Twenty years later, we have a Schindler’s List for a new generation, a film that stares unblinkingly into the dark soul of a nation that is far from overcoming the sins of its fathers. 12 Years a Slave is that movie.
It is, in some ways, an odd comparison, because the films, while both based on harrowing true stories, are actually quite different. Steven Spielberg is often seen as an old-fashioned sentimentalist, but the same tendency could in no way be leveled at 12 Years director Steve McQueen. In grueling, draining films such as Hunger and Shame, McQueen has shown himself to be a distinct modernist, his camera recording the actions of his characters with an almost cold indifference.
What makes 12 Years a Slave a great movie, perhaps the definitive American slavery film, is that McQueen doesn’t tell us that slavery was bad, as so many others have. He shows us through the life of Solomon Northup, a black man exposed to a litany of horrors few souls could survive. There is raw power in Northup’s story; McQueen smartly realizes no further message is needed.
Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free man living in New York in the 1840s. He makes his living as a world-class violin player, taking care of his wife and two children. A band of traveling performers convinces him to come to D.C. where he can make some money playing violin for their two-week show. When he arrives, however, he is sold into slavery and taken to the south.
We are taken on a tour of human depravity as Northup comes across a cruel slave trader (Paul Giamatti), who gives Northup his slave name before selling him to kindly plantation owner Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). He is eventually passed on to a not-so-kindly one. Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) is known as a slave breaker, but even he is unprepared for Northup’s impossible resilience.
Although McQueen coaxes brilliant performances from an all-star supporting cast, it is truly Ejiofor’s Northup that anchors the film. It is not so much the impossibility of this man’s circumstances or the fact that he survived them that inspire, but the fact that his spirit was so unbreakable. Ejiofor’s eyes express the spectrum of human emotion; pain, sacrifice, unendurable suffering and relentless hope are all right there in his face. When he stares into the camera, without saying a word, we feel every inch of what he has felt. It’s the performance of a lifetime.
A breakthrough performance by Lupita Nyong’o as fellow slave Patsy is equally breathtaking, providing not only a kindred spirit but a foil to Northup’s optimism. One of the film’s more powerful scenes comes when Patsy asks Northup to kill her. Repeatedly raped and beaten by Epps and despised by his mistress, she has reached the limits of human endurance. Northup refuses, and tells her to hold on a little longer.
McQueen’s film reminds me of the dichotomy in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life: the way of nature vs. the way of grace. The way of nature is for Patsy to die a dog’s death, the way she lived. But Northup shows her the way of grace, that the human spirit, unlike the body, can never be truly broken.
We see this dichotomy in the film’s treatment of religion as well. Epps and others use scripture to justify the way they treat their slaves, laying bare one of the grossest misuses of the Bible in human history. But the slaves show the way of grace in their songs. When a group of slaves sing a hymn over another slave who has died, we see them singing to the same God who has been used by other to oppress and demean them. The way of grace stands triumphant over the way of nature. When Northup meets Brad Pitt’s Bass near the end of the film, we realize we have met one of the few decent souls in the entire movie. And we can breathe a sigh of relief that people like him existed, that one decent man can almost redeem the human race. If, as Sartre said, “Hell is other people,” there are occasionally those who break in to remind us that the way of grace still exists to prove us wrong.
12 Years a Slave holds our heads over our nation’s history and forces us to stare. Rarely does a film speak so clearly and directly to our human existence. It is unflinchingly brutal, and certainly not for the faint of heart (I looked away from the screen at least twice). It’s also a powerful testament to the endurance of the human spirit. It’s not an easy sit, but it is, I believe, a necessary one; an important reminder that, while we’ve come a long way, there are miles we have not yet traveled in our shared human experience. If movies like Gravity remind us why we should go to the movies, movies like 12 Years a Slave remind us why we must.