Like the Holocaust, America's woeful history of slavery tends to be looked upon in monolithic terms. A colossal, calculated, horrible example of man's inhumanity to man. A grievous monument of hatred and brutality beyond, for some at least, words and comprehension. But as with the Holocaust, about which new stories seem to emerge yearly, America's slave history has produced many and disparate narratives.
One such story was that of Solomon Northup. After being lured to Washington D.C. for some brief but lucrative work, Mr. Northup, a free man who lived with his family in upstate New York, was drugged and awoke to find himself in chains. When he protested that he was a free man, he was brutalized for the first of what would be many occasions in the succeeding dozen years. Northup endured a slave's life in various Louisiana plantations until his whereabouts were finally discovered by family and friends, thanks to a friendly emissary, Canadian carpenter Samuel Bass.
Solomon Northup, with the assistance of David Wilson, in 1853 published the book 12 Years A Slave:Narrative of Solomon Northup, a citizen of New-York, kidnapped in Washington city in 1841, and rescued in 1853, from a cotton plantation near the Red River in Louisiana. The book was a best seller in the 19th century, but fell into obscurity until the 1960's. Now, British filmmaker Steve McQueen has produced a galvanizing film based upon Northup's story
Perhaps it took an outsider to render a story, to make a film about America's slave history unlike any that has ever been seen (For the record, Northup's story had already made it to film. The PBS series American Playhouse produced a 1984 version entitled Solomon Northup's Odyssey, starring Avery Brooks in the title role). Perhaps the fact that Steve McQueen is a man of color brings a level of insistent candor that might not otherwise be present. Or maybe it just took an artist of the caliber of Mr. McQueen to face a difficult subject and make film as unique and unsparing as 12 Years A Slave.
As he considered making a film about the slave experience, McQueen apparently had in mind a story involving a free black man shanghaied into the brutal world of human beings bought, sold and used up like property. In researching slave narratives, it was his wife who happened upon Northup's book. At last, McQueen had his story, which elucidates so many shameful aspects of the commerce and culture of slavery.
I recently read Primo Levi's The Drowned and the Saved, one of several books the Italian writer and concentration camp survivor wrote about the Holocaust. In The Drowned and the Saved, Levi addresses at the length the culture of the lagers (camps). He speaks not only to the effect the camps had on the obvious victims, but on the perpetrators of the violence as well. In watching 12 Years A Slave, I was more than once reminded of Levi's book. Both McQueen and Levi squarely address their dark and supremely difficult subjects with an admirable intellectual rigor, sparing no emotion along the way. In the case of the book as well as the film, there's no easy catharsis, no pat conclusions neatly reached to make everyone feel better and relieved that the terrible episode is past. Both men have looked at the world around them and realized that the effects are still being felt, that variations on those atrocities might well flare up anew. Alas, history continues to prove such men right.
In adapting 12 Years A Slave for film, John Ridley's script does perforce compress the several owners and plantations that were a part of Solomon Northup's slave existence down to two characters and locations. These are, in a sense, extremes in terms of the very relative comfort the fictional version of Solomon Northup experiences. First is the fairly humane plantation owner, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who bestows a violin on the fiddle-playing Northup in recognition of his intelligence and good work. But even Ford doesn't want to hear that Solomon is a free man. Nor can he guarantee his safety from the rampages of Tibeats (Paul Dano), whom Norhup shows up with his intelligence and ultimately beats after suffering the seething aggression of the white man one too many times. Ford sells Northup to a neighboring planter, Edwin Epps, although aware of the man's reputation for cruelty.
In his early attempts to intimidate newly arrived slaves at the plantation of Ford, Tibeats offers a cautionary tale in the form of a song, "Run ______ Run" (fill in the obvious epithet). This Paul Dano sings in a hissing, croaking voice. The song is heard behind a shifting series of expositional images. Which is to say it's kind of a montage, but unlike one you've probably ever seen, or at least heard. Not some easy melody carrying an audience along as a character after some rote adversity puts their life back on course. Here the background music is insistent, sinister. Typical of 12 Years A Slave, this device is both original in execution and all too appropriate. The audience is not be soothed into complacency any more than the film's main character can relax for a moment.
I don't know the details of life on the plantation of Edwin Epps that are detailed in the story of Solomon Northup. As realized by Ridley and McQueen in 12 Years A Slave, the Louisiana property and its inhabitants constitute a particularly deranged backwater, a microcosm perhaps even more cancerous than the rotting whole.
For his role as Epps, Fassbender gave expression to a full beard of fiery red hair, fitting it would seem to character. Among his earliest moments in 12 Years A Slave, Epps warns his slaves not with song, but with scripture, admonishing them with Biblical justification (so he interprets) for the lashings of whip which are inevitably to come. Despite the extremes to which Epps is driven by hatred, lust, drink or whatever else that haunts his febrile consciousness, Fassbender's performance is throughout as credible as it is magnetic.
Much as 12 Years a Slave is Solomon's Northup's story and Chietel Ejifor's center stage to command, newcomer Lupita Nyong'o is deeply affecting as the woman frequently burdened with the attention of Epps. Typical of the subtlety of Mr Ridley's script, Mr. McQueens' vision and Michael Fassbender's realization of the slave owner, the relationship goes well beyond mere hatred or thoughtless violence. Epps clearly has feelings for Patsey, lust and even a kind of affection. Even more clear is his inability to process those feelings in the context of a fractured worldview. Patsey is made to suffer for any inner-conflict that besets Epps.
The instances of brutality in 12 Years a Slave are neither numerous nor gratuitous. But when they take place, McQueen has the camera linger in a fixed stare from which an audience gets no quick release. The whipping of Patsey is one such occasion. Epps demands that Solomon inflict the lashing, not an unusual fate for captives from American slavery to the concentration camps of World War II, a further way to break down a prisoner and make him or her complicit in the violence about them. The real Northup was apparently forced to be a driver at times, punishing his fellow slaves when their behavior was deemed unsatisfactory by overseers or owners. On the property of Edwin Epps, it doesn't take a lot to arouse the lash. An indifferent day of cotton picking is reason enough for a whipping. The lashing of Patsey is as deliberate and painful to watch as it should be, much as film inevitably softens and sanitizes even such harsh realities.
Even more prolonged, more memorable, is a scene in which Solomon is strung up and nearly lynched. This by the furious Tibeats and a couple of helpers, revenge for Northup's beating of Tibeats in self defense. The men who are trying to lynch Solomon are driven away before they can complete their murderous work, but Northup is left with the noose tight around his neck and standing on tiptoe for hours until Ford arrives to cut him down. Hours pass. Eventually other slaves resume their business as Solomon struggles to stay upright and stave off asphyxiation. Children are seen playing obliviously in the background. Night falls. All the while, we see and hear the squish of Northup's simple leather shoes in the mud beneath his feet as he desperately tries to keep his balance and avoid putting more pressure on the noose; a kind of danse macabre. We hear the gurgling, choking sounds of a man long at the verge of death. As is so often true in 12 Years a Slave, the extended scene is marked as much by a striking style as it is with significant meaning.
Steve McQueen uses sound with precision and power. He also makes judicious use of Hans Zimmer's fine score. Never overbearing or leading, Zimmer's music is a times confined to lowing, ominous brass; at other moments a telling rise and fall of strings. McQueen and Zimmer combine forces during the riverboat passage of Northup and other slaves, the percussive score synced with the rhythmic slap of the paddle wheel rolling mercilessly on.
Perhaps the most moving interval of music in the film is when Solomon Northup finds himself caught up in the singing of "Roll Jordan Roll." This presumably many years into Solomon's heart-breaking estrangement from his family and former life. It's clear that Northup does not have everything in common with his fellow slaves, who stand loosely circled while delivering the spiritual. But as the song gains momentum and the words begin to char themselves upon Solomon Northup's already raw being, he finds himself joining in, carried forth by the song and overcome with emotion.
The man tasked with evincing these emotions, big and small, is the eminently capable Chiwetel Ejiofor. The English actor might be unknown to mainstream film audiences, but he's been proving his versatility in films and television for more than 15 years. Look no farther than his extremely disparate roles as that of a Nigerian immigrant (Ejiofor is of Nigerian ancestry) trying to navigate a very murky London underworld in Dirty Pretty Things (2002) and the cross-dressing factory savior, Lola, in Kinky Boots (2005).
Solomon Northup has to exercise considerable restraint to survive his years of captivity. For his part, Ejiofor's performance is no less emotional, no less powerful for its restraint. He compels quietly, just as he does when overcome with fear, grief or indignation. Ejiofor's staunch humanity and quiet command draw us into the darkness of 12 Years A Slave and lead us out again.
Beyond the foreground suffering in 12 Years A Slave, a view of the blackened shadows of swoony vegetation (McQueen and his cinematographer Sean Bobbitt are much taken with the abundant, drooping Louisiana fauna) cast upon bayou waters colored by a coppery sunset. One of Epps' fields plagued by cotton worms, the sinuous creatures and cotton bolls viewed almost in abstraction. And on. These are not scenic breaks, nor distractions, but a kind of quiet, sure wisdom at work. Steve McQueen continues to prove that provocative art need make no concession to feeling or beauty.