The much lauded 12 Years A Slave lives up to the hype and raises some interesting questions.
A review of a film such as this has to be approached in two ways. It needs to be considered artistically and historically, and to be successful in both is a tall order. 12 Years A Slave almost pulls it off, almost, but not quite.
Historically, there is little to find fault with. The brutalities of the slave trade are depicted in graphic detail that some may see fit to criticize. However, that was the reality, and as such the film is an honest depiction of the horrors of slavery, warts and all. Similarly the issue of key slaves is something to be pondered upon. Dr Michael Tadman has posited the idea that slave owners had favourites, mainly the house slaves that they treated well. This acted as a form of psychic relief, as a means of denying their own racism, and to justify their treatment of the majority. We see this illustrated at various points throughout the film, sometimes with Solomon in the position of key slave, and it is an interesting facet of the slave experience. As a by-product of this, the perennial question of Uncle Tom is roused. When does the quest for self-preservation become more a case of switching sides? Were house-slaves race traitors or were they simply taking the opportunity that any slave would, finding themselves in the same position? When Northup is shown before his enslavement, shopping in all of his finery, and remaining silent at the poor treatment of a fellow black man, is he an Uncle Tom? Or how about when he is hanging from the tree, surviving on his tip-toes, are the passing slaves who choose to do nothing Uncle Tom? Is Patsey, with her phenomenal work ethic, an Uncle Tom showing little sign of resistance such as tool breaking or slowing down? The emotional height of the film takes place when Solomon has to whip Patsey. Does he have a choice? Should he have refused? Uncle Tom? These questions are all based on historical reality and are evidence of tremendous empathetic thought and deep research. The behavior of the slave owners is also shown to be multi-facted and confusing, yet never sympathetic, which is as it should be. The violence that was visited upon their fellow humans was appalling, inexcusable and unforgiveable. However, in the scenes between Patsy and her slave-owner Epps there is much to consider in Epps’ behavior towards her. At times gentle with her and at others abhorrent, Epps is a psychological conundrum. His domineering wife who belittles him for his softness is quite obviously responsible for much of his torment, and the violence he visits upon the object of his affection is likely the opposite of his true feelings. The skillful rendering of this scenario, whilst never allowing us to sympathise with Epps, allows us to consider how slave-owners were sometimes ill-suited to their roles, and in Epps case, teetering on a fine line between fully endorsing the system and being appalled by both it, and his own role therein.
My only criticism of the historical content relates to the lead character. Solomon Northup comes across predominantly as a placid character, one who played along to survive. There is little by way of rebellion, which is not the criticism, because the majority of slaves did act as Northup did in the movie, so it is an understandably even handed depiction and most certainly benefits from avoiding any Hollywood treatment. However, Northup wrote perhaps one of the most powerful depictions of a slave’s feelings hidden beneath any feigned docility aimed at survival. He said;
They are deceived who flatter themselves that the ignorant and debased slave has no conception of the magnitude of his wrongs. They are deceived who imagine that he arises from his knees with back lacerated and bleeding, cherishing only a spirit of meekness and forgiveness. A day may come — it will, if his prayer is heard, a terrible day of vengeance, when the master in his turn will cry in vain for mercy.
(Solomon Northup – 12 Years A Slave 1854 p. 249)
This side of Northup is not really exposed and does Northup a small dis-service. Internal dialogue may well have been a fascinating addition to an already impressive film.
Artistically, 12 Years A Slave is something special. Chiwetel Ejiofor in the lead role is excellent despite never dominating the film. Mostly he is a silent observer which was almost certainly the key ingredient in Solomon’s survival, and his performance is one of resolute realism, likewise the rest of the cast. Michael Fassbender is superb as Epps, giving a potentially one dimensional character so much more to explore, whilst Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey gives an understated and beautifully acted performance that leaves you wondering and fearing for what might have happened to her. There are cameos all over the shop, and not one off key performance, even Brad Pitt, whilst an unnecessary divergence in the film, just about stays the right side of schmaltzy. And that is the key to 12 Years A Slave. There is no dramatic, climatic muzak at all; in fact the only sounds are of nature and some glorious spirituals. There is no daring bravado, in fact when Solomon tries to escape he is given a big enough warning not to try it again when witnessing a lynching. There is no big happy ending. Yes, Solomon Northup is re-united with his family but there are also twenty million other questions, of which Patsey is just one.
Steve McQueen’s film is a gripping, claustrophobic and sometimes disturbing experience. As the credits roll there is no rewarding feeling, just questions, which is often what makes movies masterpieces.