Content note for plot spoilers, and depictions of racist and misogynoirist violence:
by Shane Thomas
It speaks volumes when a filmmaker has a distinctive tonality to their work after only three films. With Hunger and Shame, Steve McQueen has made movies of searing intensity. His latest, 12 Years a Slave is no different. It’s a film that speaks softly, with intermittent sequences of thundering potency.
Based on the memoir of the same name, the film depicts the years of slavery endured by Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a man living as a free citizen in New York. Intoxicated from a night of drinking with two men falsely offering him work, he wakes up in chains, before promptly being transferred to the south of America to an existence of indentured servitude.
Along with a crop of other black slaves, he is sold to Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who on the surface appears to treat Solomon with relative respect, and seems fond of his level of education and violin playing. Solomon believes that his diligence in service of Ford will cause him to be treated favourably, and eventually, result in his freedom.
However, another slave sold to Ford is Eliza (Adepero Oduye), who only has a small role, but it’s one of the most significant in the film. In the process of being sent to Ford’s plantation, she has been separated from her children. She openly grieves over this loss, even when Ford gives bible readings to the slaves. When Solomon chides her for making an incessant racket, Eliza not only snaps back that she’s entitled to mourn for her progeny, but that Solomon’s conduct won’t result in his freedom.
“You are no better than prized livestock!”
she wails. Solomon may be Ford’s favourite slave, but he’s still nothing more than cattle.
Unable to keep up with his debts, Ford sells Solomon to another slavemaster, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) and his wife (Sarah Paulson). Epps is as demented as Ford was ostensibly gentle. Epps has a much-warranted reputation as a “n*gger breaker”, and exudes a fearsome menace with every look of his eyes, and every word that leaves his mouth.
Some will think that another film on American slavery is unnecessary. It’s not uncommon to hear grumbling along the lines of it “being in the past”, and “needing to move on”. But much like the way that most people don’t have a full understanding of what racism is, the same could be said about slavery. The consensus view often being, “Yeah, that slavery was pretty bad. Really awful stuff. But let it go, it was ages ago. Really depressing anyway, we shouldn’t spend time talking about it… oh, look, X-Factor’s on.”
What 12 Years a Slave does best is not only show the horrors of slavery, but also its quotidian nature. Those who are educated about slavery are unlikely to learn new factual information, but it’s the emotional resonance of the suffering that will impact all who watch the film. The banality of this evil is probably best demonstrated in a scene where Solomon barely survives being hanged. He is forced to extend his body to avoid suffocating. This goes on for hours, while other slaves on the plantation go about their work, not paying a near-dying Solomon a second glance. And why would they, when doing so would risk severe punishment, if not death.
Personally, I felt the most revelatory sub-plot of the movie was witnessing how black women – often a sideshow in these stories – suffered uniquely during the slave trade. On Epps’ plantation, his most favoured slave is Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). She is not only the fastest of all his cotton pickers, but the habitual object of his lust. Patsey is raped on a regular basis, eventually bearing Epps’ a child.
This was a common occurrence for black women during this time. Earlier we see Eliza recant that her daughter is also a product of rape by a slavemaster. Before her children are taken away, eagle-eyed viewers will notice how Eliza’s daughter’s complexion is lighter than her own. Eliza was only sold back into the slave market, due to a combination of her master passing away, and the vengeance of the master’s jealous wife. This motif plays out in regards to Patsey. Mistress Epps seethes that Edwin prefers Patsey over her. You can see her humanity fall away, like leaves in autumn, as jealousy corrodes the mistress’ very soul, with her envy manifesting itself in emetic violence towards Patsey.
Patsey is victimised on both sides. Exoticised by Edwin. Demeaned as animalistic filth by the mistress. And hypersexualised by both. The acting is extremely proficient across the board. Fassbender and Paulson are both terrifically inimical, and despite having only one scene, Alfre Woodard also gives a noteworthy performance.
‘black women – often a sideshow in these stories – suffered uniquely during the slave trade’
However, the main plaudits go to Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o. Ejiofor anchors the story superbly, his brow perpetually furrowed, as the years of torture gradually chip away at the man he once was. His best work often comes when he has to act without speaking.
There’s a brief scene, sans dialogue, which would have been cut from most movies, but allows Ejiofor to give some of the finest acting work of his career. One should also pay attention to his face during his first scene of physical torture; not only is his countenance racked with pain, but also confusion at what it happening to him, and horror at what is going to happen. In my opinion, it is Nyong’o who is the film’s star. This is a truly special performance. Even when suffering the most intolerable hardship, she imbues Patsey with a magnetic urgency. Her ‘Deep South’ accent is also pretty impressive. I sorely hope her career prospers, as black women in Hollywood are at a premium – especially dark skinned black women – but if not, no-one can take her work in this film away from her.
In conjunction with regular cinematographer, Sean Bobbitt, McQueen gives us a rich and striking visual palette, often using high and low angles shots at the opening of scenes. Given the length of Solomon’s time as a slave, the film is cut with some adroit editing to give us what Matt Zoller Seitz calls, “a series of tableaus of suffering”.
While the movie is Solomon’s story, the screenplay does well to not make him heroic in a “Hollywood” sense. While he fights to retain his dignity, he is never portrayed him as a “magic negro” . He doesn’t realise it until later in the film, but Solomon has been under the pernicious spectre of respectability politics.
A key scene in the narrative takes place when the slaves are singing during a makeshift funeral. Singing during their toil is commonplace to try and ease their burden, but Solomon has always eschewed joining in. However, at the funeral, he begins to sing, and by the end he is sonorous in voice. It signifies the moment when he comprehends that he isn’t superior than his fellow slaves, that he isn’t better than those other blacks. The impact of white supremacy doesn’t spare the educated black person. It doesn’t care how “well-spoken” they are. You are black, and that makes you less than human.
Probably better than any mainstream American film before it, 12 Years a Slave underscores how slavery wasn’t as a result of the conduct of a few malevolent individuals, but a structure and industry that infected all facets of American life. Omer M. Mozaffar describes it brilliantly as “Dismantling Dignity”.
The film does have areas where it didn’t fully work. The spartan screenplay was the correct approach, but in a few scenes the dialogue felt a touch clunky, impeding the otherwise strong pacing of the story. Also, Hans Zimmer delivers a wonderful score, but the problem is, it sounds far too similar to the wonderful score he delivered for Christopher Nolan’s Inception.
Despite my positive sentiments, I think 12 Years a Slave falls short of greatness. However, that is largely irrelevant, as the film slots into the sub-genre of art that transcends entertainment, and acts as an educative experience to viewers. In a similar way to Schindler’s List, or Grave of the Fireflies, 12 Years a Slave is a movie you should see. It may not be a great film, but it’s a very, very important one.
 – Although a closer inspection would disclude that it’s no more than the type of fondness one would have for a pet.
 – While the Christian church plays a strong role in many black communities, it’s often overlooked how this belief was inculcated by whites as a tool of the slave trade.
 – I guess no-one mentioned that to the slaves in South Sudan.
 – But hey, if it’s good enough for an American hero.
 – It is important to mention that the film’s postscript mentions that Solomon became an activist for the abolition of slavery.
 – I may feel different on repeat viewings.
A mixed-race film graduate, Shane Thomas comes from Jamaican and Mauritian parentage. He has been blogging about sport since 2010 at the website for The Greatest Events in Sporting History. He is also a contributor to ‘Simply Read’, the blogging offshoot of the podcasting network, Simply Syndicated. A lover of sport, genre-fiction, and privilege checking, Shane can be found on Twitter, both at @TGEISH and @tokenbg (and yes, the handle does mean what you think it means).
Media Diversified is a 100% reader-funded, non-profit organisaton. Every donation is of great help and goes directly towards sustaining the organisation
- Watching 12 Years a Slave in a Blindingly White Capital City (newstatesman.com)
- Film Review: Mother of George (mediadiversified.org)
- Doing the Right Thing: Black Film and TV in a Biased World (mediadiversified.org)
- Idris Elba is Hollywood’s Troublemaker (mediadiversified.org)
- Film Review: Half Baked Yellow Sun (mediadiversified.org)
- The Butler serves up a chronicle of the Civil Rights movement (mediadiversified.org)
- Vintage Photo Gallery: Black Actors on Stage and Screen (mediadiversified.org)