12 Years a Slave

27 Oct

‘12 Years a Slave’: Our shame gets visceral telling in the history of betrayed free man

By Tom Meek
October 25, 2013


The stain of slavery on American history has seen many renderings on celluloid, from the misguided pro-South, silent 1915 masterpiece by D.W. Griffith, “Birth of a Nation” that embosses Klansmen in a heroic light, to Quentin Tarantino’s recent revisionist fantasy, “Django Unchained,” in which the Klan are little more than Keystone cops in hoodies and an emboldened slave, freed of shackles and armed, rains down wrath on skin-trading vermin. Both are cinematic achievements in their own right, but neither gets fully at the foul plight of rooting day-to-day under the duress of an overseer’s whip. Stanley Kubrick’s “Spartacus” came close, but that sweeping epic took place centuries ago, long before the pilgrims hit the shores of Massachusetts and our European forefathers began an unwritten policy of treating people of nonwhite pigmentation like pests and livestock.

102513i 12 Years a Slave

The good (or grim, as it may be) news is that director Steve McQueen, who is black, British and an auteur of recent reckoning, goes at the matter in “12 Years a Slave” in a fashion that gets under the viewer’s skin in unexpected ways. It’s uncomfortable and telling. What McQueen achieves is a visceral experience that, while not a history lesson in the factual sense, becomes the de facto moral rendering of an era that should be recalled only with remorse and shame. 

Ironic too, as McQueen’s last movie bore that same notorious branding. “Shame” plumbed the torment of a sex addict trying to come to terms with himself. In “Slave,” Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man in antebellum upstate New York, too is a tormented soul, but his torments are not self-inflicted. Not in the least. They come at the hands of amoral slave traders and sadistic, bourbon-soaked plantation owners bearing jealousy and a cat-o’-nine-tails.

How did a free man in the abolitionist North come to be a slave? Northup’s ordeal really happened, though the film based on his 1853 memoir plays loose with the circumstance that delivered him into slavery. We come quickly to understand he’s an educated man, a talented violin player, has a family and is revered among black and white in his community. We hardly get all this when he’s introduced to two traveling performers who want to recruit him for a well-paid, short-term gig in D.C. After a handshake we see Northup with the two men dining and drinking liberally in a fine establishment. It’s the last time Northup’s face bears a smile. Next, he’s throwing up in an alley, then waking up in chains in a dungeon right out of a cheap horror flick. It’s a very bad hangover indeed.

It’s here too that McQueen makes his most stinging social observation, as the camera pans slowly up and out through the grating of the cell and over a brick wall to reveal the Capitol in the tantalizing near distance: So much injustice, so close to a bastion of justice.

While questions of Northup’s incarceration persist (Who are these guys, what drives them and how could Northup be so naive?), the film delves into the existence of the slave as Northup and others are boarded covertly onto a boat and shipped to Louisiana, where they are sold off (Paul Giamatti playing the head slave trader). Northup, given the name Platt, learns quickly that to appear educated or protest his incarceration means only a lashing. Then it becomes a matter of sheer survival. He tells one grieving woman, ostensibly once free herself and separated at auction from her son and daughter, that she needs to get over it and save her own skin for as long as she can. His cruel words are just about the kindest act that occurs on a plantation. Northup is initially sold to a benevolent owner (Benedict Cumberbatch) who allows Platt to engineer the fording of lumber down the bayou to make the harvesting process more efficient (like the British prisoners in “The Bridge Over the River Kwai”), enraging the short-fused overseer (Paul Dano, really coming into his own) and leads to his near hanging.

Platt’s next passed on to a drunken cotton plantation owner (Michael Fassbender, who starred in each of McQueen’s previous features) who regularly beats slaves so gruesomely it’s vomit- and tear-inducing and takes his pleasure freely with young slave women, much to the protest of his equally turbulent wife (Sarah Paulson). In short, it’s a hell where abuse comes from all angles and there is no right or safe path to stick to. All one can do is endure.

How the ordeal comes to term is somewhat redeeming, but not just. If you’ve ever seen “Amistad” and recall the disturbing scene where slaves shackled to each other, some weak, some hale and some dead, are dumped into the ocean, where they all go down in a daisy chain of certain death, that’s the type of grim inhumanity that fills the middle third of “Slave.” And as a viewer you can’t escape the oppressive torment of the bayou’s humidity and bugs, which McQueen serves up as a sensual feast akin to a gauzy Terrence Malick immersion. It gnaws at you the way this American tragedy does as relayed through one man’s eyes (Ejiofor, more than Oscar worthy).

The power of “Slave” is not so much its rote plea to “not forget,” but its invitation to understand.

Published in Cambridge Day and Charleston City Paper

3 Responses to “12 Years a Slave”

  1. Sonya October 27, 2013 at 4:15 am #

    Deeply poignant and illuminating movie review. I will go and see this movie upon its wider release. Not as a casual movie goer looking for a good Friday’s night movie. But as a descendent of slaves and slave owners. I cannot say that I am looking forward to this movie. But view it, I must. Slavery was not just a stain on American history. Slavery seeped into the very marrow of American history. So much so, we would not be the America that in which we are without it. I expect this movie will humble me by placing a lash on my heart and soul. Yet, witnessing this movie will be my way of paying homage to my ancestors, most of whom I do not know, who endured the physical lashes and daily degradations of being treated as non-human. They survived so that I might thrive. For that I will bear witness to never forget people of indomitable will for whom I came from.

    • Tom October 27, 2013 at 4:19 am #

      Thank you for your kind insight. It is a movie that should affect all deeply

      • Sonya December 6, 2013 at 10:12 am #

        Saw the movie about a month ago. All the superlatives ascribed to the film is justly warranted. I was going to write a longer essay about the film. Yet the meaning of the film is still working thru me even at this late date. All I can be sure of is that I was extremely drawn to the character of Patsy. Not for the typical reasons. Patsy was victimized by her slave owner who was obsessed with her. I on the other hand count one of my great love as a white man. He too was obsessed. But his obsession with me gave me insight into myself and unleashed a confidence in myself that I hadn’t fully acquired at that point. He made me feel and see that I am beautiful. I grew up knowing I was attractive. But thought that was due primarily to my curvy figure. See, in my family light pigmentation was not right. My mother who had more white blood coursing through her vain (never understood the 1 drop rule) than black cursed her DNA. During the summer months she used to locked me outside the house. I had thought it was to play since I was a shy kid. I clearly caught on that that was not her concerned when she began inspecting for tan lines she had hoped I developed. Later on I hit puberty a little too hard and way too early. Also at that time I was going to to a mostly white school. So I conjured up what I thought was the best looking woman..a flat chested, no hips, no chest Grace Jones. I found out later that I had supposedly taken the worst features of each races to come up with my version of the ideal woman. It wasn’t until I met my great love that I truly realized I was beautiful. It’s ironic that in one century a white man’s obsession could have entrapped a woman more so than slavery. And that in another century a white man’s obsession could set this black woman free.

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