Review: “12 Years a Slave”

Includes spoilers.

Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave,” unlike last year’s “Django Unchained,” is not the cartoonish spaghetti-western white male fantasy of slave rebellion. Based on the memoir of Solomon Northup, a free-born African American man from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., “12 Years a Slave” is horrifying and visceral, an unapologetic and blunt representation of American history and the infectious malevolence of white supremacy power structures. Educated and resourceful, Northup supported his family via various methods of employment, including playing the violin and carpentry. In 1841, Northup was enticed by a job offer as a fiddle player for a limited engagement in New York City. Northup, perhaps due to a mixture of optimism, ambition, and naivety, readily agrees to the offer.

And then the nightmare begins.

Northup (brilliantly played by British-born actor Chiwetel Ejiofor) is drugged, chained, and kidnapped by his two white male “employers.” When he wakes up, he discovers that he’s on a boat headed for the South. Instantly, the white slave traders attempt to annihilate Northup’s sense of self, insisting that he is a runaway slave from Georgia named Platt, inflicting corporal punishment each time he asserts his true identity. Trapped on the boat, Northup quickly realizes that pride is cause for torture and death. One of the men that puts up a fight is murdered; Northup and the remaining men in bondage are ordered to roll up the body in a sheet and toss it overboard; a life reduced to a watery, anonymous grave. As Northup watches the body float away, the audience is meant to understand that in this world, black bodies are disposable, viewed as expendable labor, work mules meant to eternally serve the white man. Northup and the other victims are sent to the auction block, where a mother and her two children are irrevocably separated and sold to different owners.

The manipulation of religion is later utilized by Northup’s second master, a crazed and sinister alcoholic named Edwin Epps, played by critic-darling Michael Fassbender. Epps repeatedly uses the Bible to legitimize the oppression of his slaves and the brutality he commits. Fassbender is utterly terrifying, a grotesque manifestation of hatred, fetishism, patriarchal dictatorship, and sexual violence. Notably, Epps’s wife (Sarah Paulson, “American Horror Story”), is just as despicable as her husband. Defying the popular trope of white female solidarity with plantation slaves (i.e., the loveable Mammy and allied mistress, seen in such films as “Gone with the Wind”), Mistress Epps is an emotionally cold, manipulative, spiteful woman. Like her husband, the black slaves are nothing more than convenient chattel, as ignorant and headstrong as children. When Master Epps shows considerable favor for the beautiful Patsey (newcomer Lupita Nyong’o), Mistress Epps unleashes a calculated reign of terror, bashing her face with a heavy vase and encouraging Northup to relentlessly whip Patsey, assembling the entire plantation into a mute audience. When Northup cannot physically whip Patsey anymore, Master Epps caves into his wife’s venomous jealousy and his own demons, yanking the whip from Northup and continuing the assault.

McQueen’s sharp, crisp cinematography is often used to reflect the atrocities, whether sadistically physical or psychological, that Northup and other slaves endure. Northup’s character is the eye of the camera, recording even when he has mentally checked out. The geography of the South is shown as wide open expanses of country and woods, which further highlights the choking, demoralizing isolation of plantation life. The beatings and whippings are graphic, stomach-churning and downright sickening, but unlike “Django,” the violence is not meant for comic relief. Considering the fact that America’s legacy of slavery is still downplayed by regular citizens and conservative media outlets alike (I believe Sarah Palin recently compared the national debt to slavery), McQueen knows that the violence of the film is necessary in order to be truthful to the severity of the situation.

In a New York “Times” opinion piece by Eric Herschthal, the writer says that, “If the film is ‘true’ to anything in the book, it should be true to Northup’s voice, not his facts; that voice is what makes ’12 Years a Slave’ so enduring.” Admittedly, I have not read the text, but I have read slave narratives in the past, such as “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” by Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass’s “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.” These works were meant to expose the horrors of slavery, models of literary civil disobedience to garner political support from sympathetic abolitionists. Regardless, the dedication to the veracity of the book and the film should not be a measure of the film’s narrative success. As Herschthal points out, what makes the film so searing and scarring is Northup himself, his heartbreak, his anguish, and his fight for survival. McQueen consciously chooses scenes that focus on Northup’s living hell. The splendor and the wealth of the Southern plantations act as a chilling counterpart to the day in and day out inhuman objectification. Northup was a prime example of the complexities and multifaceted contradictions of racism and slavery. Northup is not Alex Haley’s Kunta Kinte, ripped from the familiar womb of Africa. He is a black man, yes, but he is an American, a contributing member of society, a willing participant in American consumerism and capitalism, a free man filled with the same desires for upward social mobility as his white countrymen. In the end, the only thing that matters is the color of Northup’s skin, the absolute indicator of his alleged inferiority. The message is this: Money can’t protect you if you’re born black.

I suspect that fans of Tarantino’s “Django” will find fault with McQueen’s film, as the latter does not depict Northup’s journey as some Gary Cooper cowboy-outlaw extravaganza. The violence is not romanticized and even the scenes where Northup finds small moments of clarity and peace (his relationship with Bass, a Canadian laborer played by Brad Pitt, for example) still contain the elements of despair and alienation. I suspect that these naysayers are the same people who think that Rosa Parks ended racism or that the wounds of slavery have not translated into the modern occurrence of institutionalized racism and discrimination, the ruling iron fist of white privilege.

After 12 years of bondage, Northup is finally freed with the aid of Bass, who agrees to secretly dispatch letters to Northup’s friends and allies in the North. When Northup is finally reunited with his loving family, I couldn’t stop the tears that blurred my vision, as I was flooded with the dueling feelings of relief for Northup’s overdue return and the haunting fact that many others were not as fortunate as Northup, instead subjected to living and dying by the whip, faceless victims lost to history.

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Have you seen “12 Years a Slave?” What did you think? Tweet us @litdarling.

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