Normally I wouldn't walk into any film with such major expectations, but the buzz out of the film festivals was unmistakable. In Toronto, the film snagged the coveted People's Choice award, but some audience members stormed out mid-way, unable to stomach the horror. In Telluride, critics were raving, drawing comparisons left and right to Schindler's List.
"Suspend the betting, close the books, and notify the engraver," one wrote. "I've just seen what will surely be this year's Best Picture winner, and it's 12 Years a Slave...during the closing credits, when I finally found it in me to stand and turn around, I looked back at faces that were shell-shocked to the core. One writer friend of mine was inconsolable, speechless..."
"What must absolutely be mentioned and reiterated is the absolute horror this movie is to watch," read another A+ review. "In fact, watching 12 Years as Slave is to dwell in purgatory for 133 minutes. If you're willing to subject yourself to its horrors you'll be rewarded with some of the highest level of filmmaking you'll see all year, but in the end you'll be leaving the theater in a stupor."
What were we about to experience? What would this film say and do to us, with a subject so immense and horrific at hand?
It's a strange thing to realize it, but what McQueen attempted with this film hasn't really been attempted before. The great sin of American filmmaking is that the great sin of America has never been tackled head-on. There was Roots, a TV miniseries which won countless Emmys and a Golden Globe. Amistad and Beloved come to mind; but the first distances itself from slavery through its major locale (New England courtrooms), the second through its era (post-Civil War 1860s). Besides, neither film was especially excellent, and neither won a single Academy Award.
Where was the great film about slavery qua slavery? Why hadn't it been done before?
Brad Pitt, whose company Plan B produced the film, notes that the genesis of 12 Years a Slave was British auteur Steve McQueen asking this simple but obvious question. "We started talking to him about what he most wanted to do next and he asked the question, asked the question that no American asked, why aren't there more films about slavery? And that's what he wanted to do. And that's where it started and that's what led us here tonight."
That a film like this should have been made years ago seems fairly obvious; but it seems less obvious that McQueen would be the man to finally make it. Although the soft-spoken director ventured into historical drama with his 2008 debut Hunger, his last film was an artsy NC-17 slog through sex addiction that, in spite of its mindfulness, is provocative to the point of self-indulgence. Whatever good things can be said about Shame, a film so narrow, experimental, and imperfect would hardly strike anyone as a prelude to anything resembling Schindler's List.
But the vital connection becomes clear: McQueen is a daring filmmaker who knows how to push the envelope, and the story of slavery needed just such a risk-taker to get at the heart of the matter. In fact, McQueen's role seems fated; he wanted to tell the story of a free man being captured and sold into slavery long before getting his hands on Solomon Northrup's eponymous book, a true account which revolves around that exact premise. "Each turn of the page was a revelation," McQueen recalls. "When you have an idea, and you see it in your hands in a book, it was just amazing. I was upset with myself that I didn't know this book, and then I realized that no one I knew knew this book."
It's safe to say that that's about to change.
The critics don't exaggerate: the stark realism of 12 Years a Slave is indeed brutal. It's not only difficult to watch; at times it feels downright impossible. But this is McQueen's great virtue as the director of this story. In three especially violent scenes, which unfold like Northrup's stations of the cross, he lets the camera linger, and linger some more. One of these shots brings the film to a screeching halt with a still, quiet image that lasts one long agonizing minute. Another is an uncut take of a sadistic punishment, as much a mental trial as a physical one, that lasts for several more. The mind begs: "Enough! Cut away!" But by refusing us that comfort, McQueen seems to be saying: "No. Look. This is Solomon Northrup's story, and the story of so many others bearing the impress of their Maker, yet treated like cattle or refuse, robbed of their hope and their humanity. Listen to the cries, the silence. This is your history. This is your world."
In a lesser film, the exposition of this kind of brutality might devolve into something distant or unreal, and fail to really affect an audience - but as a work of art, 12 Years a Slave will take its place among the greats. Sean Bobbit's cinematography (the same eye behind the vivid fatalism of The Place Beyond the Pines) is impeccable; Hans Zimmer's score is reminiscent of the sonic dread concocted by Jonny Greenwood for There Will Be Blood; the veteran actors in the film - especially Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Paul Giamatti, and Alfre Woodard (who shines in a single scene as the former slave Mistress Shaw) - are at the top of their game; and the depth and pathos conveyed by newcomers like Lupita Nyong'o is nothing if not award-worthy.
McQueen sought to make the quintessential film about slavery, and he and screenwriter John Ridley leave no stone unturned to capture its every dimension, including its lasting psychological torment; its chilling effect on families torn apart for money and expediency; the diseased sense of possession, which is itself a kind of possession, we find in Faulkner's Go Down, Moses ("Don't touch a one of them! They're mine!"); the in some ways more odious behavior of slaveowners who were "kind" to their slaves, but weren't about to go out of their way to fight for justice ("I have debts to be mindful of," one sighs); and the constant but sometimes subtle manipulation of language, song, and most offensively, religious faith to institutionalize it.
Throughout all of this, McQueen is careful to to give us flesh-and-blood human beings, and not caricatures; every one of them is some very real admixture of good aspirations and evil tendencies. We see flashes of grace and love in the eyes of the vile and contemptible, flashes of despair and hatred in the words of the noble, all of them navigating their social standing and circumstance with the conflicted map of the human heart. About playing the most depraved character in the film, Edwin Epps, Fassbender confesses: "It was important to find a human being in Epps, so that audience members, even as horrendous as he is, recognize something in him at times."
In a similar way, McQueen doesn't aim at making a two-dimensional statement about faith, but simply at glimpsing the complexity of the historical moment these characters find themselves in. The horror of the African slave trade, after all, was both defended and defeated by believing Christians, each side using authority, reason, or scripture to make their case. The same faith was often practiced by slaves and former slaves themselves, and even motivated many to fight for their freedom. 12 Years a Slave reflects this tension, without presuming to explain away either the fire of faith or the folly of the faithful. We see one slaveowner worship with his slaves, while another cherry picks readings from the Bible with all the weight of sola scriptura. (About that first - a Baptist preacher named William Ford - Solomon Northup wrote, "there never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man.") We see a group of slaves sing hopefully about heaven, and one, in the grip of despair, contemplate God's mercy on suicide. Maybe the most sublime expression comes from Mistress Shaw who, as if from the standpoint of eternity, declares: "In his own time, the Good Lord will manage them all."
This same kind of honesty is applied to questions of law. In one key scene, a debate unfolds between Epps and a Canadian abolitionist, played by an awkward-sounding Brad Pitt, about the difference between the legal law, or positive law, and moral law, or natural law. The conversation calls to mind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail:
A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.
The great tragedy of slavery was that for so long, the distinction was a dead one: the legal law was deemed moral, or the moral law was distorted to rationalize legal subjugation, robbing human beings of their right to life and liberty. This type of thinking reaches its nadir in Epps who denies that he sins against his fellow human beings, and in one of the most haunting lines ever uttered on film, declares: "A man does how he pleases with his property."
From this grave error, this unspeakably vast degradation of human personality, fell an ocean of tears. And Steve McQueen's noble achievement is something so simple, and so necessary: for the first time in film history, he brings us face to face with the sin of slavery.