Director: Steve McQueen
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong'o, Michael Fassbender
Whether its the story of IRA hunger strikers in the 1980s, a sex addict in the present day, or a man kidnapped and kept in slavery in the 1840s, director Steve McQueen has a way of telling stories in an unvarnished and largely unsentimental way, laying bare the unique brutality of each individual situation in a direct and unflinching fashion. This method worked to brilliant effect with Hunger, but rendered Shame just a touch too cold and clinical, and where 12 Years a Slave is concerned it falls somewhere in between (though it leans towards the Hunger end of the scale). This is a hard film, full of horrific events and evil in many guises, but although excellent overall it is also, at times, oddly bereft of passion. It's still one of the best (if not the best) films dealing the subject of slavery that I've ever seen, but its excess of formality and arm's length treatment of its subject does sometimes make for a film that favors the intellectual at the expense of the emotional.
In 1841 Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is living in Saratoga Springs, New York with his wife and their two children, making his living as a carpenter and violinist. Left to his own devices while his family is away, he's lured to Washington, D.C. with the promise of a lucrative payday for his skill as a musician, but is instead drugged and sold into slavery, beaten whenever he tries to speak of his true identity, and renamed "Platt." Transported by ship to New Orleans, he's promptly sold to William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a kind man by the standards of slavery-era plantation owners, who gifts Solomon with a violin but also subjects him to the cruelty of his overseer, Tibeats (Paul Dano). After Solomon gets the best of Tibeats and as a result is hanged almost to death, Ford feels he has no alternative but to sell him so that Tibeats can't finish the job. In his effort to save Solomon, he sells him to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), which may actually be a fate worse than death.
Epps, known as the "slave breaker," is an exceedingly vicious man who has the slaves who fail to pick 200 pounds of cotton in a day beaten, but also heaps abuse on Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), who picks over 500 pounds of cotton every day. She's Epps' "Queen of the Fields," singled out by him for sexual and physical abuse, obsessed over by him to the point that it has earned her the enmity of Mrs. Epps (Sarah Paulson), who can only be appeased (and even then, only slightly) by subjecting Patsey to tremendous violence. Solomon, too, is singled out, suspected by Mrs. Epps of being educated, and loathed by Epps, who harbors a paranoid belief that Solomon is sexually involved with Patsey. He dreams of regaining his freedom, but fears the consequences of being caught trying to gain it. The attempts that he makes, which include a spontaneous attempt at flight and a moment in which he puts his trust in a man unworthy of it, bring him dangerously close to losing his life and make him hesitate when a genuine opportunity presents itself in the form of Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt), an itinerant carpenter and abolitionist hired by Epps for some work on the plantation. As the film is based on the autobiography written by Solomon Northrup in 1853, the outcome of his request to Bass probably isn't a spoiler, but it's to the film's credit that it manages to create a great deal of tension from it nevertheless.
12 Years a Slave is a film that is often difficult to watch because it doesn't shy away from the evil it portrays, from the physical marks of violence to the psychological scars of degradation, and because it lacks the softening, apologist elements that so often feature in Hollywood depictions of slavery. More often than not, Hollywood frames slavery as having been solely the pursuit of abnormally evil men, which is not only unrealistic, but also dismissive of how institutionally entrenched the effects of slavery and racism continue to be. People who were admirable in other respects endorsed the practice of slavery (including people, for example, who drafted a document declaring all men to be created equal) and Hollywood's inability to reconcile itself to that notion has resulted in films which pitch the battle as having been between unsophisticated/bad white men and progressive/good white men without room for nuance. Gone with the Wind is a problematic film in a great many respects but, having been released at a time before Hollywood realized just how embarrassed it should be by overt racism, it was at least honest about the sense of entitlement its white characters would have had towards its black characters - Scarlett O'Hara doesn't feel bad about owning slaves because that's the system of belief she was raised with and surrounded by, and so it would have been for most people living in slavery states. 12 Years a Slave also gets that attitude right, contrasting Epps with someone like Ford, a man who might try to buy a mother and her child at auction in order to keep them together, but to whom it wouldn't occur to grant them their freedom, a man depicted as feeling compassion for the suffering of slaves, but who would never let that compassion cloud his economic need for slave labor. Likewise, Ford's wife is portrayed as someone moved by the weeping of a newly arrived slave who has been separated from her children, yet offers the woman comfort by assuring her that her children "will soon be forgotten." This woman isn't inherently evil, she's merely the product of a society which views black people as subhuman, and therefore she can equate the woman's anguish with, for example, the anguish of an animal separated from its young, and she can do so without a second thought. It's ugly, but it's not unrealistic, and McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley view the twisted internal logic of a society built and sustained on the practice of slavery in a way that is clear-eyed and appropriately complex.
That being said, while I think that 12 Years a Slave successfully sidesteps the apologist problem, there is something troubling about the way it depicts heroism and self-interest in its characters. On landing in New Orleans, one of the kidnapped slaves is immediately rescued by a white man who claims him and he leaves without looking back, though he knows Solomon's story and that he's a free man. Arguably, that man could have helped Solomon by saying something, but he does nothing. At the end of the film there's a scene which, while contextually different, mirrors this one too closely for me to think it's mere coincidence, and that's when Solomon himself is rescued and leaves Patsey behind to continue her hellish existence under the twin cruelties of Mr. and Mrs. Epps. Solomon could not have helped Patsey become free, but there is an earlier scene in which she begs him to kill her so that she can be released from torment and he refuses. It may have been evil for him to have killed her, but it seems like it would have been the lesser of two evils given that, unlike him, she had no hope of ever gaining freedom and it seems inevitable that she would die eventually at the hands of either Epps or his wife, and in either way in a much less humane way than Solomon might have done. There's an uncomfortable undercurrent of "every man for himself" in the way the black characters are depicted, established during that boat journey when one slave is stabbed to death and another remarks to Solomon that it's better it was him than either of them, that might not be noticeable were it not for the Bass character and his role in the story. When Solomon asks Bass for help, it's on the understanding of both men that it could result in Solomon's death and severe punishment, if not death, for Bass, but Bass does it even though there is nothing for him to gain by it. Granted, Bass has less to risk than any of the characters reduced to slavery by sticking his neck out for someone else, but he's still the only character who takes that great risk, and were it not for the fact that the film is based on actual fact, this would verge uncomfortably close to the "white savior" trope - though I'll concede that the intention is possibly to underscore the lack of agency of the slave characters through contrast with Bass, and to emphasize how the condition of slavery created a sense of community rooted in shared suffering (as seen throughout the film) while simultaneously undercutting and destroying that sense of community by engendering that "better him than me" attitude.
There's a lot to unpack with 12 Years a Slave, which manages the difficult task of being both "an important film" and a deeply artistic one. I do think that McQueen sometimes sacrifices depth of feeling in order to maintain the film's status as an observer to, rather than participator in, the horrors which Solomon endures, but the film has the benefit of being stacked with great performances that can pick up any slack in that regard. Ejiofor has been a consistently dependable actor for some time and turns in a profoundly moving performance here as a man who suffers greatly but is never broken. In the supporting ranks, Fassbender creates a portrait of evil which nevertheless manages to tap into the humanity of his character, anchoring him in self-loathing as much as in sadism, and Nyong'o announces herself as a talent to watch for, alternating strength and vulnerability in equal measure throughout her performance. While Solomon's story is moving, it's Patsey's story that leaves you absolutely shattered and the scene mentioned previously, in which Patsey begs Solomon to end her life, is easily one of the best acted and most affecting movie scenes of 2013. 12 Years a Slave is going to show up in a lot of "best lists" at the end of the year and it's going to be a major player in the awards season - it deserves every bit of praise it's going to get.