I don't know if I've ever seen a film deal with slavery in the way that 12 YEARS A SLAVE does, and that's a good thing. The film is based on the 1853 autobiography of the same name by Solomon Northrup, a free black man from New York who in 1841 is abducted and sold into slavery. Here Solomon is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, whose expressive eyes are this film's secret weapon. Ejiofor establishes an immediate connection with the audience. We feel his pain in every scene - even when he doesn't speak. Ejiofor is probably a shoe-in for an Oscar nomination and after seeing this, he might have even displaced my previous front-runner, Tom Hanks for CAPTAIN PHILLIPS.
12 YEARS is an unsettling film because of how it's the rare film about slavery that feels first-person from the perspective of the oppressed. Usually, films set in the Civil War manage to center on a white protagonist who is of course, on the side of the righteous. Even when evil white slavers abound, those films manage at least one prominent progressive thinker. There's always a white man there fighting for what's right, metaphorically nodding his head at the antagonists and going, "These hillbilly assholes, amiright?"
We get no such relief in this film. The character we identify with is not some crusader who maintains a safe distance from the ugliness. Slavery is an evil, to be sure, but we're usually kept from the worst of it. John Ridley's screenplay and Steve McQueen's direction unfortunately don't afford us that separation. The film is told exclusively from Northrup's perspective. When he's given his first beating - the raw, brutal introduction to the fact that his life as a free man is over - we experience it almost as much as he does.
It's the sort of moment that makes one realize just how easy it is to have your own liberties taken from you. It's impossible to watch that scene and not put yourself in Northrup's shoes. The man beating him won't stop until Northrup ceases protesting that he's a free man. All he has to do to make it stop is admit he's a slave. In an action movie, our tough-guy hero would refuse to break, preferring death to debasing himself before his foe. But here, where every lash makes us wince in empathy, we understand why Northrup realizes it's futile to fight, even as we understand we'd have given in ourselves.
The film chillingly captures how quickly a life in bondage meant keeping one's head down, looking out for oneself, and not rocking the boat, even if it means turning a blind eye to the suffering of a fellow slave. Early on, Northrup is put on a boat bound for the south with several other slaves who have been wrongly kidnapped. At first, it appears three of these men might work together, realizing their mutual plight. However one of those slaves doesn't even make it to port alive. The other is reclaimed by his legal master almost as soon as they dock. Northrup calls after him as he rushes away, desperately hoping that the slave will tell his master that one of the other shackled men is a freeman. But it's futile, the slave's know they have no rights and so they have no inclination to stick out their necks for each other.
This scene is echoed throughout the film, first when a female slave - hysterical after being separated from her children - is led away into the woods by two of the slave overseers. By then, we know that a best case scenario for her fate there is pretty unpleasant. Northrup watches.. and does nothing. He continues going about his work. This is life on the plantation. If a slave wants to survive, he doesn't cause trouble for himself. It's an unconventional move for a film like this. It's the rare movie with the guts to show its hero standing by idly while a woman is dragged off to be beaten, raped and murdered.
This underlines another conceit of the film. Because we remain wedded to Northrup's experience throughout the film, we're not grated the respite of visiting life outside the plantation. There are no scenes of honorable men working to outlaw slavery. There are no scenes of Northrup's family trying to find it. In short - there is nothing that allows the audience hope that we will see a conclusion to this living nightmare.
In a movie like TAKEN, though we might understand it's a horrible fate for the teenage daughter to be sold into sexual slavery. As much as that might be the catalyst for the plot there, I don't know if the audience ever feels for the character. Indeed, the threat of sexual slavery is played like an abstract concept in TAKEN. It doesn't feel as unflinchingly visceral as Northrup's enslavement here does.
There is no escapism here. This is no fantasy. Last Oscar season I praised DJANGO UNCHAINED for providing a cathartic revenge fantasy against slavers and those who collaborated with them. This season I'm left to praise 12 YEARS A SLAVE for the opposite reason. We don't get to see the slave owners beaten and humiliated. There is no retribution against those who have gleefully dehumanized those they see as their "property." We feel every ounce of futility in the situation. In the rare moments when Northrup shows some defiance, our first impulse isn't to cheer, but to be concerned that he's putting himself at risk.
Indeed, the time comes when he does cross some of the slave overseers and they promptly lynch him. Though his attackers are chased off before he's fully strung up, the noose is pulled tight enough that Northrup must stand on his toes to get any slack. In an agonizing unbroken shot, we see him struggle to maintain his footing while the many other slaves continue to go about their business nearby. They willfully ignore his plight, for making trouble would only land them in the same predicament.
The film starts off being a study in how slave masters dehumanize their "property" and in this scene, it's fully demonstrated how effective that is. The slaves come to even see each other as unworthy of help or human decency. There is no empathy for him, and as we watch in horror, we remember how earlier, Northrup himself turned a blind eye to similar suffering.
I couldn't help but think that the hypothetical "studio version" of this concept would have Northrup as a man of great resolve who never breaks, always does the right thing, and who spends the movie actively planning how to escape. After all, cinematic narrative demands an active protagonist, doesn't it? There needs to be change in the character, a goal he's actively working for. Isn't that what we are lead to believe. Think of this version as "The Shawshank Redemption of slavery."
But that's not what we get at all. Northrup breaks. He surrenders to his circumstances because to do otherwise would provoke his death. It's a critical storytelling decision that that really drives home the enormity of the living hell of being a slave. McQueen wields that facet of the film with great care. If you don't walk out of this film moved by Northrup's experience, you might not have soul.
It would be simplistic to say this makes the film an extended exercise in the message "slavery is bad." I imagined some hardened cynics might claim the script isn't more profound than that, and it is here where I would counter that a film is "about" more than it is about. Years ago, I was quite critical of Crash, which for me, did amount to little more than a pretentious expression of the idea "Racism is everywhere and it's bad." The film was about as unsubtle as a jackhammer wielded by Ace Ventura. Every character seemed on the verge of breaking out into "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" from Avenue Q.
What keeps 12 YEARS A SLAVE from feeling equally heavy-handed is how personal it is. Crash proceeded from the extremely misguided notion that the only way to explore its theme was to show bigotry from all sides. The main cast included over a dozen characters in interlocking stories, all united by the theme of race. When that many characters share screentime, no one gets explored in depth, and thus everyone got reduced to an archetype (or stereotype if you're feeling ungenerous.) There was less viewer empathy because the narrative kept switching gears like a web-surfer falling down a Wikipedia rabbit hole.
12 YEARS A SLAVE is as deeply personal as any film I've seen this year. GRAVITY had the IMAX presentation and the 3D cinematography to draw the audience into the experience emotionally. This film accomplishes the same feat largely on the back of Chiwetel Ejiofor's performance. In a world where school textbooks are white-washing the history of slavery, 12 YEARS A SLAVE is not just an important film, but a necessary one.