The opening scene of 12 Years a Slave is startlingly tragic for both the viewer and its protagonist, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), renamed Platt upon being sold into slavery, but it’s also effective in its smallness and intimacy. Shown supine on the hard, wooden surfaces sleeping with fellow slaves, Platt is awakened by a young woman who forces his hand on her breast and pushes it down her body so that he will finger her. He relents, at least momentarily; she watches him with an unimaginable despair that turns into temporary pleasure, and he watches her back with a similarly unknowable sadness. This is the first of many scenes in the film in which director Steve McQueen masterfully articulates the necessity of a character demanding a level of control and power when forced into contexts as depraved as slavery. The woman doesn’t look to Platt for physical intimacy; she just needs to be touched, and knows she can simultaneously trust him and exploit his humane temperament to do it without him hurting her.
12 Years a Slave is based on Northrup’s real-life story, on how the well-established musician and family man was conned and abducted by slave traders, stripped of his papers, sold to a slaver many states south of his hometown, and told to keep quiet about his education and pedigree, lest it cause trouble for him. The film continues McQueen’s Foucauldian preoccupation with the demoralization of society’s power structures. Hunger, from 2008, examined the effect of stripped empowerment in imprisonment, focusing on Bobby Sands’s use of his body as a political weapon. Shame, from 2011, explored sex addiction, but was less interested in the psychological manifestations than its socio-cultural origins, zeroing in on the subtle, ubiquitous importance of gender performativity and social scripts.
With this film, McQueen successfully tackles a subject that’s difficult to represent on screen with originality; he does so without resorting to the shallow signifiers of simulated violence so vicious it could have been seen as gratuitous. The human debasement depicted here is downright horrifying. Watch slave seller Theophilus’s (Paul Giamatti) smarmy sales pitch in his house, with slaves standing statuesque and naked before amused white to-do customers who smack their buttocks and comment on their physical features as if buying livestock. Watch slave master Epps (Michael Fassbender) force Platt to whip a fellow slave, holding a gun to Platt’s head when he doesn’t use enough force. Given the complacency of every character in these scenes (including slaves, who are forced into such a position), the film portrays how these horrible acts weren’t only tolerated, but, given their regular occurrence and integration into societal norms, viewed as completely normal.
Using his signature visual composition and deafening sound design, McQueen portrays the harrowing realism of Northrup’s experience and the complicated relationships between master and slave, master and master, slave and slave. The film’s most fascinating scenes explore the phenomenon of favoritism and the use of language in defining the scarce rights and dignities of African-American slaves, like the black mistress who tries to sell a younger female slave on the benefits of being her master’s concubine. With her nose looking down at the serfs around her, the mistress smugly tells the young woman she could easily come to “manage them all” if she got into her master’s good graces. Such characters say and do horrendous things, but the film isn’t trying to make some blanket criticism against the different strategies used by American slaves; instead it shows that a complete void and desperation for humane treatment changes people into justifying their actions.
Solomon’s treatment by his different owners is also revelatory in highlighting the wide spectrum with which Americans tolerated, enforced, and reified slavery. His first master, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), approaches his serfs with a modicum of human dignity, and when Solomon impresses him with his hard work and intelligence, Ford gifts him a violin and gives him special treatment and protection. His last owner, the alcoholic, abusive cotton farmer Epps, sees the value of his human livestock purely as a labor resource; they’re distinguishable solely by the pounds of cotton they pick a day. Epps sees their “kind” as an unnatural blight in the human race and when his crops are ruined by a plague he superstitiously blames the “black animals” for bringing bibilical scorn to his fields and sells them off. The film is adept at showing how the slavers’ hateful descriptions of their victims are more than simply pejorative or demeaning; like the whips inflicted on the slaves’ backs, the words render their recipients helpless and deterred from fighting for their own survival. Early on in his abduction, Platt claims he wants to live, not survive, and break out of his bondage as soon as possible, but he quickly realizes his ideation is naïve when a fellow slave is killed for trying to escape.
The film is titled 12 Years a Slave possibly because otherwise we wouldn’t know how long Platt is held captive, as there are no indicators of time’s passing, underscoring the limbo-like nature of enslavement. Indeed, when Platt is finally able to communicate with his connections in Washington, there’s no telling that his latest attempt would actually be successful, and the dispirited Platt doesn’t expect it to be. Yet his promising conversation with a sympathetic, pro-abolitionist Canadian carpenter, Samuel (Brad Pitt), gives him the first taste of optimism in years. In one striking, long take of Ejiofor’s face up close, his expression is virtually impenetrable, but there may be a glimmer of renewed hope in his eyes, which are otherwise inky and marred by the countless tragedies he’s experienced. Lost in thought, Platt looks confused and hesitant by the rekindled optimism. The amorphous nature of his expression and the serene, static atmosphere of this shot encapsulate McQueen’s refined, subtle cinema, in which the hint of an incipient, microscopic feeling connotes an entire spectrum of meaning and emotion.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 5—15.