The first “important” book that I ever read was The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley. I read it in middle school long before I could fully appreciate the complexity of Malcolm X and Alex Haley’s examination of what it meant to be a black man in America in the middle of the 20th century, but even as an adolescent, the power of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz’s fury and critique of American culture stuck with me in a way that forever changed my life. Although I’m white, I have biracial family members of African-American lineage and, growing up, my family took care of a family of four African-American foster children for many years. And through my immersion in real life to the legacy of institutionalized racism (and the more casual kind that still lingers to this day) as well as my exposure to Malcolm X’s story at such a young age, I was always aware of and sensitive to issues of race in ways that few of my white friends are or ever will be.
Even as a child, I was always astounded by the ways that people in the American South (West Virginia may have technically been part of the North during the Civil War, but we were one of the last states still actively fighting racial integration in the 60s) romanticize antebellum chattel slavery. These are people who have seen Gone With the Wind one too many times, and their idea of slavery are happy Mammy’s and Prissy’s who were glad to serve at their master’s beck and call. Clearly, they never read Roots. It is impossible to read Roots or The Autobiography of Malcolm X and have any romantic feelings towards the factual history of slavery and institutional racism in America. Yet, people do. We can add British director Steve McQueen’s masterful film 12 Years a Slave to the list of must-see works on that dark page of American history.
The Academy Award winner for Best Picture is easily the darkest and most complex film to win that award since Schindler‘s List although for my money 12 Years a Slave is an entirely different class of filmmaking, and it is easily one of the finest films of this decade so far. In fact, 12 Years a Slave has such a richly faceted point to make about morality and ethics that I’m unsure if the Academy actually understood the subtext of the film because films this fatalistic and cynical don’t generally win Academy Awards. As an examination of the way that society is capable of normalizing cruelty and how the institutionalization of cruelty against marginalized groups robs even victims of their ability to empathize with other sufferers as they simply try to avoid more victimization themselves, 12 Years a Slave is a masterful philosophical treatise at a Bergman level.
12 Years a Slave is the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living in New York in the 1840s, making a living as a violinist with his wife and two children. Solomon accepts an offer from two men in a traveling circus to play his violin as part of their show, but when they reach Washington, D.C., they drug Solomon and sell him to slave traders. And it isn’t long before Solomon, who was born free and had never been a slave his entire life, is sold to a string of masters in the American South and is exposed to the cruelty and barbarity of antebellum slavery firsthand.
Upon being kidnapped and sold into slavery, Solomon’s name is changed to Platt, and he is beaten several times within an inch of his life as he protests his new appellation. Solomon must also hide the fact that he can read and write from his new masters because a slave that could read was considered the most dangerous type, even more than runaways. And although Solomon is initially sold to a relatively decent master, Ford (Star Trek Into Darkness‘s Benedict Cumberbatch), it isn’t long before a fight with a cruel overseer results in Solomon’s sale to a brutal and barbaric rapist and sadist, Edwin Epps (X-Men: First Class‘s Michael Fassbender) where he will spend many long years, a witness to not only his own suffering but also that of Patsey (Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o), Edwin’s favorite slavegirl that he rapes and abuses at a whim.
The obvious “text” of 12 Years a Slave is that slavery was a barbaric, unfathomably cruel system that no civilized nation can ever explain away. The text is likely what 12 Years a Slave won its Academy Award for, and Steve McQueen captures the barbarism in no uncertain terms. Slave women are raped repeatedly. Solomon and Patsey are both beaten towards the point of death, and we are given graphic looks at their backs where the flesh has literally been ripped from the bone. Mothers and children are ripped apart and when the mothers cry, they are beaten for their tears. McQueen ensures that there is no way to sit through this film and think that slavery was anything other than the evil system of exploitation and cruelty that it was.
But, what makes 12 Years a Slave the masterpiece it is (and easily the greatest Best Picture winner in over a decade) are the nearly countless levels of subtext in the film. There’s a moment somewhat early in the film where Solomon has nearly been lynched by a foreman of the first plantation he worked on, and although the plantation overseer stops the lynching, he leaves Solomon hanging from the tree for hours to make a point. And in a magnificent long take, you start to see other slaves leaving their dwellings and return to their daily routine. Almost none of them so much as look at Solomon (one kind soul gives him water) and slave children play in the background eventually. It shows how in the world of slaves where you can be beaten or killed for one stray look, no one sticks their neck out for one another. You simply try to survive, and because of that, the film resists the temptation to even romanticize the suffering of the slaves by trying to make them too heroic or noble.
On the other level, even the kindest whites (with one major exception) are only able to extend mercy or understanding to slaves to a certain point before it begins to inconvenience them. At that point, they simply revert to believing that the blacks aren’t real people and that they can’t risk themselves to help them. Ford is kinder to Solomon than any of his other owners, but when Solomon tries to tell Ford that he is truly a free man, Ford refuses to hear any of it and sells him to Edwin Epps even though it’s clear that Ford believes Solomon on some level. And a friendly plantation neighbor to Epps allows Solomon to keep his wages for playing his violin, but he still utilizes Solomon for slave labour in the cotton fields. And, one seemingly friendly white quickly sells Solomon out because he thinks it will make him a quick buck.
But, the kicker to the film’s themes of how systematic repression and cruelty robs victims of their ability to empathize with one another is a scene with actress Alfre Woodward (Primal Fear) as a former slave who was freed when she married her master (the same man who allowed Solomon to keep his earnings for a violin performance). She has been a slave. She was in the same position that Patsey was in. But, now, she lives in the comfort that is provided to her on the back of the forced labour of her former people. She gives a small speech at the end about the karmic judgment waiting men like her husband, but she seems totally unaware of the hypocrisy of her own position. And it’s because her suffering has created a mindset of “at least, I’ve managed to escape the lash for now.”
It also doesn’t hurt 12 Years a Slave‘s case that it has one of the finest ensemble casts in years. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives one of the best leading man performances of last year (in a year overflowing with superb performances) by playing Solomon’s suffering as realistically and with as little melodrama as possible. Solomon is human, and even he becomes tone deaf to the suffering of those around him on occasion, and by simply making him a man (rather than a symbol for all of slave’s suffering), Ejiofor and McQueen turn him into one of the most well-crafted characters of the 2010s.
Although I’ve yet to see any of the other Best Supporting Actress performances besides Julia Robert’s in August: Osage County (she’s great in that film, but the movie is terrible and also Roberts was the leading lady), I can’t imagine I’ll be at all upset about Lupita Nyong’o’s Oscar win. Although she spends much of her early moments on screen not actually speaking, Nyong’o’s role eventually blossoms into an example of the suffering slave women (particularly beuatiful slave women) faced at the hands of male master’s who saw them not as people but purely as tools for giving them pleasure. And, one of the most memorable scenes of the film’s involves Patsey begging Solomon to kill her and put her out of her misery and his refusal to do so because he knows how much trouble it would be for him if Epps found out.
Michael Fassbender got a well-deserved Academy Award nomination as well (I have trouble believing that Jared Leto was ever better than him in anything but I haven’t seen Dallas Buyer’s Club yet so I can’t judge) as the bordering on psychopathic Edwin Epps. Fassbender makes it clear how brutal and sadistic Epps can be, and his actions in the film are monstrous, but Fassbender never turns Epps into a total monster, and that’s the beauty of his performance. Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Garrett Dillahunt, Paul Dano, Brad Pitt, and Sarah Paulson also all shine in smaller roles.
After a quick scan of the last 20 odd years of Best Picture winners, there seems to be little question that 12 Years a Slave is the best winner of that award since Unforgiven. Although I’ve enjoyed every Best Picture winner of the 2010s, I haven’t thought any of them were remotely Best Picture worthy, and it is beyond refreshing to see a film of this magnificent a caliber finally being rewarded with the highest honor in the film industry. I still have to see most of the other Best Picture winners (the only others I’ve seen so far are Captain Phillips and The Wolf of Wall Street), but 12 Years a Slave has set not only a high bar for them to clear but also any other prestige films to come out the rest of this decade. It is a must-see film event for all who love the fine art of film.
Final Score: A+