12 Years A Slave is a devastating experience. I don’t think I was prepared to watch this film. I don’t know if anyone can ever be. But we must watch it as it is one of the most important films ever made. Important because it is based on an important chapter in history. Its importance in terms of cinema is elicited by the fact that this is the first film that depicts the reality of slavery. Moreover, this is a poetic and elegant piece of filmmaking. It’s not just a great film but great art.
It is based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup, published in 1853, a few years before the American Civil War. Solomon Northup, played by the unflinching Chiwetel Ejiofor, is a free African-American but is kidnapped and further enslaved by white plantation owners. The plot of the film is straightforward. It is what happens to him and others around him that unnerves you. The film is graphic and violent. It lays no stone unturned. There is one brutal scene with Solomon being tortured and in the background we see people continuing with their daily chores. Everybody is looking away. There is no dialogue needed to tell us what this scene meant. It is what America has done to the darkest chapter in history.
There is a shot; it is my favorite shot in the film. We see Solomon’s face as the camera lingers on. His fate hangs by a thread, he seems helpless and then – he looks right at us. I couldn’t look at him. I had to look away and then I looked back and straight into his eyes. I knew I must not look away. In a lesser film, this would take you out of the experience but here it directly attaches you to the plight of Solomon. He asks you questions with that stare. Questions that differ for every individual.
There is a head count of good actors – Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Sara Paulson and finally, Brad Pitt. These characters could have been “black or white” but the script doesn’t resort to cheap clichés. Cumberbatch, plays Robert Ford, the most interesting one of the lot. He is the nice guy but he owns slaves like everyone else. Fassbender plays the evil villain – Edwin Epps. His performance gets under your skin. It is easy to hate Epps but Ford is that complicated character that reflects the people of today. Those who are blind to being a part of the atrocity.
The one character that took shook me and moved me from the inside was Patsey. Lupita N’yongo’s performance is astounding. There is a shot near the end where we see her, out of focus in the background, and she faints. I was disturbed through most of the film but this is when my tear ducts gave up.
There have been a number of films based on slavery. The Birth of a Nation (1915) is the opposite of a film like this one. While it is important as the birth of filmmaking technique took place with it, it is also despicably racist and glorifies the Ku Klux Klan. Spielberg has made three films – Amistad (1997), The Color Purple (1985) and Lincoln (2012). These are all great movies but none show what it was like to be a slave in the 19th century. Last year’s Django Unchained (2012) is historically fantastical and not an accurate account of slavery.
Gone with the Wind (1939) is the only Best Picture winner with slaves in it. The slaves are always in the background and mostly shown as an accepted societal norm. The sentimental sugarcoating of Driving Miss Daisy (1989) is admirable at best. In the Heat of the Night (1967) is the only Best Picture winner with a black character in the lead. Crash (2005) was the Academy trying to show they are against racism more than rewarding a great film. Now it is time. If there is any justice, this film will be rewarded as Best Picture come Oscar night. These awards are not a barometer of important or good cinema, but acceptance of films like these in society matters. The mythical high prize leads to more open-minds and shows collective acceptance. It also helps when you have a film that is worthy indeed.
Steve McQueen had the courage to honor his ancestors. His previous films - Hunger (2008) was about a man on a hunger strike and Shame (2011) was about the pain of sexual addiction. He is interested in torture, which human beings inflict on themselves and others around them. His films aren’t easy to watch. His approach is detached, which is probably the only way a viewer will be able to take it.
The most ingenious aspect of McQueen’s filmmaking process is that he never manipulates the viewer’s emotions. This is not a history lesson; it is an experience lesson. We are transported back into the mid-1800s and made to go through what the slaves went through. We watch what they felt. We feel what they felt. Watching this film is painful but not even close to what the real pain might have been. It's almost as if you aren’t watching it but witnessing it.
When the film ended, it felt as if my face had been hit by something. The tears were flowing but not out of sadness or relief. I was speechless, literally. It’s difficult to describe what you feel after watching a film like this one. If anything, it’s proof of the artistry behind the making of the film.
12 Years a Slave is not just one of the best films of 2013 but one of the most important films ever made. This is not recommended viewing, but mandatory viewing.view less