A searing story of slavery in 19th century America, based on the 1853 memoir of a free black man from New York, who is abducted and sold into slavery in the South.
Irreversible by Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
12 Years A Slave is such a powerful film that it leaves you overwhelmed by the horror of its truth. It’s a faithful adaptation of the real-life memoir of Solomon Northup (a perfect, restrained performance by the amazing Chiwetel Ejiofor, soon to be seen in Half Of A Yellow Sun), as he tries to retain his humanity amid the cruel inhumanity of slavery in the southern states of America before the Civil War.
A well-known and well-to-do violinist, Solomon was living happily in Saratoga, New York, with his wife and two children. He and his family were all free people, and, since they lived in the North, treated as such. He is tricked by two conmen with a bogus offer of work into travelling to the South. After sharing what he thinks is a sociable and civilised meal in a restaurant with them, he is drugged and sold into slavery. He wakes next morning in rags and shackles on the floor of slave pen, is savagely beaten until he accepts being given a new name, Platt, and a new identity as an escaped slave – and as the camera pans upwards, we see this is all within sight of Washington’s Capitol building, the seat of government.
At first, Solomon believes all is lost, but he is determined to live, not just survive, like other slaves he’s trafficked with, whose will has already been broken. He’s shipped to the slave market in New Orleans, where male and female slaves are paraded naked for casually browsing buyers. Children are torn from their mothers, with the callous comment to a heartbroken woman as if she was an animal, “Your children will soon be forgotten”. He’s sold first to a relatively kind plantation owner, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who, like all the slave owners, justifies slavery by reference to the Bible. From there he’s sold on to Epps, the violent, drunken and psychopathic owner of a cotton plantation (a magnificently malevolent Michael Fassbender, who previously collaborated with McQueen in Hunger and Shame, both of which could also be seen as films about extreme endurance), whose aim is to break his slaves or work them to death.
12 Years A Slave is relentless in its depiction of man’s brutality to man. Steve McQueen (who won a Bafta award for Hunger) directs sparely and unsentimentally, leaving the facts to speak for themselves. He points up the horrific contrasts in Solomon’s life by cutting backwards and forwards between flashbacks of his comfortable past and the unending torments of his present. Constant humiliation, sudden whipping and beatings for no reason – for the women, nightly rape by the master – the misery of the slaves’ lives and the hardship of their conditions – it goes on and on. Exhausted slaves are even woken in the night to dance for their masters’ amusement. Nowhere is safe and no-one can be trusted. Even friendship may be dangerous because it carries the risk of betrayal.
After a fight with a brutal young overseer at Ford’s plantation (Paul Dano), Solomon is saved from lynching, yet as a punishment left hanging from the noose all day in the sun, struggling to touch his toes on the ground in order not to let the noose tighten and so die. Horrifying in itself in the prolonged agony it suggests, it’s made more so by the slaves who ignore him, going about their daily business, either too terrified to cut him down, or, worse, too inured to this punishment to register it. Epps’ wife (Sarah Paulson) jealously forces a succession of special torments on beautiful young Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o in a stunning debut), her husband’s favourite. Patsey is the hardest worker, picking a greater weight of cotton a day than any of the men, and gets no respite by night, suffering rape by Epps. She begs Solomon to kill her to end her misery, lacking the courage to do it herself, but morally he can’t. As an extra twist of evil, he is forced by Mistress Epps to whip Patsey almost to death for the crime of seeking a bar of soap to wash herself.
Sometimes in a change of pace, the camera lingers on details. The caterpillar eating the cotton – like a biblical plague. Faces and expressions that say more than words. In her agony, Patsey focuses closely on Solomon, reproaching him for not killing her as she begged him. Close-ups of hands – either sensitively coaxing music out of a violin or bleeding from picking cotton. The film begins in the middle, with Northup trying laboriously to write with his homemade quill, which later we learn was something that nearly cost him his life, then showing the desperate need for comfort in the slave house during the night, before shifting into his memory of his life in freedom to start the narrative. Scenes of violent beatings are spread throughout, culminating in the prolonged scene of Solomon’s enforced flaying of Patsey revealing the wreckage of her back.
At last, Solomon finds a sympathetic listener in a jobbing Canadian carpenter and abolitionist Bass (Brad Pitt), with whom is he is building a summerhouse for Epps. Bass agrees, despite the risk to himself, to contact Solomon’s friends and family in New York to obtain his release. We see in lengthy close-up on Ejiofor’s face the subtle changes in his emotions as he waits for news – as the months pass, hope slowly turning to disappointment and despair as he starts to assume he has been betrayed yet again by a white man. At last, rescue comes, but when he finally gets home after being thought dead for twelve years, he finds his wife has remarried, his children have grown up and he is now a grandfather. He was never able to obtain a conviction against his kidnappers, and devoted the rest of his life to activism.
Tarantino’s Django Unchained, Spielberg’s Lincoln and 1975’s lurid Mandingo – each in their different ways are about slavery. Certain images are common to all. But 12 Years A Slave is the first film to be based on a true story and the first to portray slavery with its due resonance. Its unremitting depiction of its brutality and America’s shame has stunned audiences. As McQueen has said, it’s a subject which has been swept under the carpet. Perhaps, with President Obama in the White House, the mood is that America’s history of slavery is ripe for re-examination. The film is tipped for the Best Film Oscar at the Academy awards in March – and if successful, director McQueen could be the first person to win both a Turner Prize and an Oscar.
12 Years A Slave is released on 10th January 2013 in the UK