“12 Years a Slave” is slavery porn. This startling and very tough film by British director Steve McQueen drags a viewer into the antebellum American South to experience slavery in all its barbarism and inhumanity.
It’s no-holds-barred filmmaking. As such, the challenging movie makes a convincing and long overdue corrective to such American movie-classic lies as “Gone With the Wind” and “Birth of a Nation.” Yet in its enthusiastic depiction of total degradation of human beings the movie lacks any soul.
McQueen, whose previous films, “Hunger” and “Shame,” mark him an aesthetic artist concerned with the trials and indignities a body can suffer with only scant interest in psychology, searches for images and sounds to convey an atmosphere of total privation.
But he looks for almost none to convey his main character’s inner life either as a free man (very briefly) or 12 years a slave. Instead he is content to present an educational horror show albeit a highly effective one.
Which is a pity since McQueen chanced upon a great story. Or rather his wife did when she discovered a memoir by Solomon Northup published in 1853. “12 Years a Slave,” mostly out of print in the 20th century, was restored in 1968 but it’s doubtful many people have read it.
In the book a free black man from upstate New York, a violinist and father of three, describes his kidnapping in 1841 and subsequent sale into slavery and struggle on cruel Louisiana plantations to stay alive in the faint hope of being reunited with his family.
This goes counter to the conventional slave narrative, which begins in Africa or with birth on a Southern plantation. In fact, thousands of free blacks suffered similar fates following the passage of a federal law banning the importation of slaves in 1808. With the reduction of the slave work force, their value increased greatly for greedy slave traders.
McQueen is twice lucky in his casting of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon. For he is an actor who can do so very much with his eyes. Which is often necessary since keeping quiet — even hiding his ability to read and write — is the only way for a slave to survive brutal beatings or death.
Ejiofor’s eyes registers the terror and incomprehension of the kidnapping, the shocks of regular beatings, the sight of abominations visited upon fellow slaves and the racist taunts of white overseers.
An audience suffers similar shocks. McQueen and his writer John Ridley (“Three Kings,” “Red Tails”) dig deeply into historical research into the “peculiar” American institution of slavery for their atrocities. I have no doubt even the whips used in the movie are authentic to the era.
The movie is designed to parade before the camera just about every degradation the institution embraced — rapes, torture, beatings, lynchings, separation of families and other indignities thrown repeatedly by plantation owners and overseers at their “property.”
Michael Fassbender plays the savage slave owner Edwin Epps as a bitter and drunken degenerate whose fury is all too easily provoked by his wife (Sarah Paulson). He then takes his anger out on his slaves. Yet the director and writer show no interest in probing the man to see what drives his fury or causes his pathology.
Paul Dano is similarly asked to flagrantly overplay a repulsive white-trash carpenter intent on proving his superiority to the black man. In smaller roles, slavers, traders and conmen appear as venal, foul, treacherous and vile.
All completely accurate to the era and the institution, you understand. Yet crowded into a 134-minute film, where one beating makes the point but the director prefers three or four, the movie descends into melodrama and obviousness.
There is never a moment to stand back and investigate the internal and philosophical challenges Solomon faces in his determination to come out alive.
Instead the film constantly looks not at its hero but its audience: What would you have done in this situation? How would you react?
Then Brad Pitt (one of the film’s producers) arrives in the scene, playing an itinerant Canadian carpenter hired to build a dwelling on Epps’ plantation. In an on-the-money speech he gets to denounce slavery to Epps and say all the things you’ve been thinking all along.
His character thus acts as an emotional valve to let some audience anger and frustration leak away before he can deliver Solomon’s salvation. (His character sent letters to family and friends back in New England alerting them to Solomon’s enslavement.)
Filming at a Louisiana location very near where the real Northup spent his years in bondage, McQueen doesn’t even come as close as Tarantino in “Django Unchained” to capturing the true grit of antebellum plantation. The fault may lie in his preference for imagery over psychology.
The loveliness of the Spanish-moss draped plantation, its bayous, rolling fields and woods deliberately plays against the human tragedy of each passing day.
With an aural design of crickets chirping, wind blowing and whips cracking, along with one of the more restrained Hams Zimmer scores in a while, McQueen seems to want to taunt his audience with the bucolic wonder of the Old South.
But these aesthetic abstractions neither highlight nor explain the spirit of Solomon’s steady resolve to, as he puts it, not only survive but to live. He never quite becomes the hero of his own story as well he should.
A disquieting undertone has accompanied the initial press reaction to the film, which premiered at Telluride, and has increased in subsequent news stories prior to the theatrical rollout by Fox Searchlight.
This is the tandem assertion that American movies and artists have shied away from dealing directly with our own holocaust and with race relations in general so it took a foreigner to do so.
I think this is false on both counts. While it’s true Hollywood and indie filmmakers have generally favored stories about the Civil War over those dealing directly with slavery — exceptions would be “Amistad” and “Beloved” along with Tarantino’s film — this has to do with the peculiar nature of movies and nothing to do with American artists.
Writers, who do not need corporate backing to create their art, have long dealt with slavery and race going back to Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass and Northup himself. The eras of Reconstruction and Jim Crow saw the emergence of Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois and James Weldon Johnson.
To make this argument you must similarly ignore writings ranging from that of Charles W. Chestnut and Langston Hughes to Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin. The list goes on.
The problem when it comes to film though is the need to gain financing (invariably white). “12 Years” got past the studio gates, I believe, not in spite of but because of its “foreignness.”
McQueen brings with him the imprimatur of an artist, an internationally exhibited painter who has made three films exploring the extremes of the human condition to gain a following in art cinemas.
It’s hard to imagine how an American director bringing this very script to Fox Searchlight or any other studio classics division, say a Spike Lee or George Tillman Jr., would have fared. Not well, I suspect.
“12 Years” is packaged as an “art” film and indeed is pretty much being promoted as such. The director and most of the lead actors are foreign, not American, perhaps with the presumption that audiences will more readily accept the film’s savagery within an international context.
Just look at the cast and crew bios: McQueen, English-born artist, divides his time between Amsterdam and London; Ejiofor, a veteran of the British stage, screen and television; Fassbender, born in Germany and raised in Ireland; Benedict Cumberbatch (who plays Solomon’s first and most benevolent owner), also a vet of the British stage. Lupita Nyong’o (who plays the slave Patsy, object of Epps’ sexual fixations), Mexican-born and Kenyan-raised.
Oh sure, Americans such as Paul Giamatti and Alfre Woodard play key roles but even they are such stalwarts of independent cinema that this only enhances “12 Years'” art-film sensibility.
How many other American filmmakers, black or white, have dreamed of similar projects only for them to die in development? Or never even gotten that far? I’m asking; I don’t know.
Will this film become a starting point for an honest dialogue in America about race, as some critics and commentators suggest? Let’s hope so. It does confront slavery and all its dreadful operations head on. It minces no words nor avoids any images.
But it also refuses to transcend the gruesome particulars of slavery. Nor does it with a few exceptional moments say much about the human spirit.
Opens: October 18, 2013 (Fox Searchlight)
Production companies: River Road, Plan B, New Regency
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Garret Dillahunt, Paul Giamatti, Scoot McNairy, Lupita Nyong’o, Adepero Oduye, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Michael Kenneth Williams, Alfre Woodard, Chris Chalk, Taran Killam, Bill Camp
Director: Steve McQueen
Screenwriter: John Ridley
Based on the memoir by: Solomon Northup and David Wilson
Producers: Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Bill Pohlad, Steve McQueen, Arnon Milchan, Anthony Katagas
Executive producers: Tessa Ross, John Ridley
Director of photography: Sean Bobbitt
Production designer: Adam Stockhausen
Music: Hans Zimmer
Costume designer: Patricia Norris
Editor: Joe Walker
R rating, 134 minutes