To get its full import, one should avoid watching 12 Years a Slave through the prism of an Academy-nominated film. It is only when the mind is in a state of pure tabula rasa that one can get into the skin of this Steve McQueen masterpiece. It does not also matter if it wins any awards or not—truth be told, as a film, I would second Gravity anyday for the Academy for best film—but it is in its pure moments of cruelty that it’s beautiful. That might sound paradoxical, but seldom has cruelty been so beautiful on celluloid. The last one could remember was Amistad and 12 Years, at least to me, comes a close second. But, that’s a discussion for another day.
As the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York in pre-Civil War US, who is tricked and then sold into slavery and shipped to the North, the film should be seen for what it: a telling of truth. Director Steve McQueen captures the dirty truth of slavery in various scenes seen through the eyes of Northup, essayed brilliantly on screen by Chiwetel Ejiofor. Based on the autobiography by the same name, 12 Years is Northup’s dreadful journey from freedom to slavery and back to freedom again. Every shot, every inch of reel that makes up this film makes the audience painfully aware of this dark, dirty and uncomfortable truth.
Not surprisingly, Ejiofor is being considered as the top runner for the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Male), along with Matthew McConaughey for his part in Dallas Buyers Club. Whichever way that dice might roll, his is a performance that will go down in American film history as one of the most heart-rending and poignant of all times.
The predicament of a slave is that he cannot speak his mind or stand his ground, not unless he is willing to risk being lynched, hanged or at the very least, take a hundred lashes on his back until the “meat and blood flow”. He is also subjected to unspeakable humiliation like being paraded naked in front of potential buyers, made to take a bath together with other slaves whatever the gender, take every lashing as a gift that at least he’s lucky to be alive, and at times, even lash others at the orders of the “master”. His best hope is to be quiet, restrained and to keep his eyes on the ground at all times, while his pain rests somewhere deep down in his heart. It is at these restrained moments that both Ejiofor and McQueen speak the loudest.
Two scenes cry out for the viewers’ attention by their quietness. A five-minute long sequence where Ejiofor hangs from a tree with his feet barely touching the ground and one where the camera looks at his face as he just stares into empty space, again five-minute long. But Northup does not despair, he hopes and waits for 12 long years. It is this triumph of the spirit that refuses to break down, which is the film’s driving force.
The other actors too, whatever the length of their roles, justify them. Paul Giamatti as the slave trader, Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) as the kind-hearted slave owner, Michael Fassbender as the plantation owner who oscillates between the twin emotions of an unhealthy obsession with Patsey, a young female slave, and his guilt for that, have all delivered very powerful performances. However, it is the relatively unknown Lupita Nyong’o and Fassbender who raise the bar. As Patsey, the object of unwanted attention from her owner and a victim of his wife’s jealousy, Nyong’o’s life is the embodiment of Dante’s Inferno. At one point, she even requests Northup to kill her, just to put her out of her suffering. If this does not move you, nothing will.
In what is a relatively short career in films, Fassbender has been very impressive, but it is in this film that he gives his best performance so far. He manages to convey what is never easy; portray the animal in each one of us. For this alone, he deserves all the plaudits he can get.
Man has been historically predisposed to enslave man. McQueen’s film is as much a reminder of that as it is a rendering of a true story. After all, the truth endures, even if it is not always nice to acknowledge it.