Though it might appear on the horizon as A Serious Movie About History, 12 Years a Slave returns time and again to an eternal concern: the struggles of a black man to communicate his experiences, and the experiences of others, within a brutally indifferent framework. Steve McQueen’s film opens with a slave attempting to pen a letter using a sharpened stick and a runny ink drawn from blackberries; it proceeds, with gathering eloquence and force, to elaborate a system determined at every turn to shut its author’s kind up. A young boy separated from his mother is told to be quiet, lest worse punishments befall him; elaborate contraptions are placed over a grown man’s mouth to prevent him from crying havoc; other slaves are stripped bare and lined up before potential buyers, where they stand for hours, as mutely biddable as anything offered up for purchase in your local supermarket.
Though the new film occasionally returns to the artful repetition and ritual that made for such striking sequences in Hunger and Shame, this time McQueen, working with the screenwriter John Ridley, appears more attuned to the audience’s narrative demands: he actively wants us to understand how his protagonist – the real-life figure of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), husband, father and musician of note in 1840s New York – got here, and why. This isn’t the story of a common-or-garden slave – as ventured in Amistad, where Spielberg’s white characters came to speak in his black characters’ place – but another, potentially more tragic narrative: that of a gentleman brought low. It’s crucial to what 12 Years conveys that Northup should have been fully literate, sensitive enough to feel each lash of the injustice brought down on his kin, and describe it in words that stick and hurt anew.
McQueen frames this passage with a seriousness that, while offering a vital counterpoint to Tarantino’s tongue-in-cheek Django Unchained, can manifest itself as heavy-handedness: it’s perhaps a bit too much for the camera to rise out of the dark hole Solomon first finds himself imprisoned in to show the Capitol building perched only a few thoroughfares away, even if it chimes with the general perception of Washington as a place where a nation’s poorest go unseen by its most powerful. Yet this filmmaker is constitutionally unable to underplay or soft-soap the suffering that was an essential part of this narrative: whether leaving Northup hanging from a tree for several minutes, or charting his final, excruciating descent into black-on-black violence, he looks at it squarely, forces us to confront it, and makes a deeply provocative art from the scars his characters come to incur.
There are flaws here, surely: executive producer Brad Pitt parachutes in out of nowhere as a Canadian abolitionist superhero whose role is to voice the doubts about this system you’d expect a Hollywood movie about slavery to voice. Yet elsewhere, there’s something truly lacerating in the sight of white liberal acting mainstays vying for the title of vilest individual in 19th century America: Paul Giamatti, dropping the script’s first N-bomb as a blabbermouthing slave trader who confesses “my sentimentality extends the width of a coin”, the reliably weaselly Paul Dano as a field manager with the bearing of an over-privileged kid.
The grim joke is that Northup encounters these brutes while on the watch of the relatively benevolent landowner Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch); it’s when the latter is usurped by the more rapacious Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who arrives touting the Bible, the cold eyes of a shark, and the kind of ratty ginger beard directors always ask actors of Celtic origin to grow when their characters are up to no good, that we know hell will soon be unleashed. Through such telling contributions, John Ridley’s screenplay can set out the infrastructure of slavery, and suggest that the plantation class was broadly as dysfunctional as our own corporate banking system. (You can approach 12 Years as a historical entry in the current capitalism-in-crisis cycle, showing how the system’s core values were skewed from the start.)
At the film’s heart, though, McQueen places (and insists upon the primacy of) numerous African-American stories: as short as that of the slave who doesn’t even make it off the boat, as crushing at that of Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), a creature whose sweetness dooms her to suffer worst of all, or as extraordinary in their arc as Solomon Northup’s itself – though what registers on screen is Ejiofor searching for new ways to nudge the viewer past the Serious Historiness of this project and reconnect us with the specifics of this man’s life, to make personal and intimate what the Mandela biopic, say, intends as Epic. In doing so, something has been created that absolutely merits the sense of importance gathering around it, and which communicates everything this project first set out to communicate. That letter we see Solomon writing at the start of 12 Years a Slave will eventually be burned as a means to self-preservation, but between them McQueen, Ejiofor and Ridley allow its embers to burn longer, brighter and more indelibly than any previous movie on this particular subject.
(MovieMail, January 2014)
12 Years a Slave screens on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm.