Hollywood films operate in cycles, the releases of which often show a pattern, tied together by a common thematic thread. There has been a precedence lately surrounding the difficult theme of slavery, particularly the 19th Century American slave trade. Reasons for this can be debated almost endlessly, but what is certain is that patterns will always emerge. Proof of this is 2012’s Django Unchained and Lincoln, both of which share some related themes and a central purpose in addressing slavery, but handled in drastically different ways. Now 12 Years A Slave is out and it is no question the pinnacle of this pattern. The cycle has reached its summit and now must begin anew.
As the profoundly simple title puts it, 12 Years A Slave is the story of free, family man Solomon Northup’s (Chiwetel Eijofor’s) betrayal, kidnapping and consequential fall into slavery. It is no spoiler to say that his time as a slave does ultimately come to an end, however the majority of the film does not focus on his entry or exit of slavery. At its crux, the real story is how the educated mind of a free man must hide away in the body of “a dumb field nigger.” His ability to read, to think and even have humane ideologies such as believing himself an equal, not inferior, to white Americans, all this he must constantly hide. Through body language, eye contact, speech and actions, Eijofor succeeds as an actor portraying a two-sided character while also being the entry point for the audiences experience, as we witness the ordeals that reside within 12 years along with him. At times, Solomon is submitted to horrors, other times he witnesses horrors sometimes more severe. The greatest moment however is when Solomon is forced to partake, forced to harm another slave. Because no matter the cost, Solomon must go on, he must endure, he must survive so that he can live once more.
The film is supported by a star studded cast filled with actors such as Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti, Bedenedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano and Michael K. Williams. There isn’t a single unconvincing performance throughout but supporting actor Michael Fassbender deserves special recognition for portraying the particularly despicable, yet deep character of Master Epps. Introduced to the man first through a description, “a hard man,” we see the extent of that analysis coming through in a progressively worsening manner. What does “hard” really mean when slaves our commonplace all around? what warrants the description of hard even by your peers? Fassbender, and really all the actors southern accents are well executed, though an ear used to the Irish accent can just now and then, pick up his original Irish voice coming through. The vernacular of 19th century southern English language used seems so of the time, there are points in which the film can be difficult to comprehend exactly what is being said. Upon rewatching, these moments can be put in context or listened to multiple times to understand to its full.
12 Years a Slave was all filmed on location in Louisiana, and it shows. The visual beauty, both in presentation and scenery acts in stark contrast to the abhorrence occurring all around. Who knew Louisiana was actually beautiful? The juxtaposition of a backdrop of hills and crop glistening in the summer sun is dramatically contradicted by a hanging slave serving punishment in the foreground brings very specific attention to the day to day acts of cruelty going on. That’s the point here. What 12 Years highlights is not “slavery is bad,” because that’s obvious and saying otherwise is ridiculous. The real message and commentary is the specific experiences these men, women and children were subjected to every day and how that tremendous ordeal affects a human beings mind and very existence.
The bible and religion is an interesting, recurring tool used in 12 Years A Slave. Whether to demonstrate the power to oppress that can be summoned by using scripture or the strength to endure and unite that can be drawn from it, the many facets of religion reflected by the characters invokes more questions about what religion is. What does it represent? How can something used to demote a people be used by the same people to stay strong?
This is no ordinary film. Apprehensive, going in I expected a certain depiction, a certain epic defiance centred around a hero fighting the villaineous ‘white devils.’ Spartacus, essentially. Ironically this proved to be an epic underestimation of the quality of the director, the writing and the film itself. There is subtlety at work I have found lacking in a great many recent films. It seems like there is a resurgence for nuance in dialogue and filmmaking in general, as seen at points in the recent American Hustle, Inside Llewyn Davis and now 12 Years. In one scene, a particular employee (Paul Dano) of the master (Benedict Cumberbatch) forces the slaves to clap in rhythm while he sings: “Run Nigger Run,” using the song as a lesson for the consequences of defiance and running away. The visuals then fade to the master himself preaching the bible to the same group with the singing continues in the background. Eijofor is often at the centre of the subtle aspects of the film, all the more reinforcing this as a career-defining performance. Director Steve McQueen’s confidence with long shots and extended moments of silence instils trust in the viewer and atmosphere in the scene and film. Occasionally these moments overstay their welcome, however I would argue there is a purpose for each long shot and all of them add something to the spectacle.
Describing 12 Years A Slave as being one of the best films of 2013 doesn’t do it justice.12 Years is one of the best films I have ever seen. It is a work of art and I mean that by it’s very definition. Every time I view the scenes and moment to moment acts, they will change in meaning and purpose, yet the driving essence of the film will always leave an emotional and thought-provoking impact. A cinematic masterpiece, nobody should subject themselves to missing out on this experience.