“I’ve had a difficult time these last several years,” Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free Northern black American abducted into Southern servitude in 1841, whispers with heroic understatement as he is reunited with his wife and children at the end of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave. Nelson Mandela (Idris Elba), the subject of Justin Chadwick’s Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, might make the same observation about his 27 years of imprisonment in South Africa.
Both fact-based dramas, receiving their official world premieres at the Toronto Film Festival, were directed by Englishmen (Chadwick, white; McQueen, black); the movies’ stars were born in London of African parents. Both movies are based on autobiographies: Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave was published in 1853, Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom in 1994. Detailing the state-sanctioned degradation that white masters forced on their black subjects, the two films could serve as harrowing, edifying illustrations that America and South Africa allowed and encouraged such obscenities.
Big difference, though: Mandela rushes through its protagonist’s adult life, offering a CliffsNotes précis of the life of the lawyer and outlaw who compelled the Boer government to give equal rights to its black majority. In 12 Years a Slave, McQueen immerses viewers in the magnolia-scented hell to which Northup was exiled. You will recoil at every whiplash, feel each slur, wonder at man’s inhumanity to men and women he thought animals.
Mandela means to be in the mold of Gandhi, Richard Attenborough’s 1982 biopic that beat out E.T. for the Best Picture Oscar and earned Ben Kingsley an Academy Award for Best Actor. The movie was on the starchy side, but at least its central character did things; Mandela endures his ordeal on a stately march to his own and his country’s liberation. In the early scenes of William Nicholson’s screenplay, Nelson gets to argue cases for black clients and wins because the whites bringing the charges are too insulted to be subject to a cross-examination from an inferior. But once in prison, he must be the voice of moderation, in effect negotiating between his more agitated colleagues and a stubborn government.
Elba, a one-man power storm as Stringer Bell in HBO’s The Wire, has also played gruff commanders — bulls with balls — in the sci-fi epics Prometheus and Pacific Rim. Here he must tamp down his energy to fit Mandela’s slimmer, quieter contours. That cedes center screen to Naomie Harris’ Winnie Mandela, the dimpled firebrand who preaches revolt in the streets while Nelson counsels talking with the politicians. Elba may be at the heart of the movie’s narrative, but Harris is its coursing, bubbling blood.
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We are told at the beginning of Mandela that white South Africans justified apartheid by believing (or pretending to) that science proved blacks were genetically inferior and that the Bible says they were put on earth to be subjugated. Those are also the claims of the plantation gentry that owned slaves, forced them into exhausting unpaid labor and treated them like animals. “A man does what he wants with his property,” says Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), the most vicious of the three overlords who own Solomon Northup.
In Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Solomon had earned a comfortable income as a fiddler and was treated as an easy equal by white friends and neighbors. Lured to Washington, D.C., for what he thinks is a brief musical engagement, he is filled with alcohol until he passes out and awakes in chains. Ignoring his pleas of full citizenship, his captors beat him and send him south to servitude. If he wants to survive, a fellow black advises him, “Tell no one who you are. Tell no one you can read and write.” And Northup insists, “I don’t want to survive. I want to live.” Instead he keeps silent and endures the insult of a slave name: Pratt Hamilton — yes, like Olivia de Havilland’s Melanie Hamilton from Gone With the Wind.
These sprawling farms are no Tara — they are gulags — and 12 Years a Slave stands as a fierce refutation of the genial racial stereotypes on display in the Margaret Mitchell novel and David O. Selznick’s movie version. Indeed, McQueen’s film is closer in its storytelling particulars to such 1970s exploitation-exposés of slavery as Mandingo and Goodbye, Uncle Tom. Except that McQueen is not a schlockmeister sensationalist but a remorseless artist. The scenes of black flesh peddled by venal salesmen do not excite; they repel. And repellent is the word for the slave trader Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti), who encourages potential customers to prod the merchandise and check their teeth like horses.
McQueen’s previous films addressed intense subject matter — in Hunger, Bobby Sands’ hunger strike against the British occupier in Northern Ireland, and in Shame, a man crippled by sex addiction, both films starring Fassbender — with an elegant visual austerity: long takes that build suffocating tension and prod viewers to find meaning in the corners of the image. In the epic form of 12 Years a Slave, his most approachable, emotional film, McQueen escalates the tension with two long scenes, nearly 10 minutes of screen time.
In the first, Solomon is hanged but left with his toes barely touching the ground; there he dangles, when losing his balance means death, as the plantation owner’s wife strides by, ignoring him, as do the slaves who continue in their yard chores. In the second scene, Epps grows enraged by his beloved slave mistress Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), who is also the most productive cotton picker on the farm, and orders Solomon to whip her. The camera circles the two, as lash follows lash, to make the spectator share the suffering of Patsey and Solomon — two victims of a sick master in a diseased social order. Though they considered their slaves less than human, Southern whites of the plantation aristocracy were the true troglodytes: inferior but in charge.
McQueen shows that racism, aside from its barbarous inhumanity, is insanely inefficient. It can be argued that Nazi Germany lost the war both because it diverted so much manpower to the killing of Jews and because it did not exploit the brilliance of Jewish scientists in building smarter weapons. So the slave owners dilute the energy of their slaves by whipping them for sadistic sport and, as Epps does, waking them at night to dance for his wife’s cruel pleasure. It is the rare white man who will speak racial equality to the plantation owner’s power; in 12 Years a Slave, that voice is Brad Pitt’s. He tells Epps, “If you don’t treat them as humans, then you will have to answer for it.” Epps can’t even understand the question.
The movie enlists a small constellation of acclaimed actors, including Benedict Cumberbatch as a slightly more genteel slaver and Alfre Woodard as a Southern woman who has achieved freedom of a sort by marrying a white. But Ejiofor has to be the focus. Like Elba’s Mandela character, Solomon is on the receiving end of abuse; his saving grace is the saintly dignity with which he endures and, for posterity, observes his own and a nation’s shame. The gentle center of a satanic land, he provides the eyes and soul of 12 Years a Slave — a document that is raw, eloquent, horrifying and essential.