First, the easy stuff: Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is very powerfully and efficiently written, tremendously well cast and acted and deliberately and surely directed. In short, it’s an excellent movie, which is not to say that it is inarguably perfect or immune to subjective complaint. (Though I, personally, can think of only one minor aspect I would wish changed.) It is likely and rightly going to turn up in the short list for all the usual awards.
I would hazard a guess that lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor will be a favorite. His portrayal of a man plunged, seemingly arbitrarily, into hell on Earth radiates a terrible scourged dignity. As Solomon Northup, a freedman stolen and sold into slavery, Ejiofor threads through his expert performance the most credible baffled, insulted decency. Northup is a hero merely by remaining human while witnessing and suffering inhuman actions—some of them his own, the horrific price of survival.
Also excellent is Lupita Nyong’o, as Patsey, a slave whose sufferings I will not get into, because I’m not yet recovered from seeing them the first time. Michael Fassbender is quite good as a demented plantation owner, and smaller roles by Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson, Alfre Woodard, Paul Dano and Benedict Cumberbatch all serve more than adequately. Brad Pitt is there, briefly, and he’s the one hiccup—to my taste. I like Pitt, quite a bit. But in a cameo, and an important one, Pitt’s star power is slightly distracting. But, overall, McQueen has made an absolutely top-notch film of a very deft script (written, believe it or not, by John Ridley, who also wrote Undercover Brother. Seriously). It’s a great film and will be much talked about in places where we talk about movies.
But 12 Years a Slave will also, likely and rightly, turn up in op-eds and think pieces. It will be much talked about in the places we talk about politics, and the history and state of American race relations. And that’s where it gets a bit dicey; but here goes:
As a comment on American race relations, historically and at the present moment, I found 12 Years a Slave masterful. It is both brutal and beautiful. Though I have tried to avoid reading other reviews or comments prior to writing my own take, I have heard rumors of dissatisfaction: that the movie’s graphic portrayal of the physical punishment suffered by slaves is gratuitous; that the bleakness of the depiction amounts to an exploitation of white guilt.
Even allowing for different taste in film, I can only say, “bullshit.” Bullshit, bullshit and utter bullshit. The first complaint is trivial. The graphic presentation of the torture–and that’s what it looks like because that was it was—inflicted upon slaves is, cinematically speaking, both fleeting (taking up mere minutes of a more than two-hour-long movie) and appropriate. This is a necessary head-on depiction of violence we know to have happened. This is not pornographic torture of a Martian or a messiah fantasized into being for the prurient interests of teens or true believers. The reason these comparatively brief scenes are so affecting is that the actions portrayed were so unjust—and, yet, not only historical accurate, but also so appallingly legal.
This, to me, is the very center of the film. This is its heart; also its dire caution. This is why you should see this movie—whatever your race or background. To state or imply that this movie indulges in white shaming (whatever the fuck that could be) is to miss the point so wholly as to constitute a minor outbreak of a serial tragedy: This brutality is something that humans do to other humans, over and over again, under the protection of the law. The truly gutting scenes—and be prepared, they are harrowing—are not those few that show the whipping or the lynching of black women and men; they are the scenes that drive home the immoral capriciousness of a systematic dehumanization for the sake of (largely) economic convenience. The fact that Solomon Northup, born a free man in upstate New York, could be kidnapped, sold (sold!) and transported within his native country’s borders to an area only some hundreds of miles away in which he was, legally speaking, no longer a human being, should serve as a terrifying reminder that, to this day, one’s freedoms, one’s independence, one’s full status as a human under law is subject to the strike of a pen.
This movie made me cringe in discomfort to think of the current political “conversation,” of the ignorant or cynically self-serving hogwash we have all heard slopped about: fearful nonsense about same-sex unions, about immigration, about gun control, about “entitlements.”
Full disclosure: I’m white, and during 12 Years a Slave, I felt deeply, deeply sad and deeply, deeply ashamed. But, while watching, I don’t think I gave a moment’s thought to my color. I did, and continue, to wonder quite a bit about my species.