The horror on his face is indelible. The disbelief palpable. The confusion, as if a dream, dizzying, as Solomon Northrup wakes up to find himself in a dark unfamiliar space bound in rusted chains.
This is 1841 upstate New York at a time when in this part of North America, some Africans were allowed to be ‘free’. The downside, kidnapping ‘free’ Africans and selling them was often a method used by slave owners to pay debts. Which is how Solomon Northrup a well-to-do, educated African family man ends up conned, drugged and bound for Louisiana, New Orleans; sold into slavery.
The original memoir, 12 Years A Slave (1853) bears the testimony of Solomon Northrup, a ‘free’ man kidnapped and sold into slavery. He was helped to regain his freedom and returned to his wife and children 12 years later. This real-life, African-told account of North American slavery is brought to filmic life by (ironically) British AfriCarib director Steve McQueen.
Chiwetel Ejiofor is the actor (in a sublime performance) who carries us through Solomon’s journey to a regained freedom as he’s owned by various masters. It’s Solomon’s love of his family and his belief that he’s a human being which sustains him through his nightmare; forcibly stripped of his clothing, his dignity and his name to become ‘Platt Hamilton’ evoking the memory of that infamous scene in the Roots (1977) series when then new slave Kunta Kinte is beaten into submission to accept his new name ‘Toby’.
Some of the key relationships Northrup encounters during his enslavement include William Ford, slave-owner, Edwin and Mistress Epps, his final slave-owners, Samuel Bass a Canadian abolitionist and notably Patsy played by Lupita Nyong’o. There should be no surprise in Nyong’o receiving award recognition in any category she’s nominated, since her performance here is of the highest. Patsy exposes us to raw emotions as she endures the vengeful wrath of Mistress Epps and the desire of Edwin Epps. Another boxed ticked for McQueen who points a glaring light on the often overlooked disgust, contempt and jealousy many of the wives of slave masters had for their female property. There is discord within the Epps’ marriage and its agony is played out with virulent force upon their slaves.
With its BBFC +15 certificate, this is no sugar coated rendition of slavery. Our sight of the physical brutality meted upon Africans is not averted. We are forced to witness the blood splattering, flesh splaying marks of whippings; the screams of mothers and children torn from each other as they are sold apart; the enforced hierarchy of mixed-race off-spring and the use of African women as sexual chattel through rape.‘12 Years A Slave is also the site for discourses to include the role of religion as a tool to subjugate; along with the antagonism between European and African women and the abandonment of black women by black men; discourses which still permeate society today. Another glaringly stark exposé is the helplessness of the enslaved. Faced with extreme bouts of brutality an especially vivid scene in the film captures how normalised violence – albeit unfair and unwarranted violence – against their own becomes to the slaves. Almost carrying on with their business as usual survival routines, whilst one of their own languishes close to death.
Carrying us through the relentless monotony of working the land, the narrative is interspersed suddenly with unimaginable cruelty. Some of the horror morbidly underscored with enforced gaiety as slave owners try to drown out the anguished cries of slaves from the injustices they experience and probably the slave owners’ own deranged thoughts. McQueen’s juxtaposition of nightmare and idyll continues throughout the film through its beautiful cinematography creating scenes which act as a chocolate box backdrop to brutal barbarism. When 12 Years A Slave first screened during Film Festival season last year, it was reported people walked out in disgust and horror. Although it is harsh viewing, to walk out was to cop out.
Screenplay (John Ridley) and narrative are fluid, providing flashbacks and numerous nuances to daily life and acts of survival. The film has additional British actors in Benedict Cumberbatch ‘William Ford’ and continuing their film industry ‘bromance’ McQueen enlists Michael Fassbender as ‘Edwin Epps’. That all actors gave stellar performances is testimony to McQueen’s gifted ability to illicit poised, focused deliveries.
McQueen is like a naughty boy. He knows there are certain subjects he shouldn’t discuss at the dinner table, but gives a middle-fingered salute to protocol anyway. Allegorically speaking, the human form lays the table for subject matters McQueen gets us to confront – often in a visceral way. Fassbender is McQueen’s table. Fassbender’s emaciated body in Hunger (2008) lays the table for politics – putting Christian Bale in The Machinist (2004) to shame. Sex is an addict’s fix in Shame (2011) as Fassbender pummels (literally) his body seeking emotionally connected relationships.
12 Years A Slave sees the spectacle of the ‘race’ discourse traversed through black bodies and the cognitive dissonance experienced by white slave owners as they find ways to rationalise their dehumanisation of Africans. McQueen has a solid body of work in short films starting with Bear (1993). Hunger was his first feature. He has already received royal nods through an OBE and CBE. Now he reportedly moves on from 12 Years A Slave to work on a drama for the BBC which will story black people in London between 1968 and the present day.
Through each of its global screenings 12 Years A Slave promotes debate in political and social outlets in the public consciousness. The media-sphere is awash with opinions about what the film means; whether or not it should have been made; why do films heavy with black suffering catch the attention of the mainstream; why it may contribute to the negative portrayal of black people as needy and dependent on whites as our proverbial ‘saviours’; should it even be classified as a ‘black film’?
But let’s be clear. The film is the first to be made about the African perspective of slavery, by a person of African descent, in the mainstream. Steven Spielberg with his direction on The Color Purple, Amistad (1997) and (1985) Lincoln (2012), currently wears this crown, it has to be said.
12 Years A Slave is hotly tipped to win at the Oscars; the pinnacle of film awards season – and if this happens it would make firsts and history in some categories (not omitting Marianne Jean-Baptiste the first black British actor to be nominated for an Academy Award for Secrets & Lies 1996). Yet we’ve been here before. We are currently experiencing yet another Black Film Renaissance. It is not the first time Black film professionals have received accolade from mainstream institutions. But what has happened to previous crescendos of recognition? How well was that energy spent? Other important questions about this film and those of its ilk are, what happens after the winning? When the party’s over, who gets to clean up? How does praise fortify an industry to provide holistic representation and economic viability for underrepresented groups? Quite simply, will we finally grow a strong, successful, thriving Black Film industry where a broader range of African stories are told independent of mainstream approval/acceptance/access? Or will we be scratching our heads confused as we reminisce the day when that brave director fellow Steve McQueen dared to make a film about slavery?
By this time next year, we’ll have answers to these questions. In the meantime, understand that we will be talking about 12 Years A Slave for years to come.
Director: Steve McQueen
Writer: John Ridley (screenplay) | Solomon Northrup (original novel)
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Quvenzhané Wallis, Adepero Oduye, Michael Kenneth Williams, Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch
UK release date: January 10th 2014