"12 Years a Slave" is the story of Solomon Northrup, a free black man, who was kidnapped in Washington D.C. and sold into slavery in the deep south. It stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, with supporting performances by Michael Fassbender, Paul Giammatti, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch and Brad Pitt. It is directed by Steve McQueen.
I thought the film was a work of subtle brilliance. The topic of slavery is one that is ripe for simplicity, sentimentality and overt moralization. This film avoids these pitfalls due to the mastery of the director Steve McQueen. McQueen shows the desolation, degradation and dehumanization of slavery not only upon those enslaved, but upon those who do the enslaving and also those who simply live in a world where slavery exists. The immorality of slavery has a corrosive and unhinging effect on everyone who lives with it, under it or near it. The dehumanization inherit in slavery is literally maddening for anyone coming into contact with it for any period of time. The mind and soul, whether of an individual or of a nation, cannot exist in balance while the cancer of slavery rages on anywhere within it's midst.
This theme of desolation, degradation and dehumanization is one which McQueen has touched upon in his other films as well. In "Hunger", the story of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands and his imprisonment and torture at the hands of the British, he shows the brutalizer as well as the brutalized pay a high moral price for the evil and sadism of torture. Again, McQueen doesn't judge his characters, or project any of his judgements upon them or us. He shows that the evil men are capable of doing far outweighs their ability to live with the evil that they do. We see the corrosive effects of torture upon those who do the torturing, something that would have been interesting to see in a film like "Zero Dark Thirty", but I guess that is asking a lot from a film that is nothing but propaganda.
In "Shame", McQueens second film, he tells the story of a sex addict living in New York City. Again, he shows the effects of imprisonment upon the human spirit and soul. In this film the lead, very well played by Michael Fassbender, degrades himself further and further in order to satiate his addiction. He is entirely captive to his sexual impulses. He is both captive and captor and it drives him to the brink of annihilation. As the film ends, McQueen leaves us to wonder whether Fassbender's character will choose another path, the question is never overtly answered, but you can't help but feel he cannot survive life in a modern day Babylon with demons such as his. You leave the film asking not only will Fassbender's character survive in this culture of instant gratification, but will I?
Which brings us back to "12 years a Slave". In the film McQueen shows the moral degradation brought about by the dehumanization of slavery. Slave owners can start out good, kind hearted people, but they must rationally, morally and ethically contort themselves so much in order to make sense of their world so as to lose the ability to maintain any sort of mental or spiritual balance. The enslaved are obviously also victims of this moral degradation. They simply do whatever they must in order to survive. They not only have their freedom taken from them, but their dignity, humanity and sanity. That is the most striking thing about this film, it expertly shows the insanity of slavery. I don't mean that as a metaphor, but literally how slavery has a maddening effect on anyone who comes into contact with it and they lose their moral balance and their minds. Slavery is a madhouse. Up becomes down, left becomes right. Good becomes evil, evil becomes good. In fact, the films that come to mind in comparison to "12 years a Slave" are not slavery films at all, but films like "Apocalypse Now", where a man descends into the chaos of the Vietnam war in order to find a Colonel driven mad by the hypocrisy and insanity of war, or the original "Planet of the Apes" where astronaut Charlton Heston lands on an bizarre planet where apes run the world and humans are mere animals, Heston finally screams "It's a madhouse, a madhouse!!"
In terms of acting, the work of Chiwetel Ejiofor is stellar as a family man snatched from his civilized world of manners and etiquette and thrown into the chaos of human bondage. Like McQueen, Ejiofor never falls in into the trap of being the noble, unbreakable spirit, as can be so common in films about slavery. What makes his performance, and the film, so moving is that he does break. He is destroyed as a human being on every level. He suffers moral degradation from his dehumanization as much as anyone in the film, and it is most striking because we see that he started out a rational, thoughtful, decent man. He ends up being made just as mad as the rest of the people under the spell of slavery. In the end we see what Ejiofor craves is not freedom, or love, or family, but rather civilization, as shown by his desperately grasping at the formality with which the film opens. It is a fantastic performance because it could have easily fallen prey to sentimentality which is the nemesis of great art. That is also McQueens great strength as a director, he never ever let's sentimentality seep into his films.
McQueen's other great strength is that he is a visual storyteller. He lets images tell his story as opposed to dialogue. The images are what gets seared into your memory and tell you the story on a much deeper level than conversation ever could. Even when a scene is nothing but two characters talking, it is how McQueen frames the shot that overrides any words that may be spoken. A perfect example of this is a scene from "Hunger" where Bobby Sands has an extended conversation with a Catholic priest in a visiting room at the HMP Maze prison in which Sands is being held. The scene goes on for almost ten minutes, but McQueen never moves the camera away from a long shot of the two men. Sands and the priest sit at opposite sides of a table and the camera stays still for ten minutes as they talk and smoke. It is an amazing scene, both by the actors and by McQueen, to have the confidence and vision to hold a shot that long at that distance. He never needs to telegraph an emotion, which would've been the standard move in a scene like the Sands/priest scene with a cut to a closeup. That is what makes McQueen such a tremendous director, his avoidance of sentimentality and his confidence to rely on images rather than words.
In conclusion, I found "12 Years a Slave" to be a fantastic film. It isn't a typical Hollywood type film, it is much more subtle and smart than that. I wholly recommend it to anyone who loves cinema and wants to see a finely crafted performance from a powerful actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor. I also highly recommend watching "Hunger" and "Shame" for both the directing of Steve McQueen and the acting of Michael Fassbender.
Finally, something to keep in mind when watching the film is how it relates to our world today. We look back upon the horrors of slavery and wonder how could anyone have thought it was a moral and ethical thing to do when it is so obviously morally corrosive and cancerous. Ask yourself, are there things in our world today that are as equally corrosive and cancerous? Aren't we all morally diminished when our country tortures? Or when we indefinitely imprison people without trials? Or we kill innocents or women and children with drone strikes? Or we start illegal wars of aggression in which hundreds of thousands or millions die? We have stopped the evil of slavery, but our moral decay, our spiritual cancer, rages on all around us and within us. We are all as complicit today as the citizens of the slave holding south were then. As a character in the film says about the south and slavery, 'there will be a great retribution for the evil that they've done', and so it will be for all of us as well if we don't wake up to the truth staring us right in the face.