Five Last Notes on “12 Years a Slave”

To end our weekend of thoughts on 12 Years a Slave, this article comes to you from the one Recorder man who saw it and hasn’t weighed in yet. What you’re about to read is a series of observations which I found interesting and moving, because the cohesive articles of Messrs. Bean and Cook are also representative of my own thoughts.

The film is a masterpiece of America cinema, and far, far more. I have never cringed so much at a single movie, felt my heart stop…and to repeat my colleagues just once, the whipping scene should provoke a similar reaction in the viewer when watched. It should make you look away in the face of overwhelming agony, then, like the snap of the leather and cord, look back, look away again, look back because you need to see this, you need to feel such profound empathy, only to look away and look back again with neck-snapping motion. MAYBE after a hundred viewings you could watch this scene without flinching, but if you can do so on the first time, I’d be inclined to question your humanity.

From now on, Steve McQueen should be allowed to direct any darn movie he wants. I anticipated certain elements to be present in, his filmmaking but what he accomplished with John Ridley’s screenplay and his cast surpassed every single one of my expectations. But these expectations did not come from his first features, Hunger or Shame. My one prior experience with McQueen’s work came last year when the Art Institute of Chicago held a career retrospective of his installations, experimental films, and mixed media projects. What I took away from the exhibition was McQueen’s gift for choosing subjects familiar and understandable to us and showing them from new angles with a direct intensity, just as he took a subject I was familiar with as a single paragraph in my middle-school history book and made 12 Years a Slave.

Disclaimer: this picture does not do the real thing justice.

The example from that exhibit which has always stayed with me was Queen and Country. A mounted box, the size and shape of a coffin, with dozens of pull-out wooden boards on either side. On each board are two sheets of standard English postage stamps, and each sheet repeats the smiling face of a member of a United Kingdom armed forces member killed in the Middle East. For ten minutes, I pulled out one sheet after another and looked at these repeating images of men, women, younger than me and middle-aged, pilots, cooks, privates, career officers, all of whom looked as full of life and vitality as me and my friends, and in staring at this multitude, knowing they were dead put me in mind of my own mortality, the mortality of the people I love, of the strangers in the gallery with me, until I could not take the feeling anymore.

And there were other projects: Static, a shaky, continuous loop of the Statue of Liberty, filmed from a helicopter circling around it the rotors deafening, placing this icon in the center of what looked like a war zone and note peaceful New York. Bear, a short of McQueen and a white man, both naked, both showing every body part, wrestling in an unceasing struggle, the beauty of their forms more impressionable than the violence. And End Credits, a video of the complete FBI records on Paul Robeson set to a fifteen-hour loop of two people reading every single line in a monotone, the weight of history, of race, of everything, falling on you.

Thus, I walked into 12 Years a Slave prepared to have truth presented without adulteration, but I was not prepared for how McQueen’s artistry soared to heights beyond that in the exhibition. After two days to process this, I realize of course it would, of course he needed to give every ounce of creativity he had in service to this story, but still, he knows when to close in on Chiwetel Eijofor as Solomon Northup (as in the darkness of the Washington cell) and when to pull back and place him in the midst of a landscape, in both ways capturing the oppression and pain of his life with maximum effect. He plays with focus, blurring backgrounds and foregrounds into an atmosphere more powerfully felt than seen. His decisions are pitch-perfect; there is one scene which I do not want to describe, except that it involves a horrific action placed in multiple tableau, close-up, medium shot, in the background while other action goes on, in the foreground with no other figures paying attention, the tension building and our hearts breaking all the while. And his shots capture the light at the precisely right moment, showing the most extraordinary colors and shapes, the right shadows, the right moment for a butterfly to flitter across the screen while Solomon and Mistress Epps talk. I was put in mind of a few other directors, Akira Kurosawa waiting for the right cloud formations in Ran and one or two others, who invested everything with such care and poetry. And none of them were telling a story like this.

Also, Lupita Nyong’o should work until she dies…comes out of nowhere and gives us THIS.

Part of why 12 Years a Slave works as it does is the casting, which for me was an exercise in subtle ways for actors to play against type. Eijofor, for example, has always had a touch of Sidney Poitier in him and this is indeed part of why McQueen picked him for Solomon. In every film I have seen him in, not only his serious art house pictures but also Love Actually and Serenity, Eijofor projects dignity, self-possession, and steadiness, just like Poitier…but Poitier never bared his soul so nakedly, showed all the highs and lows of existence, our darkness and our radiance. Eijofor takes us through every layer of our being in just over two hours and it astounds. To put it another way, Poitier’s “Amen” in Lilies of the Field, as uplifting as it is, has nothing on the heartbreak and searching conviction in Eijofor’s voice when he sings “Roll, Jordan, Roll.”

Benedict Cumberbatch, who has made playing characters so strong and superior that his every move is filled with pride and mocking insolence, now plays a man of weakness…so weak in all the ways which make we the audience, correctly, despise him and all he represents. Boyish, clever, but never before threatening Paul Dano transforms into a ferocious, frightening creature. Paul Giamatti is usually likable to the max (and I have heard never more so than in his other Oscar contender this year, Saving Mr. Banks), but he can also play icy, emotionless men, and McQueen ratchets this side up as never before.

Above all, I remember my amazement last year when American sweetheart Amy Adams was positively terrifying in The Master. This year, Sarah Paulson, who embraces over-the-top roles with relish and plays conventional parts with a constant twinkle in her eye, now becomes the Queen of all Bitches with a deadly serious manner, and is responsible for so much of the aforementioned cringing.

The only two non-surprises were Michael Fassbender, who has a knack by now for McQueen pushing him to extremes, and Brad Pitt, who again proves he is one of our greatest character actors and producers in a way which makes me hope the American people will realize what a gift we have in him and focus on these sides of his career, as well as his quiet humanitarianism. It’s not his fault that he was born with one of the handsomest bodies to ever grace our screen, or that him and Angelina Jolie have an idyllic family life. These are accidents. The work and the talent are the real thing.

The credit which threw me for a loop at the end was “Music by Hans Zimmer.” This is not the Zimmer growing ever more bombastic for Christopher Nolan’s productions, the storm-the-gates-of-Heaven-with-melody Zimmer of Gladiator. This is the early Zimmer, only now working with acoustic instruments and a tiny ensemble led by Tim (Black Swan) Fain’s violin, the melodies folkish, plaintive, and lovely, used sparingly and only to add a final graceful touch to the proceedings.

Finally, in an interview with NPR, McQueen discusses how he had never heard of Solomon Northup until his longtime partner, Dutch intellectual Bianca Stigter, found the book and brought it to his attention. McQueen lives in Amsterdam with Stigter and their children, and as he put it, Northup’s autobiography reminded him of The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, whom he described as a world hero, a constant part of his existence.

I found this comparison to be a deeply moving one, especially as I hope Solomon Northup becomes a world hero on the same level as Anne Frank. But at first it appeared to me to be a strange one. Shamefully, my gut reaction was that they had such different experiences, although I subsequently realized I could not quantify trauma and try to argue that Northup’s twelve years in slavery were worse than Frank’s hiding in the Secret Annex and subsequently dying in the concentration camps, or vice versa. That is disrespectful and beside the point.

The point is that both Northup and Frank were cast into situations determined by people choosing to exploit their most inhuman qualities for the subjection and extermination of other people. They lived surrounded by cruelty and death—indeed, 12 Years a Slave is full of death treated as the most mundane thing, as something wished for at times, as something the characters are inured to and the audience never is. They could have let despair dominate them; Frank’s emotional outbursts are analogous to the scenes when Northup appears ready to give up, the more heartbreaking scenes in the film. But Solomon Northup and Anne Frank both clung to a belief in the human spirit, in some kind of goodness, in a refusal to break no matter how much they bent, in a determined effort to be the person they knew they were as all went to hell around them.

Anne Frank’s diary is required reading around the world. It should be. I join Alex and Travis and our friends in hoping that one day 12 Years a Slave will similarly be required viewing.

(P.S. Seconds after finishing writing this, I found a great interview with Sarah Paulson which echoes this sentiment exactly.)

Andrew Rostan

Andrew Rostan

Andrew Rostan's first graphic novel, "An Elegy for Amelia Johnson," was named one of the best comics of 2011 by USA Today. His second book will be published by Archaia/Boom! Studios in 2015. When not telling fictional stories, he enjoys nothing more than conversing with his fellow Recorder members and the rest of the world.

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