Every so often, a film comes along that serves as a reminder of the horrors and atrocities humankind can inflict upon itself and the world. Schindler's List, Apocalypse Now, and United 93 come to mind. 12 Years a Slave can be added to the canon of films that portray the brutal realities of human history. It is devastating and heart-wrenching to behold. It is also important. Every American should see this film.
12 Years a Slave tells the real-life story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living in Saratoga, New York with his wife and two children. A talented musician, Northup accepts an invitation from two men on their travels to Washington DC to be part of their entertainment troupe. After a night of heavy drinking and celebration, Northup awakens to find himself in chains, tied to a floor, kidnapped by black market slave traders from the southern States. His cries against the injustice go unheeded, and he finds himself in a living nightmare--he is stripped, beaten, and sold into slavery in Louisiana, hundreds of miles away from his family and freedom.
Let's pause here for a moment: can you imagine this happening to you? Abducted, abused, all freedoms stripped from you. Your family knows nothing of your whereabouts. You are surrounded by pain and death and injustice. Even Solomon's name is changed; his entire identity is wiped away in a series of painful blows. Because of its emphasis on one man's personal true experience with American slavery, 12 Years a Slave offers an invitation into the nightmare that existed in America only 160 years ago.
Moving from owner to owner, Solomon finds himself as the "property" of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a cruel and malicious man who treats the slaves like chattel, beating them daily if they don't pick enough cotton from his fields and forcing them to dance around his dining room as his personal entertainment. Epps is one of the darkest filmic antagonists I've witnessed, embodying the depraved spirit of the south with his drunken escapades and cold ability to treat men and women like animals. Much of the latter half of 12 Years a Slave is focused on Solomon's attempts to keep himself alive in the hands of Epps, who seems all-too-eager to stick a knife in Solomon should the idea fancy him in the moment. The acting performances of Ejiofor and Fassbender--along with newcomer Lupita Nyong'o as Pastey, a quiet, tortured slave girl and the object of Epps' affections--are some of the most powerful and meaningful of the year, and certainly will be recognized come awards season.
Filmmaker Steve McQueen has shown previous stories of a man's body undergoing pain and brokenness. His filmic debut, Hunger, tells the story of Bobby Sands, an Irish political prisoner who died on a hunger strike in a northern Irish prison. It's a difficult film to watch as the prisoners are stripped and beaten, their bodies abused by prison guards, with Sands growing increasingly emaciated as the strike persists. McQueen's second film, Shame, focuses on Brandon, a charming and handsome man living addicted to sex in New York City. I haven't seen Shame, but on all accounts, it does little to revel in Brandon's exploits, instead portraying a man trapped inside his own stripped body, a slave to his own libido and empty of any sense of freedom or hope for love and connection. McQueen seems fascinated with bodies--what they can withstand as punishment, their experience when stripped of freedom, the skin and flesh and bone. There are numerous horrific scenes in 12 Years a Slave where the camera quietly lingers as human bodies are ravaged with beatings, whippings, and execution. While some may claim this as an artistic version of torture-porn, McQueen never expresses delight in the experience; the camera hovers and stares, and we are forced to be witnesses to the gruesome realities of our history.
This willingness to stare into the darkness of humanity is contrasted with glimmers of light and hope, quiet scenes of the sun peering through trees on Louisiana bayous, or the spiritual hymns of the slaves about redemption and exodus. There is a brief scene where Solomon is gazing outward, waiting and watching and wondering about his freedom, his eyes slowly scanning the horizon, when he suddenly stares directly into the camera for a brief moment and his eyes lock with the audience. Then he continues to turn and gaze and watch and wait. The moment is no more than a second--I may have even imagined it--but that stare, that gaze, is a powerful moment of peering into the soul of a man longing for freedom. American history has a dark side, and 12 Years a Slave dares to force us to look it directly in the eye.
Despite the freedom granted to the American slaves, our nation and world are still caught in a cycle of injustice. Young women are exploited in the sex slave trade. Teens are exploited by our media-soaked culture and turned into objects and consumers. Young black men continue to fill prison cells as their neighbourhoods continue in a cycle of poverty. Yet there is a certain hope for each of these situations, because while 12 Years a Slave reminds us of human depravity, it also reminds us of human endurance and the patient resolve to overcome injustice for the sake of freedom. Where is God in all this? As white slave-owners passionately quote Bible verses to keep their slaves in order, the Spirit of freedom hovers silently, weeping with those who weep and giving strength to those who seek true justice for the marginalized and oppressed.