As it hits the UK number one spot, why 12 Years a Slave is “both horrid and humane, both art and history.”
12 Years a Slave makes a kind-of music out of melancholy. It presents an abhorrent crime as exactly that, but manages to find a certain beauty along the way, too. It is a film both overtly brutal and flagrantly harrowing, but there’s a heart in it as well; it’s hard to see it beneath the lashings and the lynchings, but it’s there, pulsing slowly throughout the film as our hero Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) refuses to be shackled into history a slave. Indeed, 12 Years a Slave is, above all, a humane film.
It’s hard to see it beneath the lashings and the lynchings, but 12 Years a Slave is, above all, a humane film
That is humane is both senses of the word – humane in the way the horrors, at times, are perforated by acts of human kindness (by Brad Pitt’s Canadian abolitionist, for example), and humane in the way the film acts as a branch of learning, thus having a civilising effect on an audience whom might not know anything about America’s history of slavery. That isn’t to say that this film – or any fiction film for that matter – should be used as an accurate barometer of historical events, but rather suggests that 12 Years could be used an as an educational tool as well as an artistic one.
That notion is perhaps better suited to documentary, however, and despite 12 Years a Slave’s source text being a non-fiction one, the fact remains that the film is primarily a work of art; and what an artwork it is. Director Steve McQueen, along with regular cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, has produced a film visually similar to his previous feature films: 2008’s Hunger and 2011’s Shame. The difference comes in the way that his trademarks – the long take, the wide-angle lens – have become correlative with a more historical suffering.
To explain: Shame, for example, contains an extended close-up take of the protagonist’s sister (Carey Mulligan) singing, in its entirety and with utter gorgeousness, New York, New York. It is a sublime piece of film making and one of the finest pieces of cinema in recent memory, but the pain exhibited by the character is strictly the character’s pain. We feel it but we do not necessarily share it.
We realise that what is happening on screen actually happened. This is art meeting history and forming an alliance
Consider now a similar scene in 12 Years a Slave, as Ejiofor’s Solomon Northup is subjected to an analogous close-up, an extended singing take as he joins his fellow prisoners in a solemn, but still quite rousing rendition of an old biblical song. As with the aforementioned scene in Shame, the character’s eyes begin to well, and we feel their pain. Yet here we share it as well. Not because we are slaves or have been subjected to slavery, but because the vast majority of us do know about the history of slavery. We know that, not so long ago, there existed an evil that was widely accepted, an act not deemed illegal until the Emancipation Proclamation said it was so.
And that should be enough to make us feel the gut-punch of the scene a little more, should be enough to shake us out of our comfort zone and rattle our teeth as we realise that what is happening on screen, in one way or another, actually happened. Imagine too, being an African-American and watching this film, taking in that long take – the task would become doubly difficult. This is art meeting history and forming an alliance.
As always, a note on the key performances is necessary, for they are vital and astonishing to a man: Hunger and Shame alumni and McQueen favourite Michael Fassbender continues to prove he’s one of the greatest actors alive by turning in a visceral, voracious performance as Northup’s most sadistic slave master, whilst, on the other hand, Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers one of the great performances of our time in playing the eponymous slave of the title. He is by turns angry and passive, mad but accepting, strong and weak and beaten but never, and this is crucial, broken.
Steve McQueen is a master of the body, of using it as his canvas on which to work, and it’s never worked better than it has here
Steve McQueen is a master of the body, of using it as his canvas on which to work, and it’s never worked better than it has here with Ejiofor. Whether it be the graceful way he strolls about in the safety of his New York neighbourhood or the drooping, dragging, almost ape-like manner in which he is forced to first wash himself as a slave, Ejiofor and McQueen present Solomon as a man whose body has been twisted and moulded into the circumstance required of it. And that, in brief, is 12 Years a Slave, a film both horrid and humane; both performed and lived; both art and history as it proves itself an artwork like no other.
All images: Fox Searchlight Pictures