On the surface, Steve McQueen may have seemed like a dicey if understandable choice to direct an adaptation of Solomon Northrup’s autobiographical memoir 12 Years a Slave because McQueen is a director who so often dwells, well, on the surface.
In his previous films Hunger and (especially) Shame, McQueen lavished an extraordinary amount of attention on how extreme suffering affected the physical form of Michael Fassbender (McQueen’s muse, the Jimmy Stewart to his Alfred Hitchcock, the Liv Ullman to his Ingmar Bergman), and accomplished his effects by contrasting the indignities of those film’s main characters against artily corroded surfaces — a cell in one, a steely NYC in the other.
But 12 Years a Slave is another prospect entirely. At the strictly narrative level, it’s a case study of a sole wronged man. Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a free African-American man living as a musician in New York in the 1840s when, having been duped by a pair of double-talking showmen offering a job playing for the circus, he’s kidnapped and transported to New Orleans, where he’s sold as a slave.
Northrup “enjoys,” such as it were, a brief amount of time under the tenure of his first owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), as kindly a slave owner as I guess you could imagine. Ford takes a liking to Northrup, perhaps subconsciously registering his level of education and culture, and even presents him with a brand new fiddle. An altercation between Northrup and one of Ford’s white plantation employees forces Ford to sell Northrup to Edwin Epps (Fassbender), as monstrous a master as Ford was lenient.
While the story is unique in itself, it also inevitably and through no fault on its maker’s part stands as a microcosmic testimonial for a greater crime against humanity, arguably the darkest skeleton in America’s closet. In that sense, McQueen’s strategy of honing in his gaze on solitary figures hollowed out with their painful situations risks shortchanging the forest for one single tree. (I’ve seen another critic term this “the Schindler’s List dilemma,” while at the same time admitting that while Oskar Schindler wasn’t actually being incarcerated in a concentration camp and still enjoyed enough autonomy and agency to rescue hundreds of Jews under the nose of Nazis, Northrup was very much robbed of all his basic human rights during those 12 years.)
So, yes, 12 Years a Slave is unquestionably an absolutely necessary corrective to any lingering sentiment regarding the antebellum Old South (is there any?) and, on a larger scale, the blood that lubricated the Great Experiment. The contrast between Ford and Epps may be an eye-opening study in relativism insofar as they’re “movie characters,” but the movie implicates both in the entire nation’s larger sin. Whether actively stripping enslaved people of both their liberties and their skin or passively enabling the perpetuation of the system that stands idly by as such atrocities are carried out by others, the mere manifestation of an evil social institution makes evil everyone who lives within it. It’s a jejune position, but also one that can’t be made directly enough.
Still, McQueen’s bent for tastefully arty, often brutally violent effects often runs up hard against his appalled anger over America’s fatal error (an innate trait among practically all foreign filmmakers; McQueen is British), and consequently the movie’s most powerful scenes are the ones that draw a clear through line between Southern gentility and collective amorality, the scenes that are Roots and Goodbye Uncle Tom simultaneously. Among them, the spectacle of Paul Giamatti’s trader leading incredibly well-heeled plantation owners through his showroom of new acquisitions, repeatedly beating his fist on their naked meat like a car salesman rubbing his finger along a rear spoiler. Even more shrewdly stunning: Alfre Woodard’s brilliant scene as Mistress Harriet Shaw, defending her perch on the veranda while smirkingly serving Northrup tea, embodying a grimly dissolute sellout who is clearly smart enough to know when no other option was available.
In fact, the movie’s most interesting contrast may be the one drawn between the ironic relief the audience feels when Clemens — another apparently kidnapped free man — is rescued early in the film from the paddleboat carrying Solomon and others to their enslavement down South against the muted sense of barely thwarted futility that accompanies Solomon’s own rescue.
“There’s nothing to apologize for,” Northrup’s wife tells her weeping husband upon his return. True, unless you believe no one is truly free unless everyone is.