’12 Years a Slave’ an unwavering glimpse at Antebellum South


“12 Years a Slave”

Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Lupita Nyong’o

Directed by: Steve McQueen

Grade: A

Dangling from a noose, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) tiptoes in the mud until sundown, fighting strangulation. While the cicadas buzz overhead and children laugh in the tall grass, Solomon — or Platt, as the overseers have dubbed the once-prominent freeman from Saratoga — steals breaths. Breathing had been one of few liberties afforded to him since he was abducted and sold into slavery in the pre-Civil War United States.

This is possibly the hardest scene to watch in Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” — quite a superlative considering the brute force of the movie. McQueen lets the camera linger in this scene and others, panning across a fairytale sunset over silhouetted trees in Louisiana, while in the background, men scream and whips crack, spraying the air with a mist of blood and sweat.

McQueen hammers these kinds of juxtapositions to convey the normalcy of insanity governing the Antebellum South. For 130 minutes, viewers fidget and wrench, uncomfortable in their own skin. McQueen has made a name for himself in the more avant-garde circles for his unapologetic portraits of the despondent. As in his two previous films, he wants us to know the strangle of despair. Just how much can a man take before the noose wins?

McQueen’s last movie, “Shame,” starring Michael Fassbender, has a similar sort of bruising grace, but far less stopping power. It’s just not close enough for us. “Shame” chronicles the psychological tempest of an upper-class sex addict in the city — not the easiest character to feel sorry for. Unlike “12 Years a Slave,” it doesn’t have the unfortunate resonance.

The lead character of “Shame” is too much of a case study, though Fassbender skillfully plays it with a muted-to-fierce juggling act that he also brings to “12 Years a Slave”—but he’s no Solomon.

Solomon’s saga — by no means any more familiar to us, who enjoy iPhones and liberty — has cadence with stories of unrelenting angst, a man drowning by circumstance and hate. It’s not a new story, but it digs deeper than any slavery movie has before.

Like “The Shawshank Redemption,” McQueen’s movie gives a ground-floor ear to a 30,000-foot issue. In both films, the wrongly imprisoned — first outward and explicit in their torment and frustration, wearing their defiance like shackles — retreat within themselves. Their prison becomes a battle of self-preservation. On his way to the first slave trade post along the Mississippi, Solomon proclaims, “I don’t want to survive. I want to live.”

But for the 12 long years he journeys the bowels of slavery, he can barely survive.

Unlike the other slaves, numb to their captivity like caged animals, Solomon is burdened with an education and knowledge of the outside world. He once appreciated the arts. He was a skilled violinist. He had societal ambitions. He knew which fork to use for the salad and how to bow to gents with top hats in the courtyard. He knew the joy of coming home to his family after a long day — the warmth of his wife and the smell of his children. He knew true freedom.

Solomon bounces between plantations, immediately standing out for his intelligence and insolence. Even when silent, he exudes a quiet dignity. Solomon’s steely eyes and furrowed brow dig into the slavers, and he pays for it. Ejiofor plays the role with uncertainty, frustration and calculation, making Solomon’s imprisonment that much more unbearable.

After a brief stint with a somewhat empathetic, but no less decadent, plantation owner played by Benedict Cumberbatch, during which he finds himself dangling from a noose, plodding in the mud for his life, Solomon is sent to the fields of hell.

Only Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) will take him in. The scripture-hurling, hard-drinking slave-breaker who incarnates everything morally abject about the time and place immediately has it out for his overly composed new piece of property who has a reputation for thinking.

It’s clear McQueen trusts Fassbender completely, letting him run away with the character, a shadow of a human, confused by his uncontrollable sadism and neurosis. Epps’ violent obsession with one of the women he owns, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), reflects the contempt he feels for himself.

In one of the most unnerving torture scenes you’ll ever see, he unbarks her back with a whip because she tried to use soap for the first time in months. He raped her the night before. Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson) had wanted Patsey to gag from her own stink. Jealousy, among a cotton field of other latent psychological matchsticks, ignites the slavers into fits of wrath and lunacy.

Epps uses the Bible — grossly contorted and maladjusted beyond recognition — as his moral compass. Like the narrow-minded of today, the white population below the Mason-Dixon Line in the 19th century hid behind it. The word of God justifies, absolves and most importantly, persecutes the wicked — back then: blacks.

McQueen waits until the third act to give scripture another chance.

Bass of Ontario (Brad Pitt, of course), a carpenter with a full beard and hair to his shoulders, has been traveling this land for the better part of 20 years. A rare white abolitionist in the south, he asks Epps, “Do you really think black or white matters on the day of judgment?”

Solomon gazes up at Bass, blurred by the Louisiana sun haloing around him, with almost as much wary intrigue as Epps. Epps sees a dumb Yankee, out of his sorts and out of line. Solomon sees deliverance: an idea rare to a time and place. 12 years for one man, but irrevocably carved into the ethos of a nation.