by Danny Marroquin
12 Years a Slave opens Friday at select OKC theaters. A few of the last paragraphs contain potential spoilers.
British director Steve McQueen almost didn’t get to read the book “12 Years a Slave,” the story of Solomon Northup, an African American violin virtuoso who was lured out of New York to play a gig, kidnapped in Washington D.C., and sent to Louisiana to work as a slave laborer.
No one in his creative circle knew about the story, and McQueen admits in interviews he was a little ashamed he hadn’t found it sooner. But in the round about way that knowledge flows, his wife had given the book when he had a creative block in trying to make a film about slavery. His first two films were about the 1981 Hunger Strike in Ireland and a sex addict. And now he has made this movie about Northup with the hope that he’ll create an awareness that will help the book become a part of the national curriculum, right along side the likes of “Diary of Anne Frank.”
In a recent interview with journalist Tavis Smiley and college professor Cornell West, McQueen asked point blank for their help in this goal. They didn’t make him any promises. But surely these two public personalities in African American life recognized that this British-Dutch-Grenadian experimental film artist (Warhol was an early influence) had accomplished something remarkable, something Hollywood has failed to do repeatedly over the past 100 years. He presents the experience of what it’s like to not be a slave and then to live as one in America. We can argue about “why race matters” with each news event, and at any cocktail party that calls for it, but the shock this film doles out seems to indicate that hardly any of us have the right experience in mind to be having that conversation. Experience is the mother of knowledge. Without it, our opinions are composed of interesting, but abstract, concepts that we have learned from books or movies. Most of the time we deposit these “experience-free” truths into the abstract forum of the Internet.
But I must back away now before turning the conversation race-ward. I emphasize McQueen’s outsider angle in this context. The three top performers (Fassbender, Ejiofor, Nyong’o) in this film are also not Americans. It’s striking. McQueen said he made the movie because he had never seen this kind of story. Why hadn’t he? He may have seen Steven Spielberg’s movie “Amistad,” for example, but he would have only been bruised by the first quarter, while the rest dealt with colorfully idealistic white lawyers and politicians. Why did the filmmakers, marketers, producers and public audiences who saw “Amistad” only agree to be bruised for twenty minutes and not the whole two hours? Is it because experience truly hurts?
This is to say “12 Years a Slave” is a violent movie that’s going to unsettle some, but it does so in a disciplined way that reckons with the seriousness of violence. It’s not entertainment. It’s an education. However what illuminates this movie so much more is that it’s not exactly trying to preach or educate. What’s as admirable as the filmmakers’ and actors’ courage in making a tough-to-market picture are the simple principles which guide it along.
The plot of Solomon Northrop’s story is basic and a classic. It’s about a talented hero who wants to get home to his family, like Homer’s Odysseus. Right there it’s not a movie about slavery, it has universal spirit attached: the journey we all take.
Through Solomon’s Odysseus-like travels, from plantation to plantation, he runs into colorful characters, well, albeit, the most pronounced of them are of a mucous color. “12 Years a Slave” in this sense is not a far jump from Steve McQueen’s other art house achievements. In “Shame” McQueen used Michael Fassbender as lead actor to meditate on the spiritual decay that happens when one man’s sexual perversities run amok and go unexamined. Some unchecked perversities under the simmering Fassbender here become a terror to Solomon (called Platt in his slave life). Fassbender’s Edwin Epps is a man whose deepest sexual, and perhaps heart, desires are geared toward one of his slaves, an expressive and lovely Patsy (Lupita Nyong’o). And because of this, his wrath and his confusion become the most damaging element Solomon encounters in his travels through the slave trade.
Fassbender binds Edwin’s mix of passion and ugly confusion so well that he enters a sphere of complex being that none of the other actors in this movie can touch. And it’s one of the layered aspects that makes “12 Years a Slave” a rigorous human study before anything else. Paul Dano plays the other mean slave driver. God bless him for showing up in yet another American Masterpiece, but once again his powers are easily bested, this time by Fassbender, who seems destined to be the next Daniel Day Lewis. Chiwetel Ejiofor could and should be nominated for an Oscar for anchoring this movie. But it’s Fassbender’s violent, weird ebbs and flows that are the new country for actors to behold here.
The other simple and savvy thing McQueen does is let the events of the story dictate the visual style. Using one edit to show two separate events that open the film, we can see what sex is like with a loved one and then what it’s like in the unnatural setting of Solomon’s servitude. For the hardest whip-lashing scene to watch, we have a 10 minute long shot, matching the gravity of the moment. Easy enough concept, keep the camera moving on the action. But to have everyone involved technically and emotionally on the right cues seems to be an amazingly hard task. The effect on the viewers is that they are intensely in the moment. When you interrupt that long shot with a cut, you take the audience out of real time, and it gives them a false sense of reality.
For as remarkably disciplined and unsentimental as the filmmaking is, I still often had the feeling I was being carried along something ethereal. With increased pain, avenues open up into the spirit world. I had the impression that I was walking in the shoes of a people who had been dropped into a strange land, whose gatekeepers were polite on the surface, but largely unmerciful in that madcap scramble for survival and gain; not bad men all, but largely unenlightened to the dimensions of human suffering. The more McQueen reveals of this suffering, the more we take part in the spiritual test an entire underclass has been through and is going through. The more we take part, the more we can be purged (the practical function of dramas in ancient Greek times).
The man on the hero’s end of this tale isn’t exactly exempt from the test either. Solomon is a hero but also, being human, prideful in his strength. He curses a woman for weeping too much over her lost children. At one point a fellow slave asks him to take her life. He says he cannot do that “Ungodly” task. His assurance of righteousness is met with the woman’s frightening urgency. She argues that it would be mercy to kill her. The test gets harder, and he will later be asked by his master to lash the woman. We see Solomon’s face later and know he is asking himself hard questions about Godliness. When the loveless Edwin Epps looks at his failing cotton crops he thinks it’s the slaves bringing God’s bad luck. He has no way to see that past his own demons somewhere his behavior might be incurring this wrath.
When the representative from the film company asked me for feedback, I could only say that I felt grateful. McQueen showed me something I had never seen before.
’12 Years a Slave’ opens Friday. Click here for showtimes.