A Portrait of Evil (and Little Else), by Tyler Smith
The biggest compliment that I can pay to Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is to its commitment to depicting the pure evil of slavery. While many aspects of the film- from the characters to the story- have become fairly commonplace in film and television, the movie really shines in its stylistic approach to the villainy of the institution. This, along with some strong acting, is what is most recommendable about the film, which is no small thing.
There are a number of truly terrible things in this life that we have become accustomed to seeing in art. Rape, murder, racism, genocide. Some would say that for a director to tackle these subjects at all is a bold move, but I would disagree. Plenty of movies have dealt with these in a way that makes them somehow accessible, as though the most important thing about depicting them is to sand all the edges off until the thing itself is subjectively inoffensive. No, where a director can really make his mark is by trying to tap into the inherent evil of the thing itself, making the audience uncomfortable that such a thing could exist in and occupy the same world we do.
McQueen manages to set his film apart from more standard films like Amistad and Lincoln by making what could be seen as a horror film. The cinematography, editing, and especially sound design all seem to be putting us perpetually on edge. We feel like we are never truly safe, that danger is around every corner. In doing so, McQueen seems to be trying to convey to the audience what it was truly like to be a slave.
The film made me really consider just how horrible it would be to have absolutely no rights; to be at somebody’s beck and call all the time, with no hope of reward or relief. Whether my life would be constant misery or merely difficult is based entirely on the whims of other people. I could be killed for no reason and there would be no murder investigation; it would just be a man doing what he wants to with his property. I cannot imagine anything more horrifying than this, and Steve McQueen- to his credit- forced me to face this fact, with no option of looking away.
With all this in its favor, it’s really a shame that 12 Years a Slave isn’t more dramatically engaging. The story of Solomon Northup, a free black man in the 1840s that is kidnapped and sold into slavery, is inherently interesting. As he is passed from one plantation to another, having to navigate the temperaments not only of the plantation owners, but of their hired help, the story takes on a Dickensian quality.
And yet, while all the elements surrounding Northup’s story are interesting, the specifics are not. I did not get a sense of who this man is or what drives him. Soon after his kidnapping, Northup makes it clear that he is not interested in mere “survival,” but that he wants to really “live.” This is an inspiring idea, and one that- though handled rather clunkily- can apply to anybody in any circumstance, no matter how dire. And, were this the overriding theme of the film, we would have a character with a clear motivation and philosophy.
However, within a few minutes of Northup’s noble declaration, he has essentially given up and is willing to settle for “survival.” This change is, in many ways, inevitable, but it comes so abruptly that I had no idea of how the character arrived there.
And this is the problem with the narrative aspect of the film. McQueen doesn’t seem interested in exploring the inner thoughts of Solomon Northup; only in the external circumstances. This could work if we had a firm understanding of who Northup is before his kidnapping. If we really knew this man, then we could surmise from one scene to the next what is going on inside him, even as he sternly sets about his work. Unfortunately, we are given only the briefest of introductions to him before he is sold into slavery. So, when he goes about his work, in some cases even going above and beyond for his “masters”, we’re not sure if he is merely being pragmatic and is biding his time, or if he has accepted his lot and is trying to make the best of it. Of course, we assume it is the former, but the film gives us little indication.
This is not to put the blame on actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. He imbues Northup with dignity and cunning. He is a man who is constantly assessing his circumstances, trying to figure out the best possible course of action at all times. And in those rare moments when Northup’s emotions get the better of him and he throws rationality aside, Ejiofor finds the right balance. Where a lesser actor could play these scenes as showing the character’s true self bursting forth, Ejiofor understands that the character is neither only emotional nor only intelligent, but both. Ejiofor refuses to sum Solomon up with a single character trait, but chooses instead to play the complexity of the man.
It is a prime example of an actor’s instincts elevating a fairly run-of-the-mill screenplay. And this happens throughout the film. Benedict Cumberbatch takes a character that could have seemed like a mere hypocrite- a benevolent minister that is a slave owner- and creates a genuinely decent man that hasn’t yet realized he is involved in a horrible institution. Michael Fassbender does his best as a plantation owner that is nothing but negative qualities, giving him a level of self hatred that complicates character without ever excusing his behavior. And relative newcomer Lupita Nyong’o takes a character that could have seemed like a mere plot device and makes her the tragic emotional center of the film.
So much about the film is top notch that I wish the story itself were treated with more care. Instead, the narrative is treated more as an afterthought. Perhaps the filmmakers assumed that the power of Northup’s story would be enough to hold the audience’s attention. Not an unreasonable assumption to make, as the story does have tremendous power, but McQueen seems to be directing a movie around the story, rather than the story itself.
The result is a film that is often quite compelling, but seldom for dramatic reasons. In that way, I’m reminded of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, a film that was handsomely mounted, but that apparently never felt the need to explore the man that the story is ostensibly about. Instead, it just coasted on our previous knowledge and association with the character. And, indeed, it was very difficult watching these terrible things happen to a man that would appear to be undeserving of this punishment, but I felt no more invested than if I were watching the story on the news. And the same can be said of Northup. He is an innocent man that is wronged, but then what?
In 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northup’s story is tragic and infuriating, but only because slavery itself was tragic and infuriating. Beyond that, the story feels generic. It is as if Northup is simply a delivery device; little more than an entry point into the horrifying world of slavery. And while Steve McQueen makes the most of the opportunity to depict slavery in a visceral, unblinking way, it seems a shame that Solomon Northup (both as a character and as a man) gets lost along the way.