Certain subjects can’t be sugarcoated. They can’t be cleaned up with fictionalized truths or a piece of shit pie. There should be no laughs in a film about the Holocaust and there shouldn’t be any avoiding the brutality of slavery. As America’s shame, a part of our past we enjoy forgetting less it remind us of our own savage, soulless heritage, the treatment of human being like property can be argued away with all manner of legalese, but the truth is, “State Rights” don’t trump the human variety. Placing people in bondage for the sake of an agrarian economy soon to be outdated by the Industrial Revolution is a convolution of purpose and practice. Perhaps, someone has to pick the cotton and serve the ‘masters,’ if at all. Forcing said someone to do it against their own free will, and then beating them mercilessly when the question this intent, is blatantly and unadulterated wrong.
Still, many movies on the subject want to circumvent the blood to focus on the sweat and tears. They offer mere glimpses of the god-awful horrors that awaits those individuals of colors we hijacked from their homeland. Within some exploitation ideals (Africa Addio, the excellent Goodbye Uncle Tom), the brutality and terror were matched by a semblance of reality, but for the most part, Hollywood hates the idea of making a movie about what really happened. For them, the concept of slavery, like the ongoing aesthetic battle being waged over the portrayal of racism in modern movies, hits too close to home. This was an industry, after all, that traded in the mindless mockery of African Americans for the sake of a ticket sale. Even today, Tinseltown trades in the kind of stereotypes that would make even Tyler Perry cringe.
Thank goodness there’s British artist turned filmmaker Steve McQueen. After the stellar Hunger (about the IRA and Bobby Sands) and Shame (a film fixated on another kind of ‘bondage’), the UK auteur has delivered the masterpiece known as 12 Years a Slave. Based on the infamous memoir by real life freeman turned indentured servant Solomon Northup and providing an unflinching portrayal of our country’s cruel history, this is, without a doubt, the best film about race and slavery ever conceived or made. It’s light years ahead of such spoon-fed pabulum as The Help, The Butler, and 42. About the closest anyone has come to this is level of confrontation is Steven Spielberg with Schindler’s List, or even better, Spike Lee with his incendiary Bamboozled.
When we first meet up with Northup (a stellar Chiwetel Ejiofor), he is living the life of a citizen in upstate New York. He has two kids, a wife whose in great demand as a resort cook, and a gift for playing the violin. One day, he is approached by two gentlemen (Taran Killam, Scoot McNairy) asking if he would accompany them to Washington DC as part of a traveling show. Once there, Northup is drugged, sold to a collection of criminals, and quickly shipped by steamboat to Louisiana. There, a callous merchant in slaves (Paul Giamatti) sells him to a plantation owner (Benedict Cumberbatch) who treats his chattel with a small amount of diminished dignity. All is not well, however, as an overseer (Paul Dano) takes a stance against the well educated and spoken man.
Northup then ends up on the cotton plantation of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), an appallingly abusive dandy who punishes those who don’t reach his daily quotas. His star picker is Patesy (Lupita Nyong’o) and our lead soon learns there is more to the master’s appreciation than mere commerce. As he struggles to earn his freedom, he befriends a white man (Garrett Dillahunt) whose under Epps’ control, working off a debt. When that association ends up in pain, Northup then seeks the services of a traveling Northern Abolitionist (Brad Pitt). With Epps becoming more and more angry and motivated by his equally awful wife (Sarah Paulson), it’s clear that if he isn’t released soon, our hero will never earn his freedom. He is fated to die like so many thousands have before.
Set several years before the Civil War and aching to reverse many decades of tame, toothless depictions, 12 Years a Slave is sensational. From the opening shots to the final sequence, McQueen lays out his narrative in firm, finite images that both chill and challenge. Light illuminates only parts of a shadowy dungeon, a body wrapped in sack cloth floats behind the churning wheels of a paddle boat. A shirt is soaked in blood while a face is frozen in fear. During one of Northup’s many onscreen tortures, he is hung by his neck and left precariously close to/far from the ground, his toes barely touching the uneven mud underneath them. McQueen then uses one of his patented long shots to emphasize the physical distress and inhumanity of the situation. The rest of the plantation goes about its routine with few making eye contact with the rebellious slave in the noose.
McQueen also presents the truth as the atrocity it was/is. There is no attempt to shy away as a naked woman is flogged until her skin whelps up and weeps plasma and gore, no avoiding even the small, incidental ways one person being denies the humanity of another. The dialogue, driven by 19th century etiquette, is indeed filled with N-bombs, but it’s the more complicated epithets that drive our anger. Then there’s the moment when a young mother, endlessly wailing after being separated from her children, is admonished by Mrs. Epps for such outbursts. “Don’t worry, she’ll forget them soon enough,” is her cold, callous answer. The dramatic arc may seem flat, but such an approach is necessary. We are getting the real picture here, not some abridged take on what transpired before North took on South. 12 Years a Slave settles in and unspools its mesmerizing vignettes in a way which builds to a powerful and emotional climax. The title may hint at the ending, but the journey there is what’s far more important.
But the biggest accomplishment here is the rewriting of the current “Kumbaya” treatment of race in popular culture. With many believing bigotry and bias as things of a long gone pre-’60s perspective and that we are more enlightened today than nasty or narrow minded, a movie like this might seem like overkill. Yet just as the old adage about learning from the mistakes of one’s past applies here, so does another meaningful mantra. The Jewish community makes it very clear that, when it comes to the systematic slaughter of over six million of its people during the Nazi’s nauseating Final Solution, the world should “never forget” what happened. 12 Years a Slave symbolizes the same thing. It reminds us that acceptance is not an apology… or a real answer, for that matter.
We need to look are own malevolence in the face and realize where our true legacy lies. It’s not in some funny fecal matter dessert (The Help,) or well loved White House servant (The Butler. For freeman Solomon Northup, it’s actually written in the numerous scars interlaced across his nearly broken back. It’s also a part of his important memoir. 12 Years a Slave, holds a mirror up to our self-righteous 2013 faces and reminds us that, instead of progress, we have merely grown apathetic…and it does so without diluting its message or its art.