Slavery, as studied today, remains an unpardonable sin, an unshakable and firmly entrenched stain on our nation’s history. Slavery, as practiced, lived, and endured for over two centuries, was similarly entrenched as an institution—an institution of such massively inhumane scale that it propped up an entire region’s economy and that millions died in a war launched specifically to preserve it. In the Nineteenth Century, it was an institution administered chiefly by a class of white landowning men in the South, who lorded over two deeply unequal and juxtaposed visions of society and used their arbitrary authority as a front to hide their cruelty, anger, shame, hatred (including self-hatred), and confusion. It is an irony that much of this plantation class were slaves themselves—to the price of cotton.
These juxtapositions and that psychological wretchedness as brutally and routinely inflicted on their black victims are what inform 12 Years a Slave, the new effort from Steve McQueen. The film follows Solomon Northup on his backwards odyssey from well-educated free man from New York to kidnapped slave in Louisiana. The differences, of course, are that while both Solomon and Odysseus have their bouts of despair and moments of realization that they are largely powerless to return home without outrageous fortune, Solomon did not choose to leave in the first place and the evils visited upon him were by his fellow men, not gods. That Solomon can retain his dignity and his capacity for love in a world of fraternal barbarism and useless hope is remarkable. That such a world existed on our shores—and that McQueen managed to capture it so starkly—is equally so. What McQueen conveys most effectively is Solomon’s status as an outsider and an exception within a society that condoned slavery, a status that silently marks him as different from most of the other slaves working on plantation and poses a threat to the slave-owning class, exacerbating that class’ cognitive dissonance and blurring the vast gulf between free and slave by his very presence, even if he knows his best chance at survival is to lay low and even if his captors are unaware of his true identity. As a movie, 12 Years a Slave does anything but lay low. It places the horrors of slavery, as recreated so vividly by McQueen and his talented cast, right in the foreground.
The foundation for slavery, of course, was the supposed inferiority of blacks and superiority of whites, a juxtaposition manifest not only in skin color but in how society dictated each race should be able to live. Perhaps no scene in 12 Years a Slave outlines this juxtaposition as sharply as an auction scene, at which Solomon (whose name has been changed to Platt) is purchased by a preacher (Benedict Cumberbatch). The prospective buyers are led around an opulent mansion by an eager and unsentimental trader (Paul Giamatti), who has no qualms about splitting a mother named Eliza from her children as he facilitates their future bondage. The buyers have come to marvel at the property on display in the mansion, but they’re giddy not at the glimpse of a shimmering chandelier but the sight of stark naked black people—the wares on display aren’t elegant decorations but quiet, unadorned bodies selected for their strength and age. Aesthetics are the criteria, and Giamatti’s character smacks the rears of many of the men as a way of showing off their anatomical features and suggests that the bare-breasted woman in one corner might make a wonderful ladies’ maid. The white woman to whom this last comment is directed smiles daintily, and in doing so exposes a shuddering truth: This—the small group of people wealthy enough to stare at the still, unsmiling face of another human being and convince themselves that the body below that face is nothing more than a depreciating asset—is high society. These people presided over an institution so integral to their society that attending an auction was akin to a night at the opera.
Certainly, a small group of white people couldn’t have presided over an institution that enslaved a much larger group of people without the deployment of a psychological arsenal. The most prominent psychological weapon used by slaveowners during 12 Years a Slave is transference—the transference of those slaveowners’ internal torment to their human chattel in the form of violence and bluster. Cumberbatch’s character provides an early example, his William Ford is someone who at first appears (including to Solomon) to be a “kind” slaveowner—he cannot bear to watch Giamatti’s trader sever mother from son and daughter, and he later gifts Solomon a fiddle. But Ford’s principal motivation is not Christian benevolence, it is cowardice. He likes saying the right thing, likes having his slaves consider him a decent man, but while he would not strike one himself, he has hired a moronic and dangerous overseer (Paul Dano) that would have Solomon lynched for committing the crime of doing what he is told. And if Ford shudders when Eliza is separated from her children, he’ll still purchase her even if he can’t buy the whole family. “Under the circumstances,” Eliza tells Solomon, “he is a slaver.” It is Solomon who must realize that the juxtaposition between “good” and “bad” masters is just as arbitrary as that between black and white—the masters are all essentially the same, all equally unwilling to consider the plight of those living on their land. Ignorance of Solomon’s identity, for Ford at least, is bliss.
More disturbing is the venom that spews forth from Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) as a means of poorly disguising his sexual frustration. Epps has garnered a reputation in both slave and plantation societies as a “n*****-breaker” who demands that his slaves pull their weight in the cotton fields or feel the lash—Solomon, once he arrives after leaving Ford’s plantation, has a daily take that usually falls short of Epps’ grueling standards. Epps, though he would never admit it, is also in love with one of his slaves, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), who outpicks all of the men. Everybody, black and white, on the plantation is aware of Epps’ one-sided pining, but cannot do anything because they are either slaves, and will not risk their lives over a confrontation,* or, like Epps’ wife Mary, a married woman in the 1800s who Epps thinks is lucky that he came along to swoop her from an upbringing less luxurious than his. But Mary, frighteningly, has more options than her husband’s slaves, because she can take out her anger at her husband’s indifference and infidelity on Patsey herself (in addition to the other slaves). Some days, Patsey gets no soap, other days, Mary smashes a decanter on her head during one of Edwin’s late night “dance” sessions. (He wakes up his slaves at ungodly hours to dance for him in his drunken stupor.)
*Some of the more startling scenes feature one slave suffering punishment or death in the background while other slaves go about their normal business in the foreground. Solomon talks frequently of his preference for “living” over “surviving,” but much of the film’s arc concerns his recognition that if he wants to live at all, he must first survive. The other slaves recognize this, too: helping a slave in trouble will only earn them the same treatment.
That a husband and wife can transfer their marital troubles through rage and violence on another group of people with no repercussions is inhuman. That Epps can transfer his sexual confusion—because in his mind, he cannot love something that is not a person—from his head, through his arm, and down to the end of a whip, is sickly. The sources of Epps’ hatred and his predilection for drink are understandable and intractable so long as the social order of his time persists—it is this confusion and fear that his house of cards might crumble if either his wife or one slave called his bluff. He is given to inflict physical punishment because he needs for everyone else to be as fearful as he is, and because it is convenient—if he can transfer his self-loathing to his slaves, he doesn’t have to punish himself except with the contents of a bottle. Much talk about the movie will concern itself with the depictions of physical violence—more harrowing, though, is how 12 Years a Slave underscores the psychological violence that perpetuated the system. Slavery, to remain an institution, required force, but it also demanded a certain psychology and compartmentalization from its practitioners so that its culture, artificial hierarchy, and that very use of force could flourish. In Epps, and Fassbender, psychological terror comes to life in a cold and physical way.*
*I’d highly recommend this Charlie Rose roundtable with McQueen, Ejiofor, and Fassbender. It’s got your usual actor- and director-speak but much illuminating is said, especially regarding Fassbender’s character.
Perhaps you’ve seen the poster for 12 Years a Slave, the one that features Ejiofor in motion, as if he were running. But hopes that any slave may run away, the movie clarifies, are soon dashed. About the only hope any slave has of securing his freedom, or in Solomon’s case, re-securing it, is pure luck, most likely in the form of a non-slaveowning white person. That Solomon or any other slave could do precious little of his own volition to change his or her position is a devastating truth, but a truth nonetheless that reflects the unyielding and perpetually locked chains of their confinement. To have depicted otherwise would have betrayed (in addition, I’m assuming, to the source material) the mission of the movie, which is to account for slavery as an institution, and slavery’s deeply-rooted violence and powers of manipulation that almost always kept rebellions at bay and usually discouraged slaves from fleeing, and quickly.
12 Years a Slave is not a hopeful movie, but it is an extremely dignified movie. Much of that has to do with Ejiofor, who presents Solomon as a man of intelligence. Solomon is a stubborn man, but one who learns, however disheartening that lesson is for him, that he should hold most of that stubbornness in reserve. It is that intelligence, moreover, that bequeaths Solomon his ability to both get him into trouble and to survive—if his owners do not know his true identity, they sense, as Epps puts it, his “beguiling” ways. The audience wouldn’t put it as pejoratively, but we know, perhaps like Epps, that no master will be able to break Solomon’s resourcefulness or wisdom. Solomon may not be able to run, but his quiet dignity is not going anywhere.
I participated in a Facebook conversation a couple weeks ago—around when Gravity came out—about the five best directors working today. There was plenty of love for Alfonso Cuarón, some praise for Tarantino, Malick, Lynch, and the Coens, and Paul Thomas Anderson was a virtually universal choice. Steve McQueen should be one of those five, I think. I confess that when I gave my answers, I hadn’t yet seen McQueen’s Hunger (nor 12 Years a Slave, obviously). It shouldn’t be that surprising that there are strong parallels, if not in setting than in strains of inward and outward commentary, among his three features (the other is Shame; all prominently involve Fassbender): The brutality and callousness of the law and those who enforce it mirrors Hunger, which dramatizes an IRA prison hunger strike during The Troubles; Fassbender similarly was a self-flagellating man who transferred his sickness to others and was too scared to study his own flaws in Shame. On the surface, all of his characters experience pain; looking more deeply, his films study the darkness that follows when pain is inflicted routinely on the human body and human psyche.
McQueen’s career—his background is as a guy who makes those weird modern art museum videos that seem to always feature naked people jumping around—has given him a gift for visual composition, which accentuates the somber places in which his characters find themselves. When Solomon first wakes in shackles in a dingy cell, the one light that seeps in over his face creates a dreary and oddly beautiful chiaroscuro reminiscent of Caravaggio. And after transportation south, McQueen steps away from scenes of manual labor to capture nature—swamps, streams, trees—in its glory, at both sunup and sundown. The suggestion is twofold. Not only has slavery sullied this pristine land, but it continued its form of routinized, organized chaos day and night, day after goddamned day, in a way that physically and emotionally drained all those it touched but left them powerless to stop until a fucking war could be fought. Through Solomon, it is a minor miracle that 12 Years a Slave finds some beauty and affirmation from the depth of such tribulation.