Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Slave Narrative: 12 YEARS A SLAVE


Solomon Northup was a talented violinist who was hired to play for parties and other social gatherings near his home. He lived in upstate New York with his wife and three children. Because he was born in 1808 and was black, it is important to note that he was a free man. But that would not always be the case. British director Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, based on Northup’s memoir of the same name, tells the story of how, in 1841, this free man was kidnapped, taken to the South, and sold into slavery. It is not a film about slavery, but about a slave. In the process it becomes a catalogue of injustices that can only hint at the depths of depravity the American slave trade contained. Told wholly from a black perspective, the film belongs to a rich history of slave narratives, a harrowing literary genre that has rarely made the leap to the movie screen so intact. Too often softened and glamorized by interjecting noble white presence into the core of the narrative arc, this film finds at its center simply, powerfully, Mr. Northup. The kidnapping is only an extra layer of injustice, to most fully embody the tragedy of slavery and make thoroughly real how dehumanizing an institution it is.

Slavery is something that many Americans understand historically and academically, but here is a film that says look, feel the pain, understand. This is a film of unrelenting brutality. Though I sat through the whole film, I must admit to averting my eyes at the worst of the violence. A scene late in the film lingers on flesh torn from a slave woman’s back as the plantation’s master whips her. The bloody ripping and slicing is a monstrously effective visual that’s uncomfortable and upsetting. It feels honest, not exploitative of real world violence nor mean-spirited towards the audience. It’s simply presented, raw and exposed. It at times recalls Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ with its commitment to showing battered bodies, torn flesh, and logging blows of whips and cudgels. The sound design blasts these strikes out of the speakers loudly, rattling the audience’s eardrums with their force and violence. When Northup is first captured, he pleads for his freedom, citing his free man status. “Show us your papers,” the kidnappers snarl. When Northup cannot – nor could he move his manacled hands even if he had papers – his back is bludgeoned in one long take, each smack one of terrifying force, physically and aurally.

Viewed in conjunction with McQueen’s other films, the prison hunger strike procedural Hunger and sex addiction drama Shame, it’s clear he’s a director interested in the human body in relationship to the human soul and the limits past which both can be pushed. In 12 Years a Slave, the sins of the country’s moral negotiations are raked across the bodies of the enslaved, while others go about their business, aware, but unable or unwilling to help. In a harrowing moment of sustained painful suspense, McQueen’s camera watches for an agonizingly long period of time as a slave hangs from a noose on a low branch, saved only by standing and shifting on his tiptoes slipping in mud. On all sides, those who live on the plantation – black and white alike – continue their routines, eyes averted. In the distance, we can hear the sound of children playing.

There are no dates placed on screen to mark the passage of time. The title plainly states the narrative’s duration. We know that Solomon Northup will remain enslaved for 12 long, painful years, but we’re as lost in the accumulation of incident as he is. Time is a blur of terrors and anxiety that slowly gives way to reluctant resignation. He is trying to survive. At the center of the film is a monumental performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor, long a welcome screen presence in films as diverse as Inside Man, Love Actually, and Children of Men. Here, Ejiofor shows remarkable restraint, never overplaying the emotional journey, trusting the facts of the narrative and subtle shifts in his behavior and expression to sell the depths of horror Northup saw and the resilience Northup displayed. John Ridley’s script follows him from a slave market overseen by Paul Giamatti to several different plantations owned by the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, and Bryan Batt. Though there are some differences between them – some moderately kinder, others ruthlessly cruel – they all are doing their part to perpetuate poisonous beliefs and uphold a horrendous institution.

Though the film is pitched at a relentlessly grim and miserable abusive level, one can never feel prepared for the cruelty to come. McQueen’s use of carefully composed, sleek cinematography and studied framing (with his usual cinematographer Sean Bobbitt) doesn’t get in the way of the impact. When a plantation owner’s wife suddenly hurls a glass at a slave woman’s head, object making contact with skull with a sickening crack, it is startling. This is a world where that doesn’t seem out of the ordinary. And that’s what horrifying. The writing for and acting of the ensemble has a sense of overwhelming specificity. The film never stoops to viewing either blacks or whites homogenously. Much like the owners have their differences, we see here slaves who become favored (Alfre Woodard), who agitate for rebellion (Michael K. Williams), and who are singled out for specific abuses (Lupita Nyong’o). There’s a variety here in a film that finds much diversity in corners of history that too easily are reduced into types. It helps keep the film from finding false notes of victory. When Northup’s 12 years are up and he’s finally freed, he finds no retribution and only his own personal victory. As he’s driven away, he leaves every other character behind, still slaving or enslaved. 

We’re currently living through a time in this country in which a great many people find it politically convenient not to know things about our history, to play fast and loose with facts and behave cavalier towards context. We’re living in a time when people of a certain political persuasion can not only seriously speak lies like slavery was “a blessing in disguise” or that the South’s economy was not built on the backs of slaves, but have a great many people believe such erroneous sentiments. Here is a film that lays out the facts of history unblinking, in all its horror and heartbreak, in all its soul-draining sinfulness and tells us to look at just one story, to feel just a fraction of centuries of pain, and to see anew our history as it is recreated in front of our eyes.

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