On his motivation for making 12 Years A Slave, Steve McQueen says with his usual sardonic wit, “I wanted to make a slave movie.”
Yes, 12 Years A Slave is rife with the markers of a slave movie: mute negro masses, violent lashings, broken skin, objectified black bodies, chains, negro spirituals, self-pity. And my gut instinct resisted this iconography that usually asks me to feel blanket emotion, these visual markers that usually make black pain easy… because how can I not feel anything here? I am resistant to most war movies, Holocaust movies, and African genocide movies for the same reason.
But I am thankful McQueen did not break free of this iconography. He uses these markers to keep us rooted in both the physical and—more interestingly—the existential restrictions of the time.
12 Years is refreshingly not a slave revolt movie. It is not the rhythmic fever dream of Hunger, and thankfully so. Because in this era we are far enough from Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, far enough from the Civil War. By keeping us firmly rooted in the tense twists and turns of a largely uncaring world, McQueen crafts a slave narrative filled with specific interiority and existential significance. We have little poetic respite—though Sean Babbitt’s cinematography is literally breathtaking—we have no comfort in the distance of poetry. We must be drawn through the minutiae of obstacle after obstacle, punishment after punishment, betrayal after betrayal.
And it is physically draining.
12 Years A Slave is not a pity party, it is a heart-clenching horror film. It is not a sad film (because I am not distanced from these characters), it is tense and draining and gut-wrenching and uncomfortable. In the horror tradition, the objectification of pain—rather than “poeticizing’ of their pain—is used to stunning result. As Solomon makes Sisyphean attempt after Sisyphean attempt at his escape, we are drawn through a tense and chilling journey with little respite.
I tell you, black pain in most other films is easy. Here, in the high altitude hills of Telluride, my heart was threatening to stop.
This is its greatest triumph.
I have never felt turned on during a slave movie; I have never giggled at a slapstick tumble during a slave movie; I have never felt so powerless and simultaneously refreshed during a slave movie. This audience involvement—borne from the complex ways in which we are asked to partake in the drama—is what makes this different from any other slave narrative I have ever seen.
Where Django was distanced in its postmodernity, where Lincoln was an apologist retelling that relegated blackness to naive dignity, this new installment in America’s current obsession with slave narratives successfully achieves moments of—heck, rolling landscapes of—interiority.
Despite its rigidly temporal title, McQueen is masterful in removing a sense of the passage of time. We traverse the 12 years through escape tactic after escape tactic, struggle after struggle. At no point do we feel that Solomon is making a teleological journey towards his escape, that he is laying down building blocks towards freedom. No the (admittedly anachronistic) American idea of upward movement is not available to him. His attempts often twist him back to where he began. In fact—in a fantastic move—we are only ever cognizant of time when Solomon returns home to see that his young children are now grown. My heart fell deep into my belly, “Oh shit! It’s been 12 years!”
As expected, the performances are just stunning. Most notable is newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, whose tempered treatment of both her character’s pain and sexuality evokes a specific existential melancholia. To see a negress accused of such a complicated emotion as insolence!
Michael Fassbender shines in yet another chillingly charismatic role (honestly, the McQueen-Fassbender duo can do no wrong). The star-studded cameo list does not disappoint.
And then there is Chiwetel Ejiofor. In all honesty, going in, I was worried about his interpretation of Solomon. He tends to play characters with such dignified black pain and I was fearful his role could easily slide into Oscar-pandering. But as Solomon sits stiff in the presence of white men, I am reminded painfully of the way in which my Ghanaian elders curl their Rs in the presence of white people.
I ask: Solomon, are you really free in this world?
Thanks to Ejiofor relentlessly holding on to the dignity of his character, I am free to question him as a subject and not an object: what character traits led Solomon to be sold? Does he take too much pride in praise from the white men around him? Why does he so believe in the legal system (procuring his free papers to prove his freedom)? As a freed black man, does he not question a legal system in which his kin are still enslaved? Because the film is so loyal and relentless in stripping him of the affect of his socialization, it is exhilarating to watch dignified Ejiofor go through the twists and turns of a character that is being robbed of his identity, humanity, psychology. His reaction to this is full-bodied, fluid, and heartbreaking.
Solomon’s psychology, which begins rife with flashbacks, is literally stripped of him. The flashbacks disappear to make way for mechanized bodies moving in perfectly-framed shots.
When Solomon finally gets his chance to escape, we finally see him as we haven’t been able to yet: a long, slow, closeup with the POV sounds of the lush bayou ringing on about him. He has his psychology—his humanity—back.
McQueen is masterful. He explores characters through their attitude in this restrictive world, thereby giving them a sense of agency. But it is suggested early on that, for slaves, all tactics at betterment have universally brought them to the same despairing place. Seeing how each person has reacted to this fate is refreshing and intensely human.
McQueen explores nuances of character and attitude without falling prey to the sentimentality with which we regard our ancestors’ struggle, the way in which we tend to unify their interiority. The intersection of these varying attitudes further intensifies the despair in a time right before the Underground Railroad, the Civil War, and Juneteenth.
With no end in sight, McQueen treats violence with finesse. He does not simply employ off-screen violence, he specifically shows the violence being enacted and keeps the recipient of this violence off-screen. A mother’s pleas to not be separated from her children are out of focus, her voice is off-screen as cold-faced slave owners barter; a young woman’s body is off-screen as we are see the contorting face of the slave owner; a woman’s cries ring above a pristine powder-colored church service. McQueen shows us the products of such violence in later scenes—scars, open gashes, bloodied eyes, broken skin—to achieve a peculiar objectification of the black body that evokes empathy, not sympathy.
Once again, my visceral disgust puts me in the story. Within this framework, we are asked to watch violent acts in long (looong!) takes with all other people in frame simply milling about and going on with their day. This violence is everyday. And the camera serves to heighten this relentless, cold objectivity in the face of suffering. It is chilling, I am stunned, I am begging for the sequence to stop. I do not feel pity, I feel visceral pain and discomfort.
And what is more powerful than that?
As I rose with the largely white, upper-class audience—sorry, gotta say it—into a standing ovation, I wondered if we were feeling the same kind of catharsis.
Ultimately, though McQueen’s usage of the slave narrative iconography is specific, it is still present. I am preparing myself to be stunned when, come awards season, this daring and heartfelt treatment of slavery will be assimilated into the sympathy and pity of “easy” black pain. I sincerely hope that the discourse will do justice to the fact that, in 12 Years A Slave, black pain is hard and draining and torturous and visceral.