12 Years a Slave is Mandatory

Travis beat me to the punch a bit here, but I also have some brief thoughts about 12 Years a Slave. We will both expand upon this in the immediate future, I’m sure.

This is mandatory. Essential doesn’t come close to being right for this film, which is an instant classic to me. It is mandatory. As in, every person with even a passing interest in film as an art form has to see it.

As an artistic expression and aesthetic experience I thought it was phenomenal. McQueen’s detached formalism serves this material extremely well. The mix of luminous imagery and detached (read: unsentimental to an astonishing degree) perspective imbues every moment with a beauty or grace that are utterly at odds with the brutal physical and emotional violence that are part and parcel of the institution of slavery. I think that contrast works amazingly well and brings the film to searing life. The near-lynching and the whipping scene have been covered well already by other writers, so I’ll let them lie. But look at a scene like Solomon being sold at auction in New Orleans. The camera moves with a grace and fluidity reminiscent of Russian Ark or Scorsese at his steadicamera best. The framing is often quite eye-catching and moves us through a tight space holding a multitude of bodies with grace. It’s all quite pleasing, except for the fact that these genteel folks are there to pick over and purchase their fellow humans.

The way the slaves who are at-auction must stand there, most utterly naked, with any hope of agency or freedom or grace being stripped away each second a leering Southern planter eyes a man’s shoulders or a woman’s breasts. The contrast between form and content is shocking and disgusting, and that’s exactly the point. The scene climaxes with a young black mother being sold into a lifelong separation from her two small children. Her utter despair is wrenching to behold, and only made more so by McQueen’s direction. His camera doesn’t leer at this primal agony with a Tom Hooper close-up (Fuck you forever, Les Mis). Instead he steps back and lets us see the family’s torment in full frame, as well the slave trader’s consternation, the physical effort of the young black men who must hustle her out of the room, and the look of agony on the conscience-stricken plantation owner who has bought her. The scene ends by alighting on Solomon as he nervously picks up his trademark fiddle and tries to sooth over that awful tribulation with music for the still leering white guests. Sickening and brutal, yes it is. I had to close my eyes and wipe away tears multiple time in this scene alone, much less during the utterly wrenching ending. But it’s done with such finessed skill and forcefulness of vision that I stand in awe.

Wesley Morris puts it wonderfully in his review for Grantland when he said “The power of McQueen’s movie is in its declaratory style: This happened. That is all, and that is everything.” Perhaps the purest example of that to me was the scene wherein Solomon burns a letter he hopes to get to his home in the North. He has tried to pay a lowly white man to mail it for him in hopes that it will lead to his liberation. Instead that coward ratted on Solomon for his own gain and our protagonist only escapes torture or death by craftily playing off his master’s fears and manias. It is still a scene of sickening tension as we wait for Michael Fassbender’s manic monster of a man to snap and harm Solomon anyway. For fear of the letter being found and leading to his torture or death even after this escape Solomon puts it to the flame. The way the paper shrivels up into tiny, beautiful embers writhing bright against the darkness was at once astonishingly beautiful and completely devastating. No, devastating doesn’t quite convey it. Seeing the emotion in Chiwetel Elijofor’s face as he watches his only hope of freedom and justice turn to ash is a thing far beyond devastation. It is an emotion beyond loss or pain or incomprehension. It is a feeling of purest despair, like the world has opened up beneath Solomon and is swallowing the dying embers of his fortitude into a bottomless chasm. Imagine feeling like that and you’re a .000001% of the way there.

So, it’s a great movie, artistically, to be sure. But it deserves to be seen for more than just that. Like I mentioned a few months ago in a previous thread in anticipation of this film, I think this film could really affect people’s minds if it is seen. There are passively racist people in my family who I want to make sit down and watch this and then watch their arguments about slavery not being that bad (much less an intrinsic evil) whither on the vine. To me it would take a colossal and monstrous amount of disaffection or prejudice not to be moved to pieces and deeply enlightened by this. Like my friend Chris mentioned, it shows an entire society infected from stem to stern with a systemic rot caused by this cancerous evil and the brutality needed to enforce it. It equally affects seemingly good men and transparently wicked men. It brings low both women of high society and the smallest runt of a child in a slave’s hut. Everyone is infected by this level of evil and violence, even as they live their lives with seeming disaffection. Think of the children frolicking and playing behind Solomon as he hangs from a lynching tree, his toes barely touching the ground to keep him alive. Look at the way Fassbender’s sadistic slave-owner casually uses his “property” as props, throwing an arm on them like they’re a mantlepiece. They’re all part of a system based on a bottomless web of gross, unforgivable sin. That is our history. That is my ancestors and yours. People have run from that history for 150 years when they are not coming up with ridiculous justifications for not feeling bad about it. This movie could end that. It should. It would if it were mandatory.

Alex Bean

A life-long Midwesterner, currently living and working in Chicago. Primarily writes here about television and film (which is what he accrued crushing debt to study in school), but will write about books, sports, video games, or whatever else strikes his fancy. He's the one who thinks baseball is really boring.

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