The 76th Academy Awards in 2004 were unusual for me in that a movie of the sort I usually like appeared in categories outside of technical and particularly special effects categories. The Return of the King broke the barrier in no small way, but usually I live in the Nerd Zone. Unapologetically, I might add.
But, it behooves me to break my barriers here and there. To which end, I sought out a movie that’s been making some significant noise in the run-up to Award Season: Steve McQueen’s adaptation of the memoir 12 Years a Slave.
In 1841, black freeman Solomon Northup of New York is living happily with his family, plying his trade as a violinist, when he is conned and kidnapped by two ‘circus performers’ and sent the South on the false charge of being a runaway slave.
Northup endures the indignity, inhumanity and unpredictability of slave life, struggling against the whims of those who presume to own him, and against despair, as he seeks a covert way to get back to his family.
It seems rather apt that not so long ago the wilfully grotesque revenge fantasy film Django Unchained. Not that I saw it – Tarantino’s a bit grotesque even for my tastes. It’s striking because after having gotten less than halfway through 12 Years a Slave, you start having revenge fantasies anyway. At least, I do.
It was pointed out to me that the colour palette of the film is very rich and vibrant. Whereas movies like this usually tone down the colour – see Schindler’s List for an extreme example – the brightness and beauty of the Bayou, the colours of the clothes and the elegance of the architecture are all quite lovely. And then, having set this charming scene, it lends the same vividness to the blood and flesh flying off the back of a screaming woman as a semi-deranged plantation owner flogs her. This dissonance in the aesthetic is a major part of the impact.
Something else that struck me about the movie is that, not unlike Holocaust movies like Schindler’s List, the horror factor isn’t exactly its shock factor – though there is no shortage of that – so much as the crushing sense of inevitability. If you have even a passing acquaintance with the social history of slavery, nothing about what happens will be particularly unexpected: the tearing apart of families, the casual cruelty, the flogging for any little thing, the dehumanization of being sold like an object, the rape. Solomon’s constant efforts against falling into despair paralells the experience you, the viewer are having as you have to witness a time and a way of life that isn’t only totally indifferent to human decency, but actually suppresses it.
There’s a chilling scene where a slave broker shows customers around a gorgeously-appointed room that just happens to have a lot of naked people standing around in it while he chats about the wonderful quality of his wares to smiling couples in fancy clothes. The disconnect is so severe it’s like he’s not seeing the same things you are. Solomon’s first ‘owner,’ played, perhaps inevitably, by Benedict Cumberbatch, tries to keep a family together having just bought the mother. Not only is her grief treated as a mild nuisance, but the broker flat-out won’t let him! It’s a little proto-Orwellian in places, such as Solomon basically being told what his name is (‘Platt’) or the fact that he has to keep his ability to read a deadly secret.
Even today, there are people, almost invariably white and well-off, it seems, who profess nostalgia for the antebellum Southern United States. I guess the buildings are nice, but what happened in them sure isn’t. Sometimes people try to say slavery ‘wasn’t so bad.’ I’ve heard the same said of Classical slavery too.
And the usual standbys for that kind of thing are in here. Cumberbatch is noticeably upset by his failure to buy his new slave’s daughter, and tries frantically to save Solomon from the ire of his own staff carpenter, for whom ‘psychotic’ is the only word. But even this decency puts Cumberbatch’s character in a position of fearing for his own safety as well as Solomon’s. His only option is to sell Solomon off his estate. But the only person he can get to agree is one Mr. Epps, who is not only pitilessly cruel at the best of times, whipping anyone who falls short of a quota of daily cotton pickings, but also ‘rewards’ his best picker by raping her, flies into homicidal rage at the least imagined notion of disloyalty, and generally behaves in a way that immediately put me in mind of Caligula or Nero. He’s also a religious fanatic to put a cherry on it.
Solomon is ‘rented out’ at one point to a neighbour who is married to a free black woman. The man is a nice guy and kind to Solomon and it sounds all sweet and romantic if you don’t think about it, but she (played by Alfre Woodard) is frank about the fact that she knows she’s a glorified plaything, forced to make the most of it to survive away from the drudgery of – in her case – a sugar field.
The much romanticized image of singing cotton-pickers in this context is not a charming tradition but a collective coping mechanism. Indeed, listen closely to the lyrics and a lot of them add up to ‘at least we’ll get some rest when we’re dead.’ When Solomon joins in on ‘Roll, Jordan, Roll’ at a funeral for one of the slaves who finally keeled over in the field, it scared me because it seemed like he’d finally given up.
Every possibly romantic illusion you could have (although I can’t fathom how you could in the first place) about the South is systematically demolished, one after another. And good riddance to them.
I have yet to sit down and read the memoir Solomon Northup wrote about his experience, and I suspect it follows it pretty closely, because the plot has a beat and timing to it that has very little in the way of relief or clear direction that only Real Life can deliver. The only point that jumped out at me is when, early in the movie, one of the slave-catchers causally kills one of his captives. In a world where humans are treated as a commodity, it would have been very poor business practice to go around killing them left and right. It’s odd considering that it takes a lot even for Epps, insane though he evidently is, to actually try and kill someone.
The other odd thing is the resolution and Solomon’s freedom come very near the end with very little foreshadowing and little to no complication. It also comes at the cost of him having to abandon the friends he’s made on the plantation. One hopes that since Northup became active in the Underground Railroad, he might have been able to do something at least…
12 Years a Slave pulls absolutely no punches. The violence and the sheer unfathomable psychology of a slave society overwhelms. The dehumanization sickens and I defy even the kinkiest moviegoer to be distracted by the nudity. Visually the movie is fantastic, and Hans Zimmer is in top form handling the soundtrack, with an African American choir in his corner. It portrays the reality of something I and most white people in the 21st Century understand only as an intellectual fact. It’s a reality check that the world deserves. It achieves intense suspense from the dangerous whims our hero is subjected to, and horror at the predictability of those horrors at the same time. Furthermore, the fact that black actors with names like Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o are gaining currency in Hollywood is no small accomplishment.
12 Years a Slave is not for the faint of heart, but it is for the conscientious, and the honest history buff as well.
And, if I may be a little smug, it’s a movie for the geek crowd to crow over. After all, we saw Ejiofor first! Blimey, now there’s a revenge fantasy…