Visual artist and award-winning director Steve McQueen has finally made his mark on international cinema with his 2013 release, “12 Years A Slave”, a controversial and unflinching look at slavery in America in the mid-1800s through the eyes and experiences of a free black man who was sold into slavery. Having already established his visual arts career to significant acclaim (winner of the prestigious Turner Prize, represented Great Britain at the Venice Biennale, named Commander of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II, and more), the British-Grenadian artist has created a space to make films on his exacting terms.
This series will review each of McQueen’s three feature films: “Hunger (2008), “Shame” (2010) and “12 Years a Slave” (2013).
The past revisited: A review of
“12 Years A Slave”
By Nneka Luke
Amid the international hype and media buzz that preceded the 2013 premiere of visionary filmmaker Steve McQueen’s third feature film “12 Years A Slave”, nothing spoke more powerfully to me than the film’s iconic poster: a tight medium shot of the film’s protagonist running at full speed, it seems, into the past. Running against his will from his comfortable life in 1840s upstate New York with his wife and two children, running from his established place in New York society as a free and respected black man, running headlong into a dark and devastating nightmare that sees him deposited in the sugar plantations of Georgia as a field slave.
Based on Solomon Northrup’s memoir of his time as a slave, which was published in 1853 (one year after his release), the film is (perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not) one of a small handful of films that deal with the subject of slavery in America. Perhaps not since Alex Haley’s “Roots” miniseries of the 1980s has it been tackled with such detail. A few films use slavery as the story backdrop (“Beloved”, “Glory”), and certainly, Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” offered a satirical view of slavery in the filmmaker’s unique style. But McQueen’s look at this dark period in American and, indeed, world history, feels fresh because it is a story that is, for many reasons, hardly touched in Hollywood films.
Indeed, I have wondered if an American filmmaker would have been able to make such a film in all its raw, unflinching intensity. McQueen is a British director with a history of tackling tough subjects; his primary cast is largely British, with the two male leads (Michael Fassbender and Chiwetel Ejiofor) known for making diverse choices with their acting roles; and Brad Pitt is one of the producers, no doubt using his heavyweight status to help get the film made.
In 1841, while playing his violin in Washington DC, Solomon Northup is duped by two white opportunists who sell him to Southern slavers. He wakes up in chains, confused, petrified, and cowed into submission by some vicious lashes to his back. He finds himself waiting with other captured blacks, with no clues about their fate. A scared boy in the group is soon joined by his sister and mother; Eliza is a well-dressed black woman, suggesting that Northrup’s capture is not unique. Soon, the group is hustled under cover of night onto a waiting ship that takes them South to Georgia to be sold as chattel.
McQueen never wastes an opportunity to place the audience squarely in the middle of the horrors of slavery. In one hard and unforgettable scene, shot in one take without edits, a savvy slaver named Freeman (played chillingly by Paul Giamatti) invites well-to-do Southern ladies and gentlemen into his well-appointed parlour to inspect and purchase from his latest stock of slaves: boys, young men, young women, middle aged with talents, some with their nakedness on full display. He invites his guests to “inspect at your leisure, take your time, help yourself to refreshments” as he walks about the room, pointing out their attributes: this young girl’s beauty, that boy’s agility. There is a contrasting air of gentility as violin music plays soothingly in the background, confusing the discerning modern-day viewer: we are not used to seeing scenes like this portrayed in film. It’s difficult to reconcile that we are seeing human beings traded for cash as calmly as if they were clothes or cars.
Here is where Northrup’s life as a slave begins, as he is purchased by the well-meaning Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch, another actor who is at the height of his career at the moment). This character is interesting because he is played by Cumberbatch as a man of some humanity; not above owning slaves (he offers a price for Northrup and Eliza), but sensitive to the threat of separation of Eliza from her children. After Freeman sells the boy, Ford offers to buy her daughter: “You have no use for one so young.” But Freeman insists on selling them separately: “There are piles of money to be made from her. She’s a beauty, one of the regular bloods…” Ford’s appeal to Freeman falls on deaf ears: “My sentimentality extends the length of a coin.
While the story is told through Northrup’s eyes, much has been made of the performances of Michael Fassbender as the cruel slave owner Epps, and the young slave girl Patsy, played by Academy Award winner in her breakout role, Lupita N’yongo. Those scenes in the film are better experienced than described. Instead, the miracle for me is that a film like this has been made at all; at a time when the world is experiencing political, environmental and social upheaval, it reminds us that while we have come far in many ways, this is fairly recent history, the outcomes of which can be seen in America to this day.
I am intrigued to see McQueen’s next film, as he is surely one of the most visionary and interesting filmmakers working today
Did you see the movie? Tell us what you thought about it.