‘Whoa,’ I wrote on Facebook. ‘I think films that make you do the ugly cry should come with added lights-down time at the end to regroup and cucumber slices to reduce your eye puff. Just previewed 12 Years A Slave. It’s exceptional and must-see, but is unapologetically unrelenting.’
12 Years A Slave is a film based on a true story based on a book by the same name by Solomon Northup (handily it’s a budget-priced Penguin Classic these days). He’s a musician and family man in New York in 1841 who is tricked and kidnapped by hustlers posing as employers. They sell him into slavery in the south.
The film shines a light into a dark corner of American history about which we don’t know nearly enough. Northup’s is a not-uncommon story. What’s uncommon is that he was highly educated, was one of the few to eventually escape his imprisonment, and that he wrote a book documenting the harrowing experience. He also dedicated his remaining days to campaigning against the slavery and helping smuggle people out.
Just a few minutes into the film, Northup awakes shackled and is referred to by his captors as ‘boy’. He tries to explain that he is a free man, to which they demand that he produces his papers. Stripped of all of his belongings, he can’t, of course, and they tell him he’s nothing but a ‘Georgian runaway’.
So begins the first of many, many brutal beatings to fill his subsequent years. He’s shipped south where he spends 12 years forced into backbreaking hard labour and lashings of abuse and beatings on cane and cotton farms.
Northup is forced to answer to the name ‘Platt’, despite it not being his, and to pretend he doesn’t know how to read or write. He’s told to keep his head down and say nothing in order to survive. ‘I don’t want to survive,’ he says. ‘I want to live.’ It is his rollercoaster of hope and despair and the sustaining drive to get home to his family that unfold over the next few hours.
It’s a brutal few hours. Director Steve McQueen is known for forcing us to look when we’d rather look away—you’ll recall his 2008 film Hunger, which featured the 1981 Irish republican prisoners’ hunger strike. 12 Years A Slave continues in this unflinching fashion.
For example, Northup and those also enslaved are treated as animals, stripped naked and inspected as if livestock. A plantation owner’s wife downplays the enormity and horror of the wrenching situation when she tells a sobbing enslaved woman separated from her children, ‘Your children will soon be forgotten.’
There are two harrowing scenes that revolve around lynching that I won’t discuss any more but that I will say will stay with me forever. White men reclining and lazily fanning themselves while overseeing slaves sweating through hard labour made me—as the film intended—bile-raisingly angry. And throughout, even the people who consider themselves to be good are misguided and bad. The violence the film contains is brutal and realistic without being gratuitous.
There are some vast themes in the film of hope and despair, and justice and injustice for a start. There are big questions about what you must do to survive, what you must compromise, and how much it costs you. It raises uncomfortable questions about what you would do if you found yourself in such a situation. And there are instances returned to from various angles. Some of the film’s most powerful moments come when Northup carries out the same actions he’s earlier criticised when he was on their receiving end.
12 Years A Slave contains a who’s-who cast, with Chiwetel Ejiofor conveying Northup with haunting strength and nuance, and Michael Fassbender (a stalwart of McQueen’s films) and Benedict Cumberbatch and inhabiting their plantation owner roles with integrity that will likely earn them and Ejiofor award nominations. The film is produced by Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B, and Pitt himself makes a cameo late in the film.
I have to say it’s the film’s weakest moment. We surface from a suffocatingly compelling story to suddenly remember it is—as my friend and co-reviewer said in discussions over coffee afterwards—a Hollywood film. Pitt should have stayed behind the camera. His entrance is a distraction and the character he plays—a two-dimensional, white-in-shining-armour man without a backstory who doesn’t believe in slavery and who ultimately saves the day—could have been played by anyone.
Nor can I shake the feeling the character is how Pitt sees himself off camera—a modern-day do-gooder adopting children from impoverished backgrounds, marrying a woman who’s a UN ambassador, building houses in Hurricane Katrina-floored New Orleans. I’d have been more impressed if he muddied his hands playing one of the imperfect plantation owners to whom Northup is enslaved.
The film runs over two hours long and covers much of Northup’s enslavement experience in depth. Frustratingly, though, it omitted the two things I really, really wanted to know: What were the circumstances that led to Northup being an educated, well-respected man in the north? And how accurate is the portrayal of his acceptance in that time?
I can’t help but think that it was too idyllic and he was probably more tolerated by other New Yorkers than beloved. Sure, the south was rampantly racist, but I don’t think the north can be quite so easily absolved of such awfulness. Admittedly, this backstory may well be in the book, which I intend to now read over the Christmas break.
The greatest criticism I can level at 12 Years A Slave is that it’s too long. About 30 minutes too long. Each time Northup got traded to a new plantation, a part of me sighed internally. I knew the film had just set the reset button on the experience and we would see it lay all the unjust groundwork again. It was absolutely important to show it, but as my co-reviewer noted, there were a lot of cotton-picking scenes we could have done without.
Still, when a Hollywood actor’s cameo, running time, and ugly cry-induced eye puffiness are the biggest issues you can find with a film, it’s clear the film is worth seeing. 12 Years A Slave is a truly important one for better understanding (and hopefully learning from) this sordid, sullied history. I’d just recommend taking a wad-full of tissues (the measly one tissue I took really didn’t suffice).
Preview tickets and two film images thanks to Think Tank Communications.