The Many Rings of Hell
A Review of 12 Years a Slave
By Adam Tawfik
*This review contains SPOILERS
Although the institution of slavery officially ended in 1865, its ramifications still remain with us and America hasn’t fully dealt with this national shame. When the film industry takes on this controversial subject, it is usually relegated to the background of a storyline of white characters (a la Gone with the Wind) or, if it’s a slightly liberal film, it offers a chance to glorify or vilify white people while oversimplifying the institution (a la The Help).
Throughout history, some of the more unrelentingly salient critiques of American society have been made by foreign filmmakers, e.g. Otto Preminger, Tony Kaye, Billy Wilder, and Costa-Gavras. British filmmaker Steve McQueen, who previously directed two gritty indies Hunger and Shame, presents an uncompromisingly grim portrait of slavery in his latest film 12 Years a Slave, which seems to be a very faithful adaptation of the memoir of the same name.
The story is told through the lens of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejifor), a well-respected violinist who is illegally sold into slavery after being tricked by two white “musicians” offering him a fictitious job. With Slave, McQueen proves that he can take on a larger-scale project without compromising the quality.
Chiwetel Ejifor delivers a tour-de-force performance in the leading role, subtly instilling a quiet desperation and strength, holding his ground against his many cruel white opponents. Throughout his rough journey, he subtly demonstrates how his spirit has been broken and shows how he’s been worn down. His ups and downs keep the audience on an emotional roller coaster ride. In certain ways he is a slightly unsympathetic character.
As an educated, literate free man, he feels superior to the other slaves. He doesn’t integrate with them until the funeral of a fellow slave who died from heatstroke and exhaustion on the cotton field, where he joins them in their song.
This film is a great skeleton, providing a great overview for Solomon and his trying circumstances. For the most part, this is the correct approach as it avoids the pitfalls of sentimentality or oversimplification, but there were a couple of times where I wanted a little more pulping out. One interesting storyline was that of Mistress Harriet Shaw (Alfre Woodard), a former slave who married her plantation owner.
Had we seen her in a couple of more scenes, it might have made an interesting counterpoint to the brutality and helplessness that most slaves were subjected to. I would have liked to have seen how she and her white husband interacted with one another and how she treated her own slaves. Besides, Woodard’s acerbic wit left me craving for more.
The stellar screenplay by John Ridley eschews stereotypes, giving each black and white character distinctive personalities, even down to the smallest roles: it’s not the usual binary of white people are mean and stupid and black people are pure and noble victims. Slave refuses to exclusively restrict its narrative and visual scope to Solomon’s story. The film constantly reinforces that slavery was a collective suffering and as such, the responsibility of a whole society.
While it’s primarily an intensely and unrelentingly dark drama, there are nice fleeting moments of humor organically woven in. One such moment is Mistress Ford (Liza J. Bennett), who sees herself as a good Christian, attempting to console a newly-purchased Eliza (Adepero Oduye) by telling her that she’ll forget about being separated from her children, oblivious to the trauma Eliza is experiencing. Another takes place in a harrowing chase scene where sadistic Master Epps (Michael Fassbinder) chases Solomon, but falls in pig sty and briefly stumbles around before a brutal payoff.
This film has an abundance of well-defined female characters that are especially interesting and integral to the narrative. Eliza and Patsey are catalysts for Solomon’s growth, instrumental in inspiring change in him. Eliza refuses to get over the loss of being separated from her children, and her grief is the only thing that keeps her human and forces Solomon to confront his own resignation to his situation. Adepero Oduye, who starred in the overlooked shoestring-budgeted film Pariah in 2011, again proves that she is a stellar dramatic actress capable of great versatility.
Lupita Nyong’o, in her debut feature film, is a revelation as Patsey, the beautiful slave who is the object of Master Epps’ (Michael Fassbinder) lust and the wrath of his violently jealous wife (Sarah Paulson). Nyong’o demonstrates her character’s strength and tenacity while hauntingly presenting the emotional and physical toll of her arduous and hopeless existence as she pleads for Solomon to kill her.
There’s a shattering moment toward the end of the film as she watches Solomon leave that we see the beginnings of her collapse, but the rest of her story takes place off-screen, a cruel reminder that many remained in obscurity. Solomon’s main journey is to regain his will to live, not merely survive, and as he sees the atrocities of working for the Epps (particularly for Patsey), he’s willing to take more chances in order to reach that goal.
Michael Fassbinder is superlative as the craziest and most sadistic slave lord. Although he’s a wealthy plantation owner, Fassbinder renders a disgusting portrait of an alcoholic bum whose disheveled appearance and sloppy clothing makes him look ironically similar to the slaves on whom he looks down and treats with subhuman contempt. He also superbly evokes Epps’ inner turmoil of loving Patsey without seeing her as a human and this threatens his grip on reality.
Sarah Paulson fully immerses herself into the role of Fassbinder’s equally vitriolic and screwed-up wife, stripping her character of all joy and compassion. At one point, the script seemed to establish a storyline of Mistress Epps using Solomon as her pawn and had it been expanded it could have added an interesting quadrangle to further complicate the relationship.
The excellent cinematography by Sean Bobbitt, some of the most expressive I’ve seen recently, has significant narrative meaning. Evocative juxtaposition of extreme long shots emphasize the larger human suffering, and claustrophobically tight medium and extreme close ups intently focus on a character, often in the midst of extreme suffering. There’s a provocative close up on Solomon’s face towards the end that lingers for many seconds as if to challenge the audience to look into his soul and see if we really know the man, even after watching his agony for two hours.
McQueen has come under fire for putting a lot of aesthetic beauty into the film. It didn’t bother me; if anything, it makes the plight of the slaves more sickening as it provides a stark contrast between the refined environment and how they’re treated like animals.
I disliked the Hans Zimmer’s anachronistic modernist violin score because it sounded like a plagiarized soundtrack from his more mainstream Hollywood work. I particularly objected to it in the pivotal third-act climactic scene where Solomon (under duress) and Epps are whipping Patsey on the tree post as it wasn’t in accord with the viscerally and psychologically taxing action.
I preferred the earthiness of the a cappella slave music; it’s been featured in many films before like Song of the South, where it feels uncomfortably racist. Here we see the context for the pain and misery, and how it was an outlet to articulate the drudgery and hopelessness, while helping to restore a sense of relief and sanity.
The film boasts a good mix of well-known actors and character actors, nobody being too showy. Benedict Cumberbatch, as Solomon’s first master, is a hypocritical Christian and a coward, quoting the Bible. He has no problem using slave labor, justifying his actions by being more humane to his slaves than most owners, though he capitulates to pressure.
Paul Dano, who has been overwrought and miscast in many roles lately, restrains himself yet shows all of his character’s vileness. Garrett Dillahunt excels in a tricky role of a drunken foreman turned indentured servant who pretends to be Solomon’s friend. Michael K. Williams plays a brave and rebellious slave with conviction.
When I read about the ending of how a Canadian man, played by Brad Pitt, helps rescue Solomon and reunite him with his family, I cringed, thinking it was going to an overly neat resolution with an improbably cliché-ridden happy ending. I was sure that Brad Pitt (who gives a surprisingly serviceable performance), being one of the producers, would make a big deal of his white savior role, but the film wisely downplays his contribution and keeps the focus on Solomon.
The final scene is one of grief and shellshock: there was confusion and resentment on both Solomon and his wife’s part. The epilogue dispelled the potential of hope, reminding us that while he regained his freedom he still faced oppression and injustice.
While many are predicting Slave to reap the Oscars, I suspect that it is far too intelligent and visceral to win.