12 Years a Slave (London Film Festival 2013)
The gala screening for 12 Years a Slave comes two days after Philomena received the red carpet treatment, continuing a trend for high-profile films adapted from memoirs. Philomena is a story told by a journalist who jokes his integrity prevents him writing human-interest stories – but if he did, “evil is good... story-wise.” 12 Years a Slave differs: the evils of slavery do make a perversely watchable story, but a more important one told from the victim’s point of view.
Steve McQueen adapts his third film from Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir and continues the director’s analysis of human obstacles (the guards of Hunger, and one’s own body in Shame). Like other slavery dramatisations, extra weight is unavoidable considering modern audiences are still uncomfortable with such a dark spot of history taking place less than two centuries ago. Just take Django Unchained, which managed to be thought-provoking despite the filmmaker’s kindergarten mindset.
Chiwetel Ejiofor should already be practising Oscar acceptance speech for his role as Solomon, a black free man with a wife and three children in New York. Solomon, a competent violinist, meets with two men for some paid work at a posh restaurant in 1841. He wakes up chained, stripped of smart attire, and sold to a slave owner without the chance to inform his family.
Solomon awakens from the kidnapping in a darkened room; McQueen obscures the edges, as if Ejiofor is acting on a stage. That idea of performance continues throughout as different slave owners share a love for forcing their prisoners to sing songs and clap along. Solomon expresses gratitude to one of his owners for the chance to play violin – at the peak of plantation existence, he is still on show.
For the less fortunate, hangings are seemingly a spectacle: a warning that slaves should behave, and a vulgar power trip. The most uncomfortable scenes involve public torture: a noose heightened an inch within survival, a slave-on-slave whipping, and so on. One plantation-owning couple, played by Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson, describe their slaves as expensive property, implying Solomon and others are an extension to their mansion.
Solomon’s various masters are thoroughly detestable, but characterised by the script with aggravated motives disguised as flimsy excuses – many of which are unchallenged because of convenient racism and economical hierarchies. Benedict Cumberbatch is a preacher and Solomon’s first owner, with the pair developing a rapport that’s ultimately futile: when Solomon fights back against a vindictive instructor (Paul Dano), the religious owner sells him on to a crueller buyer.
Fassbender’s role as Edwin Epps, Solomon’s new master, makes him the film’s most notable villain, which is startling considering the 134 minutes are populated by a series of brutal white men (others include Scoot McNairy and Paul Giamatti). Edwin’s psychological misery is inflicted upon the slaves, particularly a young woman played with the heartbreaking innocence of Lupita Nyong’o.
However, 12 Years a Slave is more nuanced than sticking in Edwin as a “main evil guy”. Equally accountable are the watching white bystanders, whose actions are more based upon pretend ignorance than self-loathing. (The exception is a sympathetic carpenter portrayed by Brad Pitt, who happens to be one of the film’s main producers, although that’s a piece of casting for a different discussion.)
A piece of art can never capture the horrors of slavery, so I’ll refrain from joining the chorus declaring 12 Years a Slave “important” – one man’s tale, true or not, can’t define the large-scale suffering. It is, however, a non-cynical reminder of the depths of human cruelty, especially at a time when racism is still a worldwide issue. McQueen avoids the tameness of Schindler’s List by increasing shot-lengths of the most painful moments; Pitt’s screen presence is minimised to evade the trap of historical self-assurance. The torture is physical and psychological: Solomon can read and write, but risks death if anyone knows; every part of existence, even pride, becomes a punishable offence.
12 Years a Slave is making its European premiere as the London Film Festival’s Accenture gala screening. More information can be found here.
133 mins approx