“When we’re talking about the whipping of
slaves, you’ve got to show it. What does it mean to be strapped to a post and
beaten? This is not the time to turn or shut our eyes” - Steve McQueen, Film
The above quote from the September/October issue of Film Comment underscores the brutality that’s exhibited in Steve McQueen’s new film, 12 Years a Slave. Brutality, perhaps even embellishment of that brutality, may be the overarching element to McQueen’s filmography but shying away from the despair of reality has never been on the director’s mind. Instead, it’s that very subject - coping with despair - that makes McQueen’s films so intrinsically human. Whether it’s the political and spiritual discourse at the heart of Hunger or coping with the despair of social isolation through sexual release in Shame, McQueen has proven capable of conveying the very nature of suffering. Though it’s in 12 Years a Slave where this despair and suffering is funneled through a historically-inclined depiction of socially acceptable and politically justified behavior - essentially providing an ideal introduction to McQueen’s worldview.
The sensory overload at the start of 12 Years a Slave illicts confusion but is done as a means of conveying the arbitrary nature of its character’s suffering. Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is first seen as the title indicates: as a slave. But McQueen very carefully positions Northup throughout this brief montage as a man surviving a prolonged ordeal. It’s all in the title where the very concept of time comes into play. Otherwise, much of the opening of the picture functions as something of a stream of consciousness, whereupon Northup is moved from plantation to plantation, attempting to acclimate to new structures and masters. When narrative is introduced, whereby the audience understands the fact that Northup was a free man who was abducted and placed into slavery, it’s done so in a blunt and conventional fashion. McQueen establishes fact with surgical attentiveness, carefully constructing scenes of cerebral impact. Like Hunger and Shame, 12 Years a Slave may as well be considered a picture of carefully constructed scenes, all intimate in detail but loosely tied. It worked well in all of his prior films, but 12 Years a Slave serves as his finest example, in large part because his screenplay (written by John Ridley from Northup’s recount) accepts that, like memory, putting together a detailed account of a 12 year period is often recollected as pieces and fragments. In 12 Years a Slave, these fragments convey a state of duress, effectively capturing horrifying imagery that carries visceral, cerebral, historical and sociological significance.
David Denby of The New Yorker has already staked a claim that I wholeheartedly agree with: 12 Years a Slave is the best film made about slavery. Competition is light on this front, unfortunately. Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained offers perhaps the best counterpoint to what 12 Years a Slave achieves, but the differences in their tonal approach and recounts of history (or in Django’s case - anti-history) serves as two wholly different experiences. Other films, most notably Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple, cushion or completely omit the brutality of the time, opting for grandiose emotional flexing without the brawn to back up its narrative. What McQueen achieves in 12 Years a Slave is a testimonial of a singular perspective and the surrounding forces that impose their social hierarchy upon him. The whole picture has the work of a craftsman exposing a world’s betrayal against a population, never accusing and more often than not, pensive in his approach. But in the final minutes of the picture, everything crashes down in an emotional crescendo of unprecedented power. Screening for the first time in Chicago, the picture left many in tears, others completely stunned so as to remain seated long after the credits closed. McQueen, in his third feature, has crafted a masterpiece.