12 Years a Slave: An Unflinching Take on the Great American Shame

Director Steve McQueen's raw document stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and — isn't that Brad Pitt?

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Jaap Buitendijk

Did Jesus approve of slavery, and of the whipping of a slaver’s chattel? Edwin Epps believes so. He quotes Luke 12:47: “And that servant … shall be beaten with many stripes.” By “many stripes,” the Louisiana plantation owner tells his slaves, Jesus meant 40 or 50. In this example of the deranged quoting scripture, even the God of peace taught the inhumanity of one man to the men and women he thought of as animals.

In director Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, plantation owners poke and stroke the bodies of their slaves, appraising them like horseflesh — except that they would not flog, humiliate or sexually defile their livestock. The lady of the plantation, jealous of the attentions her husband pays to a slave woman, shies a heavy glass decanter at the poor girl’s head. Another slave is roped up to be hanged, his toes barely touching the ground, and there he dangles, when losing his balance means death. The plantation owner’s wife stares at him from the veranda, ignoring his agony, as do the other slaves, going about their yard chores. They know better than to help a renegade.

(READ: Jessica Winter on director Steve McQueen)

The madmen are the masters in this searing film document, based on Twelve Years a Slave, the 1854 memoir of Solomon Northrup, a free black New Yorker abducted into servitude. Northup has found an apt adaptor in the Anglo-African McQueen, whose first two features proved him a picture poet of physical degradation. McQueen’s Hunger (2009) portrayed the hunger strike of IRA volunteer Bobby Sands; his 2011 Shame detailed the bleak life of a Manhattan sex addict, and both films starred Michael Fassbender, who plays Epps in 12 Years a Slave. Here, McQueen immerses viewers in the magnolia-scented hell to which his protagonist was exiled. You will recoil at every punishment, feel each slur, with an immediacy that makes the long-ago, “peculiar institution” of slavery as vivid as a whiplash.

In the script by John Ridley, who wrote the novel Those Who Walk in Darkness and the screenplays for U Turn and Red Tails, Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is first seen as a free man in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., with a loving wife and two children (one of them played by Quvenzhane Wallis of Beasts of the Southern Wild). He earns a comfortable income as a fiddler and is treated as an equal by his white friends and neighbors. Lured to Washington, D.C., for what he thinks is a brief musical engagement, he is pumped with alcohol until he passes out and awakes in chains. (We do not learn why the kidnappers went to the trouble of importing a black man from upstate New York to the nation’s capital, when they could have corralled dozens, hundreds, who already lived there.) Ignoring his pleas of full citizenship, his captors beat him and send him south to servitude in Louisiana.

(READ: John Ridley on “Why I’m Good With the N Word”)

Solomon is untutored at this deadly game. If he wants to survive, a fellow black advises him, “Tell no one who you really are, and tell no one you can read and write, unless you want to be a dead nigger.” Northup insists, “I don’t want to survive. I want to live.” Instead, he keeps silent and endures the insult of a slave name: Platt 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 the astoundingly coarse schlockumentary Addio zio Tom (Goodbye, Uncle Tom). The difference is that McQueen’s scenes of black flesh peddled by venal salesmen are meant not to excite the senses but to repel any good conscience.

(READ: Corliss on Gualtiero Jacopetti, the director of Addio zio Tom)

Repellent is the word for the New Orleans slave trader Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti), who tells prospective customers that the young black boy before them “will grow into a fine beast.” The plantation owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch, who impersonates Julian Assange in this week’s The Fifth Estate) purchases Solomon/Platt and Eliza (Adepero Oduye, star of the indie film Pariah). Though she begs Ford to take her two young children, and though Solomon must play a violin to muffle the screams of Eliza’s kids, Ford cannot be troubled to buy them. And he is the “decent” master: a man who must think of himself as a slave to the system he is profits from; a genteel soul and a moral coward.

On the Ford farm, aggressive rather than passive wickedness resides in the overseer Tibeats (another fine slimeball performance from Paul Dano), who leads the slaves’ work in the cotton fields to the rhythm of the slave song “Run, Nigger, Run.” When Solomon’s intelligence and industry impress Ford and demean Tibeats, the overseer hangs the slave from a tree. Solomon must pay for Tibeats’ crime; he is sold to the venomous Epps, who believes that “A man does what he wants with his property.” Slipping on pig slop and pratfalling over fences, whipping his slaves for want of other entertainment, Epps is a sadistic oaf, a graceless Satan.

(READ: Corliss on Benedict Cumberbatch in The Fifth Estate)

Epps has engaged in a running dispute with his imperious wife (Sarah Paulson) over his attentions to the slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o); it was Mrs. Epps who, in the film’s most startling act of violence, beaned Patsey with the decanter. One Sunday Patsey, who is also the most productive cotton picker on the plantation, has visited the home of a black woman (Alfre Woodard) who achieved freedom by marrying a white man. When she returns, Epps, enraged by her brief absence, orders Solomon to whip her. In a shot lasting seven agonizing minutes, 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.

(READ: Madonna banned from theater chain after texting through a screening of 12 Years a Slave)

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 belongs to Brad Pitt (one of the film’s executive producers) as the Canadian surveyor and abolitionist Bass. 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.

McQueen keeps the content hot but the imagery cool: long takes of brutality alternate with probing closeups of Ejiofor as he joins the slaves in an elegiac chorus of “Roll, Jordan, Roll” (the spiritual antidote to “Run, Nigger, Run”) and, in a climactic shot, muses wordlessly on his fate. Though it is no less insistent on showing the particulars of corporal punishment than, say, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, the movie has the eerie impact of a museum exhibit; it is a diorama of atrocity.

(READ: Corliss on Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ)

Ed Gonzalez and Armond White, two critics bucking the consensus admiration for 12 Years a Slave, have noted that the film does not build to dramatic points so much as it repeats them. Early in the movie, Solomon is flogged 16 times with a plank, another 14 with a rope. Toward the end, the slave must administer the discipline, by whipping — and whipping, and whipping — the hapless Patsey.

(READ: The contrarian voice of Armond White on 12 Years a Slave

But traditional film suspense does not apply here. The title, like that of Robert Bresson’s prison film A Man Escaped, gives away the entire narrative. McQueen and Ridley want to portray Solomon’s ordeal as minute variations on the same slog of awful. You will find no jolly racists, no sneering black traitors to their indentured race, whom Quentin Tarantino used to enliven his slave tale, Django Unchained. This movie has the grind of painful work with no hope of reprieve.

(READ: Corliss on Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained)

Except for Solomon — a figure apart from his fellow blacks on the plantation. He is a free man; Northern mores say that he doesn’t belong there. The others are slaves; Southern morality says that they do. He fights to regain his freedom, while they seem consigned to their servitude. Solomon is a bit like the journalist played by Gregory Peck in the 1947 Gentleman’s Agreement, who pretends to be a Jew to do a undercover story on American antisemitism. While shooting the movie, director Elia Kazan asked one technician what the moral of the film was. The answer: “You should be nice to Jews, because they might turn out to be gentiles.”

At the end of 12 Years a Slave — no Spoiler Alert needed — Solomon is reunited with his family, and says, with heroic understatement, “I’ve had a difficult time these last several years.” Like the 1,200 lucky Jews in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, Solomon is again free (thanks to the intercession of white men), while nearly 4 million blacks in the South remained enslaved.

(READ: Richard Schickel’s review of Schindler’s List)

We must see their pain in the face of Ejiofor, whose film roles have ranged from an interpreter for the slaves in Spielberg’s Amistad to the drag queen in Kinky Boots, the inspiration for the Tony-winning Broadway musical. For two excruciating hours, his Solomon is on the receiving end of abuse. His saving grace is the dignity with which he endures and, for posterity, observes his own and a nation’s shame. The gentle center of a demonic land, Ejiofor provides the eyes and soul of 12 Years a Slave — which, for all its cool distance, remains a raw, horrifying and essential document.