Review: 12 Years a slave

Trailer for 12 Years a Slave

When 12 Years A Slave closed on the small screen of a Glasgow cinema last week, for a few moments everyone was quiet. A feeling caught me and I wanted to start clapping, but I didn’t, and no one else did either. In the two hours I had been sitting there, the film had driven me back into my seat, pushed me down and made me squirm, and now I was empty. Like a beaten, cringing dog I longed to praise the master that had subdued me, but I found myself in a hole and the hearty movements of applause were impossible. Walking out my back was bent and my shoulders felt thin and weak under my coat. As we waited by the door, my friend and I watched numb people come out of the hall.

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a black free man living with his wife and children in New York, is kidnapped and taken to the South where he is sold and forced to work as a slave. After twelve years he is rescued and reunited with his family. These events make up the flashing prelude and exhausted closing scene of a long film about being a slave. Steve McQueen’s rendition of Northup’s 1853 memoir 12 Years a Slave is a blues song underneath a gigantic Louisiana sky; a song of hatred and cruelty, lust and despair, dignity and the survival of compassion.

It is in that music that compassion has its expression, and in a film full of snatches of melody, McQueen builds up a beautiful musical set piece near the end. A group of slaves standing over the grave of another are led in song by an old woman, and as the camera holds on the scene, Northup slowly, almost unwillingly, begins to join in with the refrain, until you can feel the pain leave his body with his tears and the tune carry his spirits away over the fields and forests.

Held shots are characteristic of McQueen and his cinematographer Sean Bobbit, who have worked together since McQueen’s feature debut Hunger, and in 12 Years a Slave, we again have what John Patterson calls “the long unflinching gaze at awfulness”. At one point, Northup is left to hang by his neck from a tree for half a day, his toes just reaching the mud beneath him. For the ninety seconds that the shot was held – Ejiofor pawing the ground with his feet while slowly turning, the rope creaking, slave women in the background hanging washing, the owner Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) rushing over at dusk to cut him down – the people in the auditorium held their breath.

Another of McQueen’s signature shots in this film is the close up of the eyes. Cumberbatch turns away as a mother is separated from her son, who he has just purchased at an auction, but the camera catches his green eyes, and they are wonderfully vacant, as if experience has taught him how to distract himself from the shrieks of women and children, yet he cannot quite do it perfectly, for they are on the point of glistening. Later, in the moments before we see Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), tied naked to a tree to be whipped by her owner Epps (Michael Fassbender), McQueen shows us the man’s eyes in a strong horizontal shot that catches the red band of the sun setting behind him and channels a kind of diseased and pathetic madness into his narrow gaze.

The horror of this film lies not only in Ejiofor’s face as he is handed the whip in front of Patsey’s quivering shoulders, in Nyong’o’s as she is finally untied from the tree, and in the sight of the ridges of welted skin that have been ripped up on her back, but also in the realisation that all this is going on under God’s own watchful eye. In the pauses between violence we have scenes of stillness and religion. Whether it’s a shot of Ejiofor against a great sky with heavy willows and fecund swamps in the background or a shot of his owner Cumberbatch reading scripture aloud underneath a white gazebo, this place has the pure greenness of paradise, yet the religion that is played out on its earth is the religion of hatred. The noble trees that mutely witness daily torture, the wide white fields of cotton that swallow up a man when he drops dead at work give an inescapable feeling that this was Eden, and that truly man has fallen.

Northrup is not the only person to be rescued in this film. A friend Northup makes on the slave boat is suddenly called out for from the dock and greeted by his master, with whom he departs in desperate relief without looking back, leaving Northup alone and speechless with grief. When he, in turn, is saved, Patsey cries out to him and he goes back and embraces her. She too collapses in grief as he goes away and for her there is now nothing to look forward to except death, but that moment of human contact Northup gave her once his own freedom was assured meant that after beatings, betrayal and despair, the kernel of kindness in him was not wiped out. In this way, fantastically delicate and weak, McQueen manages to plant a feather of hope in the hide of a terrible beast of a film.

12 Years a Slave only won one Golden Globe last week for Best Drama, and lost in its six other nominated categories. If there are more defeats to shallower films to come at the Oscars in March, forgive me for not caring. McQueen and his team’s reward is their creation. 12 Years a Slave is so excoriating, so brutal and so tender, so comprehensively wounding that it educates. It shows that humans are capable of all kinds of evil, and that it takes an extraordinary person to transcend the numb self-interest necessary for survival, and to keep his compassion as a slave.

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