As a history major in college, I’ve taken numerous classes specializing on slavery in the US. I thought I could understand something of the history, the pain, the suffering, the anguish. I thought, to whatever extent it was possible for a white kid in the early 21st century to know, I knew. I was wrong. Sitting in the theater watching 12 Years a Slave, I felt the inescapable grasp of history around my neck, and I couldn’t do anything about it. Never before have I felt so clearly and achingly the tragedies upon which America is built. I felt helpless. My reaction was visceral; I gritted my teeth, I began to shake uncontrollably, all the more so when I realized how, even with 12 Years a Slave, I still couldn’t “know” fully. 12 Years a Slave is the best “Oscar” film in the better part of a decade. But it isn’t just a great film, it’s a necessary one, and it is all the more so because it is painfully aware of what it leaves out of the story and what we may never know. As a story, it plays out in insinuating gazes and implicating glances, all fissures into history that demand that we confront the film not as an objective portal into the past but as a subjective interpretation of it.
Adapted from Solomon Northup’s autobiographical tale of his kidnapping into slavery and the dozen years of hell spent before he eventually secured his freedom, 12 Years a Slave is telling not simply because it explores slavery, but because of how it explores it. As Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is kidnapped, sold to a nominally “benevolent” master and eventually a more openly cruel, abusive master, and tries to secure his freedom, the film reveals itself as one of the first major filmic attempts to explore slavery not as a detached political plaything (Lincoln) or as an individualist playground in which any slave could take on an army of whites if only they “wanted” to (Django Unchained), but as a noose around the neck and a shadow in a piercing white house.
Films about slavery are almost always about fighting or overcoming it, but in doing so, they fail to truly understand the mental and emotional anguish of a system that lingers centuries on. Many ask why so few slaves openly rebelled against their masters, painting slaves as docile and content with the system. 12 Years a Slave is a vital, trenchant insertion, showing the mental and emotional torture of a constant state of doom that gripped plantation life in standstill and only manifested most openly in violence. We see people being whipped at times, but even in scenes where no one is physically hurt, the noise of the overseer’s whip cascading through the humid, molasses-thick Southern air lays bodies to rest as forcefully as thoughts about explicit rebellion. As we hear the cries of a slave continue over a slave master trying to prove his benevolence through reciting scripture, the two noises fighting and tensing and reflecting the constant contradictions and power battles of slave life, we become well aware that many slaves did rebel in subtle ways, such as by screaming when told not to, but that open rebellion would have meant death.
The nuances and complications run deep, particularly with regard to the depictions of the slave masters. When Northup is the target of a vengeful overseer, his master tries to protect him with a gun. On the surface, the master represents the typical historical depiction of a “benevolent” slave-owner who looks out for his slaves. But when Northup asks why he can’t go free, the master responds “I can’t hear this”, his view constrained by the social circumstances of slavery. He can’t, for his own mental health, even imagine a black man as a free person, and he has to sell Northup to rid himself of the weight of considering black freedom. We come to understand, as such, the very theater of slavery, the very idea of slavery as an institution predicated on the tension between individuals fulfilling public roles constructed for them and the private disbelief and lies they feed themselves to do so, much discussed in literature, but here rendered with the direct, primal impact of an icy cry cutting through a syrupy sermon.
In Northup’s eventual master Epps (Michael Fassbender) we see the construction of self-belief and false compassion, especially for female slaves, dictating his warped worldview as the product of slave master paternalism. He values them not as “people”, however, but as property, constructing a conception of care rooted in superiority rather than equality and one which director Steve McQueen skewers with a quiet indignation. 12 Years a Slave exposes the pageantry of Southern life in its dense, occupied framing, contrasting the pride on a white face with a background of black bodies that approach us differently depending on who is watching.
Elsewhere, we bear witness to the profound performance of slave life, observing the complicated and confused notions of ownership masters felt toward slaves, inclusion and exclusion within slave communities, and above all the striking, blunt freeze of plantation life sapping all things of energy and motion. One of the film’s most harrowing scenes involves Northup hanging from a noose, balancing himself on his toes. The camera, shocked into submission at its own passivity, lingers on and on as slaves around him continue about their daily life, children playing in the background. For them horrors are not extraordinary, but mundane, and McQueen lingers on the banality of the evil by showcasing how everyday it became for its victims. The scene extends on and on, implicating us as voyeurs not taking part in slave life but watching from a distance, reminding how little we do to understand slavery. Evoking violence and tedium as one in the same, this image does not present a vertical slice of sudden punishment but the horizontal drone of unending existence, violence as a state of mind that is the norm rather than the exception to it, a mode of being rather than an aberration upon an otherwise quotidian life. The image is astonishing in its utilization of the camera’s selective focus, exsanguinating Northup by abstracting his face, leeching his body of its specificity and humanity, rendering him visually a partial person prey to the all-consuming and essentially indifferent berth of the wide screen.The film evokes the privilege of a detached daily life we as audience members are afforded.
Films about uncomfortable subjects tend to emphasize specific, individual moments of discomfort which arrive and shock the audience but soon enough dissipate and give way to comfort once again. For slaves, there was no comfort; they lived in a state of perpetual disruption that can’t be captured by immediately shocking examples of violence. For this reason, McQueen lets his camera linger on and on, allowing us to understand that the conventional ways in which films convey pain, through explicit, corporeal, individual instances of violence, fail to explore the systemic dehumanization within slavery and the ideological violence it was predicated on. He finds not only horror at what we are watching, but terror at what will come, and he locates it not only in a bruise or a streak of blood but in the silent prowl lurking in the air, in the very static quality of his framing used to evoke the stagnancy of plantation life.
This being said, the film’s slaves are anything but passive. The extent to which the film displays slaves as nonresistant is perhaps predicated on an ahistorical and singular conception of resistance which defines it on an axis of masculine agency, the kind depicted in Tarantino’s Djanjo Unchained. Slaves formulated their own forms of subtle resistance with tools of their own making, and 12 Years a Slave knows well the aspects of slave life that recentered their humanity and saw them secretively reject the master’s will. In particular, Lupita Nyong’o, bringing fire and nuance to a supremely difficult role as the “favorite” slave of her abusive master, finds an internal willpower in the way she looks on at the camera in defiance of the audience’s expectations of subservience. Ejiofor manages the dueling demons of selling Northup as a lived-in human character separate from the audience and a blank slate upon which the audience can enter into the frigid limbo and walking nightmare of slavery, but Nyong’o shines brightest.
The film, despite all the horrors which occur within, is singularly luminous and incandescent in its ability to tease out beauty in despair. Naturally, this produces a certain tension, and McQueen clearly realizes it. Furthermore, he uses it to implicate his audience in the very nature of “artful” imagery found in the horrors of real life. Shots sway in and out of machinery and fields, breathing life into and placing us within the smallest portions of a life he knows we’d rather be as far away from as possible. Shots of the sky and Spanish-moss-covered trees capture the mystery of a land both completely foreign and all too familiar. McQueen, coming off his devastating exploration of sex-addiction Shame, brings life to the film not only through painstaking period detail but a mastery of the subjective camera. A shot late in the film where Northup breaks the fourth wall, looking directly at the camera and the audience, conveys discomfort, confusion, helplessness, and numerous other emotions as it directly implicates its nation in our involvement in slavery and continued racial oppression, and exposes our passivity in the theater to do anything about what we are watching.
Light and dark, fittingly due to the subject matter, dance and quarrel throughout. The film’s most striking image involves a letter being burned in the dark, the embers dying away slowly and taking Northup’s hope with them. Never before have I seen a film that made darkness feel simultaneously so completely empty and whole, engulfing the world around it into nothingness. The admittedly mesmerizing Gravity and its visual aplomb won more awards for cinematography in early 2014, but the approach here – positioned between naturalism and Southern Gothic perversion – is even more affecting.
A pervasive quality of self-reflexive non-realism permeates the narrative’s structure – formless and episodic as if a half-lost memory or a timeless, hellish, unending void rather than an observational reality (the essence of this unending memory is captured vividly by McQueen’s longer-than-long takes that refuse to console us with a cut from the haunt). It captures the essence of twelve years gone by and felt in a series of almost-unconscious pulses, abstracting the situation and conveying how time becomes meaningless as a unit for someone like Northup. Slavery, for him, is a less-than-lucid fever dream where reality and fiction, hope and despair, become intertwined; we learn how alien it all feels right up to the end, how he seems to exist outside of his body floating over a land he can’t call home but must. Even for those who lived through it, slavery might have felt like a contorted shell of a reality rather than a fully-experienced one.
Aurally, 12 Years a Slave reveals a significant, even profound tension, a corollary throb of the un-real. In fact, Hans Zimmer, who is often accused of bombastic, overly dramatic scores, produces a score very much in line with his normal work. One could easily accuse it of manipulation, something the film elsewhere goes to great lengths to avoid. It doesn’t fit, in other words; it gives us what we want to hear when McQueen ruthlessly refuses to give us such immediate satisfaction. Hearing Zimmer’s symphonic swells attempting to mask scenes which are intentionally, obviously rejecting the tendency to drippily sermonize produces a disjunction, all the more telling when one considers the notion of music as non-diegetic. In other words, a score as something which is added in the filmic world for an audience but which doesn’t exist in the character’s world grants it a unique position: that it is clearly meant to give the audience a dramatic satisfaction which the characters aren’t afforded in their daily life. The fact that the score doesn’t fit is perhaps McQueen’s greatest commentary on cinema and the way in which the audience becomes implicated in the very act of watching actions on screen they feel they can do nothing about. We know it doesn’t fit with the film’s diegetic world despite the fact that the film forces it onto us. It not only makes us uncomfortable but it self-reflexively draws attention to the ways in which filmmakers manipulate the filmic world to make the material safer or more satisfying for audiences.
There’s more to be said for the tension between what we want and what the film gives us though. The film’s perhaps intentionally artificial music is telling in light of Northup’s penchant for music himself. A violin player before his enslavement, it’s his violin that allows him to remember something of his previous life, such as when he etches his children’s names into it. However, the film’s earliest scenes, when Northup is living a “free” life in New York playing violin professionally, are marinated in an idyllic, too idyllic, romanticism. They seem to present not the tensions in life as a free but still unequal person, but a more chipper and seemingly false depiction of Northup as a cherished member of the community. In this light, it’s telling that the film is an adaptation of Northup’s own autobiography, written immediately after his escape from slavery, before he had the time to readjust to free life. In turn, the depiction of his pre-slave life plays less like reality and more like a dream, the kind of dream Northup likely would have known during his twelve year odyssey and which formed the basis for his memory of free life. When we witness the romantic pageantry of Northup’s freedom, McQueen seems to accentuate the artifice of the material, expressing not this freedom as his real free life but as an accentuated memory of free life contrasted with the bitter despair of slavery.
This question of reality, above all, is the film’s greatest heartbreak, something driven home by its final scene; we wonder, now that Northup is free once again, whether the freedom that was once his reality had become more a fantasy than anything else, and the slavery a reality when it once was the stuff of nightmares. The final scene is false and melodramatic, but this seems deliberate; we come to see that slavery is more real to him now than anything, and it may never leave him. After so many years of slavery, freedom likely seemed a falsity and a dream to him, and thus the scene plays like one. His physical freedom may not beget mental or emotional freedom, the film’s deconstructionist pseudo-fictional self-consciousness telling all with a face most grim. Whenever 12 Years a Slave is the stuff of grand swelling music, as in this final scene, it seems to be tearing down the walls of slavery and memory and questioning everyone’s understanding of both slavery and freedom.
The film’s visual elegance plays into this existentially detached mode as well. The extremely mannered style of the film is affectively energized by resplendent cinematography and lush, bold use of verdant greens, but it evokes not a feverish plunge into slavery but a pictorial remove from it. Black bodies – humans with all their unruly eccentricity and fleshy immediacy – become icon figures in the film’s almost self-consciously painterly canvas, revealing the possibility that the film is not a realist drama but a more objectivity-decimating rogue creature. The film ponders, subcutaneously, what it means for films on slavery to look so beautiful, so enchanted with their near-mystical vision of oppression, what it means that if Northup’s story could be entirely resurrected in fact and in truth, there would much less reason for this film to exist at all.
Although it is less thickly and completely saturated with its own artifice than Django Unchained, 12 Years a Slave, in a subtler and less self-aggrandizing way, may actually be no less adroit an exploration of cinema’s fictive self-awareness, its tacit admission that what it depicts is not Northup but an image of him that is prey to the paradoxically parasitic-mutualism of cinema’s distance from the past. That cinema can animate slavery in a simulacrum of motion is conditioned on what the assumption of cinematic objectivity can leech from the tale: namely, that it happened 150 years ago. Celebrated for reclaiming and resurrecting Northup’s tale into presence, 12 Years may have more to say through its ellipses and omissions. It may have more to tell us in how it takes the classical biopic form – an incomplete scouring of numerous important events in a character’s life, never filling in the full picture – and perverts it by almost self-consciously omitting aspects of Northup’s life in a display of its awareness that it is forever mediated in its relationship to him.
The film is perhaps intentionally anecdotal in that regard, utilizing the biopic form of “a moment here, a moment there” to drive the film to a disjunctive point of narrative collapse where its portrait is self-reflexively incomplete by the end, where we know little about Northup the person, where the film defiles our expectation of unobstructed access to his psychological space. Hundreds of American films co-opt the tragedy and calamity of others as a canvas upon which they can fulfill their own desire for either violent retribution and all-American bloodlust or hollow imaginative sympathy, the kind that allows audiences to participate in their own education of the past but not channel this dawning into the politics of the here and now. The greatest and prickliest achievement of McQueen’s film is that is seems entirely aware of the predicament in which it has fallen, and that it may be forever unable to escape it. It is a dissection of the past with a keen eye for its own temporal nature and transience, an eye for the fact that it is very much part of America’s inability to fully reconcile with slavery. It is a work of questioning slavery that is aware that it may never fully be able to question slavery, nor may any film. Despite what it does tell us – or perhaps because of what it tells us – its thorniest and most humbling invocation is its own self-skepticism.