Unforgettable Saga of 12 Years A Slave

Catherine Ellsberg ’16
Assistant Arts Editor

The reviews for 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen’s newest, horrifying, dazzling film, have run the whole gamut of reactions. Manohla Dargis of the New York Times described the singular importance of the film, asserting that it “may be the one that finally makes it impossible for American cinema to continue to sell the ugly lies it’s been hawking for more than a century.” Her praise isn’t unfounded; Chiwetel Ejiofor’s starring performance as slave Solomon Northup is exceptional and powerful, and scenes of incredible cruelty dispel any rose-colored memories of Stepin Fetchit in Judge Priest or of Butterfly McQueen crying out “I don’t know nothing ’bout birthing babies!” in Gone with the Wind. And yet, for all of its supposedly groundbreaking depictions, 12 Years a Slave could only be possible in light of these predecessors. Furthermore, the wonderful critic Keith Uhlich has cautioned that the film’s “existence does not negate any similarly-themed movies that may have come before, or may indeed come after.… The subject does not close because someone addresses it … there is always more to see.”

Having seen the film, based on Northup’s own memoir of being sold into slavery through a series of horrific misfortunes, I can’t help but agree with Uhlich. There is more to be seen. However, perhaps even more pressing is the question of whether we have the right – the responsibility? – to depict slavery. Does the very act of filming a representation also serve as an act of negation? This question, and many more, are presented throughout the film – though never easily answered.

The opening of 12 Years a Slave hits you with full, jabbing force: a row of slaves, abject and imploring, stare straight into the camera. There are several such compositions – achingly and surprisingly beautiful – that are as haunting as they are unexpected (how often does an actor directly face the camera, eyes pinned straight into the audience?). The first half of the film isn’t told in linear order, and without any kind of temporal ballast, we get a sense of the immense disruption of slavery. The narrative truly commences when Solomon Northup, a black musician in the North, leaves his family for a short assignment with a band of circus performers. After a night of drinking with his fellow players, he wakes up the next morning disoriented, in chains and stripped of all his belongings. Without any papers to prove his freedom, he is soon sold into slavery, forced to work on one plantation after another.

It’s here that the epic begins, and never backs down. With an enormous cast of Fellini-esque idiosyncrasies and talents (supporting roles are played by Brad Pitt and Paul Giamatti, among others), the film follows Solomon as he gets sold from one benign master to the sadistic Epps (a terrifying Michael Fassbender). If Harriett Beecher Stowe thought Legree of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was bad, she apparently hadn’t come across Epps: a man of such brutality that, portrayed by anyone but Fassbender, might have veered into obscene stereotype. During this segment of the film, there are frequent scenes of disturbing violence, including an extended whipping scene that is as grotesque as anything I have seen in film.

This isn’t the type of film to burst in with sentimentality, with trite moments of “hope” or uplifting scenes of kindness. Instead, we get ugliness; we get evil. And yet, due in great part to Ejiofor’s moving, deceptively simple performance, we are often reminded of his early refrain: “I don’t want to survive. I want to live.”

Solomon Northup does survive, and against a series of odds, the film somehow creates just that sliver of hope – a hope that, we are reminded, is nonetheless born of generational suffering and despair.

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