank-you note. He deserves it.

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