Saturday, 15 February 2014

Oscar Review (analysis)– 12 Years a Slave

Note: Over the next couple of weeks I intend to do reviews of all 9 best film Oscar contenders. Most won't be this long but there is so much to be said about 12 Years a Slave that I thought I'd spend a bit of extra time on it. The following is as much of an analysis as it is a review.

I guess it's of note that there have only been a small number of mainstream Hollywood films that directly deal with the issue of Black slavery. Perhaps it's because America's “original sin” does not make for comfortable viewing for the average American cinema goer. It's of further note that of those films the central characters are often white. Examples such as Lincoln, Glory and Amazing Grace often tell the story of abolition from the perspective. Other films such as Ride with the Devil and Gone with the Wind often place the concept of slavery itself firmly in a supporting role to a central theme of the American Civil War. Even Spielberg's Amistad, a film in which Morgan Freeman and Djimon Hounsou play leading roles, still required a cast of white heroes to further the court room drama. I guess in the minds of Hollywood produces, the majority white cinema going public requires a leading character with whom they, as privileged white people, can relate.

I am not trying to devalue all the aforementioned films as the story of abolition, and white people's role in it, is a story that should be told. However, I think its important that it was not until recently that the mainstream Cinema going public was able to see slavery from the perspective of a black main character projected on the Big Screen. Tarantino had his own unique take on it with 2012s Django Unchained1 and 2013 bought us 12 Years a Slave.

Directed by British director Steve McQueen,12 Years a Slave tells the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a freeborn black man who is tricked, drugged and illegally sold into slavery. It is far from an easy watch as the film does not avoid portraying some of the worst physical abuses of Slavery though there is much more to is film than the violence. The film is at it's core is a study of humanity and the compromises humans make for the sake of either survival or for the sake of a quiet life. Central to telling this story are the characters.


In the previous films I have mentioned, such as Glory or Lincoln, we only see slavery from the (often white) observer's perspective. In 12 Years a Slave, Ejiofor's Solomon Northup is the audience's avatar in this world and some of slavery's worst excesses actually happen to the person in which we have the most emotional investment. Perhaps the reason Solomon's story is so effective that it is easier for us to put ourselves in his shoes. Solomon, like most of us today, is used to a moderately comfortable life as a (relatively) free man with a family and a career, who is suddenly thrown into Slavery. From my perspective, for example, I would find it difficult to mentally put myself into the position of a person born into slavery but I can empathize more fluently with a free man who goes to sleep one night and literally wakes up in chains. I guess my own privilege state means I can imagine having liberty torn away better than I can imagine never having possessed it in the first place 2.

It's not just Solomon's story that is so effective it is Ejiofor's ingeniously nuanced performance. He seems able to communicate more by using his facial expressions than other actors can in a three page monologue. The key to Solomon is the conflict between his pride and strength on one side and his disempowerment and willingness to compromise on the other. We see him stand up to an irrational and violent overseer and we also see him powerless to stop sexual assaults and lynchings. There is no voice over or any long soliloquies and yet I never struggled to understand that the conflict between his pride and survival instinct haunts Solomon throughout the film. Though the violence in this film is disturbing, one of the most upsetting shots is the one that captures Solomon's face after he destroys his own fiddle.


The one person who suffers more than anybody in this film is Patsy. Her life is dominated by being objectified and lusted after in the worst possible way by her male owner and violently despised by the lady of the house, or as the real life Northup himself put it “the enslaved victim of lust and hate”. At the point in which she asks Solomon to kill her as her only chance of release, I genuinely asked myself if it was Solomon's pride and personal ethics or his weakness and fear that made him say no. In a performance as nuanced as the lead actor, Lupita Nyong'o is able to portray the end results of the worst dehumanising aspects of bondage. She starts the film as a lively young person who is quick to laugh, sing and dance and ends in an almost ghost-like shell as she slowly loses the will the exist.


If Patsy represents the product of the brutality of slavery, Fassbender's Edwin Epps personifies the brutal institution of slavery itself. Slavery is psychopathic, dehumanizing and brutal and Epps is all these things in spades. His most frightening aspect is his extreme emotional instability. This instability manifests itself in the form of suddenly demanding his human possessions partake in late night dancing party and also manifests as intense violence. He is seen at one point excitedly congratulating his favorite slave Patsy for her cotton picking skills and later sexually assaulting or flogging her. The explosive nature of Epps is even more frightening in an context where he, as a slave owner, can commit the worst crime imaginable without any fear of recourse (a theme I will return to later). As a role it could easily have been overplayed. However, Fassbender somehow makes Epps believable. It is beyond my ability as a writer to explain how he does this, but I very quickly stopped seeing him as Michael Fassbender (one of my favourite actors) and started seeing him as a separate flesh and blood human being, one that I hated intensely.


Though Epps is terrifying I think the most uncomfortable character we, as an audience, have to deal with is Benedict Cumberbatch's William Ford. In general he is a nice bloke. He treats Solomon with respect and is in no way abusive to his slaves. However, despite his geniality, he is still a slave owner, and still plays an active role in the both the abusive institution in general and the maltreatment of Solomon in particular. This is not just out of a general passivity but also a general unwillingness to endanger his comfortable lifestyle and high standing. Cumberbatch does an exceptional job of portraying this kind but ultimately weak and timid human being. His lowest point comes when, despite it being made clear that Solomon is not a legal slave, he sells his “exceptional nigger” to the abusive Epps, in part to save Solomon but primarily for the sake of a quiet life. The reason I found this character so frightening is that he personifies the ethical compromises we all, even in the modern era, make for the sake of an easy life.

The Central Theme and Direction

12 Years a Slave is a survival film. Like most survival films the protagonist is in a constant state of danger, though unlike the usual survival flick, the danger does not come from the natural environment, wild animal or armed enemy combatants but from dis-empowerment and being in the state of slavery. At any time the slave owners and overseers can beat, whip, murder and rape their human possession with little or no fear of being punished for the act. This makes for tense viewing. Also, as stated, compromise for the sake of survival plays an important role. We see Solomon, Ford and other generally moral people turn a blind eye to abuse, rape and lynchings, sometimes out of fear of suffering the abuse themselves and other times out of fear for ones comfortable livelihood. At Solomon's lowest moment we see him actually participate in the flogging of Patsy due to the threat to himself and his fellow slaves.

Key to the success of this film is that McQueen has been able to take the idea of contact threat and some how make it tangible. It's not just about the graphic display of violence. I had a discussion with a friend who thought that the film was not as brutal as it should have been and it was almost guilty of censoring the violence whilst on the flip side the violence has been compared to “torture porn for Guardian readers”. I guess I stand apart from both those views in that I felt that the violence was as brutal as it needed but that was not the only source of the film's tension. From my perspective the danger almost appears to be in the air, it is environmental and surrounds Solomon and his fellow captives. Although violence plays a major role in their lives, the terror comes from never being entirely safe and always having you fate directed by another, often psychotic, human beings.

The One Negative

Brad Pitt deserves a lot of credit for bringing this film into the world. He was one of it's producers and his production, Plan B, is one of it's production companies. My only criticism of the film is his appearance at the end as Canadian abolitionist Samuel Bass. It's not the existence of Bass as a character (which is by all accounts very consistent with Northup's recollections). It is the casting of a Hollywood A-Lister, one of the most recognisable faces in the world, as the person who is Northup's liberator. As stated, I quite quickly stopped seeing Michael Fassbender and started seeing Epps. But when Pitt was on screen I was never thinking “can this stranger save Solomon?” I was thinking “can Brad Pitt save Solomon?”.

Final Thoughts

The one negative I could find does not in any way diminish the impact of the film and this film did impact me more than any other film of recent years. I think it's success lies not only with the direction, which is nearly flawless, but in Solomon's story and the portrayal of a human being with whom we can all relate.
Please Comment or tweet your thoughts (@blakeleynixon)
1 I say this being aware that Django is a very different film that 12YAS.

2 Perhaps this is why the book Twelve Years a Slave was used so effectively by the abolition movement.

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