Watching 12 Years a Slave, director Steve McQueen’s masterfully evocative depiction of the story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from Saratoga, New York kidnapped into slavery in the mid-19th century American South, is as you might expect, a profoundly confronting, and deeply moving experience.
From the moment Northup wakes up shackled in a cell, we are presented with all the horror and inhumanity of this system of violently enforced involuntary servitude, fully endorsed by the society of the time which saw people like Northup as nothing more than possessions to be sold, given away or mistreated as the situation warranted, backed by the pervasive idea that all this utterly unChristian behaviour had some sort of twisted Biblical backing to it.
It is breathtaking to modern Western eyes to consider that the life that the talented violin-playing family man Northup was shanghaied into by two well spoken men posing an entertainment entrepreneurs was considered by many people of the day to be a just and fair system, indeed one sanctioned by the very Lord himself.
That is confronting in itself, bearing witness to the atrocities meted out on a daily basis to people who were considered to be so far outside the normal course of human understanding that being separated from their children could be cured by a meal and a good night’s sleep, or they could still pick their body weight and more in cotton the next day despite being summoned at will by their owner in the middle of the night to dance in some macabre ball.
12 Years a Slave, which features some of the finest performances I have seen on screen in some time including Ejiofor’s painfully nuanced portrayal of a man fighting for his very existence, Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o’s defiant turn as slave owner Ewin Epp’s (Michael Fassbender) unwilling slave mistress Patsey, and Brad Pitt’s brief but powerful role as a Canadian abolitionist who is instrumental in setting Northup free, does not flinch in its brutal depiction of the cruelties and inhumanities of slavery.
We are witness to all the nightmarish travesties visited upon Northup and his fellow slaves such as Paul Giamatt’s slave trader who pokes and prods naked slaves with callous indifference, the power plays by thuggish plantation overseers, and the lashings meted out on the most tenuous of pretexts, the daily privations of liberty, sustenance and peace of mind, in all their brutish, visceral nastiness.
Hard as they are to watch, the inclusion of these horrifically realistic acts are necessary if slavery is to move from merely being an intellectually acknowledged wrong to one that is so real, so tangible and so blatantly in transgression of basic humanity, that we can begin to understand, at least in part, why Northup’s loss of his much-cherished liberty was such an unconscionable theft.
McQueen wisely knows that we need to be as close to first hand witnesses to the horrors of slavery as we can if we are to appreciate that Northup’s experience, which is thankfully not presented as some heartwarming triumph over adversity of the kind so loved by Hollywood as much as one man’s determined holding on by the fingernails struggle to not “fall into despair”, was a barely survivable one, which entailed the loss of his power, his liberty, and his identity.
He is also at pains to make it clear that Northup couldn’t simply just oppose the system that had enslaved him, or walk away from it at will, and that the experience almost broke the man despite his formidable inner strength, his daily struggle to cope with his enslavement brought to vivid life by simple yet powerfully complex flickers of emotion on Ejiofor’s face.
Ejiofor brings Northup to life as a fully three-dimensional being, every trial and tribulation writ large on his expressive face, registering everything from his shock at his initial kidnapping to a wholly unexpected and impossible to execute request from a desperate Patsey and the raw emotion of burying a fellow slave who simply drops dead in the field from exhaustion and overwork.
12 Years a Slave‘s great strength is that it doesn’t try to convince you that Northup wasn’t deeply affected or profoundly harmed by his enslavement; it doesn’t sugar coat what is done to him or its effects, which include a homecoming as tenderly heart wrenching and yet painfully sad as you might expect, nor does it paint in Hallmark movie-of-the-week-esque triumphal tones.
This is a movie that eschews cheap, bottled emotions, and crudely scrawled polemics against evil, choosing instead to portray the complexity, cruelty and harshness of a world in all its stomach-churning reality if only so we might understand how great an evil was visited not just upon Northup but countless millions more.
*I’d also encourage you read Musa Okwonga’s thoughtful mediation on 12 Years a Slave at newstatesman.