There’s a good reason why Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” is the early consensus Oscar frontrunner for best picture: Solomon Northup’s harrowing story is both real and relatable in these precarious times. And for cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, who also shot McQueen’s “Hunger” and Shame,” this represents the culmination of a visual simplicity built around the award-contending performances of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and Lupita Nyong’o.
“You don’t want to exploit the tale,” explains the native Texan who resides in the UK. “You’re creating a complete world that is believable of that period. But as you approach each scene, it becomes absolutely clear how it should be covered. You’re trying to give them the freedom within that space to find that performance.”
Informed by a shared aesthetic with McQueen as well as prior experience as a news cameraman who covered Lebanon, Bobbitt worked like mad to find something that would ring true and resonate with the viewer so we’re immersed in the story and thinking about nothing else.
“Yes, it is specifically about slavery but it is universal and relevant,” Bobbitt adds. “And you’re presented with a character, Solomon Northup, who has such strength and dignity and humanity. It’s a movie about love and fear at its most extreme. I was born in America and grew up oversees, but I never considered what slavery really meant. As I read the script, it was a revelation. It wasn’t an ideology: it was an economic structure and from that everything else followed.”
But the one scene in John Ridley’s script that visually stimulated the cinematographer’s imagination was the hanging because it was so emotive and embodied the essence of slavery. “Northrup’s hanging for the better part of the day is inconceivable. And yet nobody can touch him because he belongs to another man. And to see everyone else moving around behind him is such a powerful statement.”
The key to the hanging was finding the right composition. Again, it was a matter of classical simplicity. “Because your first thought is that no one can stand hanging for the whole day. The idea was to make it believable but also for the audience to viscerally become a party to that physical torture. But at the same time to be oddly beautiful so that it resonated and it wasn’t an image that you could just throw away.”
This beauty makes a striking counterpoint to the brutality. At no point did the filmmakers want this to seem like a documentary or be miserable-looking. “By making it beautiful, it makes it palatable for the audience. If we had made it ugly and gritty and desaturated, I don’t think the audience would stay with it. There would be no hope and the look comes from the story. These plantations have an inherent natural beauty and to defy that would be a lie.”
And the only way to achieve such authentic beauty, according to Bobbitt, was with film, not digital. He used the ArriCam LT with Cook S4 lenses. “Because of the epic nature, there was no question that it was to be on film. Film gives you so many things for free. It’s a shame that film is disappearing. We have been so privileged to have the choice and now the choice is being taken away. Choice is what everyone wants. It’s what governments and democracies and economic theories are built on.”
The other crucial scene, of course, is the whipping of Patsey (Nyong’o) by Northup, done in one continuous take to grip us more viscerally, which has become a signature of McQueen’s ever since his acclaimed 16-minute discussion in “Hunger.”
“It’s the culmination of the horror against humanity,” Bobbitt recounts. “He’s forced to become complicit yet rise above it after Patsey has begged him to take her life. You know there is a love between them that’s not physical. Steve has explored the holding of the single frame in his artwork and his two previous films. There’s this realization that when you are presenting extreme violence, if you do not cut away or put an edit of any sort in, then the audience is not given an escape. So many films today induce emotion through editing and it doesn’t need to be that way.”
But Bobbitt’s favorite moment is a close-up of Northup at the two-thirds point with the trees out of focus behind him. The cinematographer was utterly transfixed while shooting it. “The interesting thing is that you’re projecting all of your emotions into his. And you’re wondering what he’s thinking: It’s loss, fear, compassion for others, an element of hope. And his face isn’t moving until it turns and looks into the camera, and suddenly it’s like a knife to your heart. All of those emotions just come through. It’s remarkable because your compassion and love for him is sealed at that moment and he shows such dignity. It’s such a powerful, simple, little moment.”
It’s about the primacy of performance, courtesy of Ejiofor, which helps us better comprehend the inhumanity of slavery up close. But the way the cinematographer captures it is primal. It’s just one reminder why the very hot Bobbitt (“The Place Behind the Pines,” Neil Jordan’s “Byzantium,” and Spike Lee’s “Oldboy” remake) is very much in the Oscar running.