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Of human bondage

12 Years a Slave isn’t the first movie about slavery in the United States — but it may be the one that finally makes it impossible for American cinema to continue to sell the ugly lies it’s been hawking for more than a century. Written by John Ridley and directed by Steve McQueen, it tells the true story of Solomon Northup, an African-American freeman who, in 1841, was snatched off the streets of Washington, and sold. It’s at once a familiar, utterly strange and deeply American story in which the period trappings long beloved by Hollywood — the paternalistic gentry with their pretty plantations, their genteel manners and all the fiddle-dee-dee rest — are the backdrop for an outrage.

The story opens with Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) already enslaved and cutting sugar cane on a plantation. A series of flashbacks shifts the story to an earlier time, when Solomon, living in New York with his wife and children, accepts a job from a pair of white men to play violin in a circus. Soon the three are enjoying a civilised night out in Washington, sealing their camaraderie with heaping plates of food, flowing wine and the unstated conviction — if only on Solomon’s part — of a shared humanity, a fiction that evaporates when he wakes the next morning shackled and discovers that he’s been sold. Thereafter, he is passed from master to master.

It’s a desperate path and a story that seizes you almost immediately with a visceral force. But McQueen keeps everything moving so fluidly and efficiently that you’re too busy worrying about Solomon, following him as he travels from auction house to plantation, to linger long in the emotions and ideas that the movie churns up. Part of this is pragmatic — McQueen wants to keep you in your seat, not force you out of the theatre, sobbing — but there’s something else at work here. This is, he insists, a story about Solomon, who may represent an entire subjugated people and, by extension, the peculiar institution, as well as the American past and present. Yet this is also, emphatically, the story of one individual.

Unlike most of the enslaved people whose fate he shared for a dozen years, the real Northup was born into freedom. (His memoir’s telegraphing subtitle is Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of NewYork, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853, From a Cotton Plantation Near the Red River, in Louisiana.) That made him an exceptional historical witness, because even while he was inside slavery — physically, psychologically, emotionally — part of him remained intellectually and culturally at a remove, which gives his book a powerful double perspective. In the North, he experienced some of the privileges of whiteness, and while he couldn’t vote, he could enjoy an outing with his family. Even so, he was still a black man in antebellum America.

McQueen is a British visual artist who made a rough transition to movie directing with his first two features, Hunger and Shame, both of which were embalmed in self-promoting visuals. Hunger is the sort of art film that makes a show of just how perfectly its protagonist, the Irish dissident Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), smears his excrement on a prison wall. Shame, about a sex addict (Fassbender again), was little more than glossy surfaces, canned misery and preening directorial virtuosity. For 12 Years a Slave, by contrast, McQueen has largely dispensed with the conventions of art cinema to make something close to a classical narrative; in this movie, the emphasis isn’t on visual style but on Solomon and his unmistakable desire for freedom.

There’s nothing ambivalent about Solomon. Ejiofor has a round, softly inviting face, and he initially plays the character with the stunned bewilderment of a man who, even chained, can’t believe what is happening to him. Not long after he’s kidnapped, Solomon sits huddled with two other prisoners on a slaver’s boat headed south. One man insists that they should fight their crew. A second disagrees, saying, “Survival’s not about certain death, it’s about keeping your head down.” Seated between them, Solomon shakes his head no. Days earlier he was home. “Now,” he says, “you tell me all is lost?” For him, mere survival cannot be enough. “I want to live.”

This is Solomon’s own declaration of independence, and an assertion of his humanity that sustains him. It’s also a seamlessly structured scene that turns a discussion about the choices facing enslaved people — fight, submit, live — into cinema. In large part, 12 Years a Slave is an argument about American slavery that, in image after image, both reveals it as a system (signified in one scene by the sights and ominous, mechanical sounds of a boat water wheel) and demolishes its canards, myths and cherished symbols. There are no lovable masters here or cheerful slaves. There are also no messages, wagging fingers or final-act summations or sermons. McQueen’s method is more effective and subversive because of its primarily old-fashioned, Hollywood-style engagement.

It’s a brilliant strategy that recognises the seductions of movies that draw you wholly into their narratives and that finds McQueen appropriating the very film language that has been historically used to perpetuate reassuring (to some) fabrications about American history. One of the shocks of 12 Years a Slave is that it reminds you how infrequently stories about slavery have been told on the big screen, which is why it’s easy to name exceptions, like Richard Fleischer’s demented, at times dazzling 1975 film, Mandingo. The greater jolt, though, is that 12 Years a Slave isn’t about another Scarlett O’Hara, but about a man who could be one of those anonymous, bent-over black bodies hoeing fields in the opening credits of Gone With the Wind, a very different “story of the Old South”.

At one point in Northup’s memoir, which was published a year after Uncle Tom’s Cabin and eight years before the start of the Civil War, he interrupts an account of his own near-lynching to comment on the man largely to blame for the noose around his neck. “But whatever motive may have governed the cowardly and malignant tyrant,” he writes, “it is of no importance.” It doesn’t matter why Northup was strung up in a tree like a dead deer in the summer sun, bathed in sweat, with little water to drink. What matters is what has often been missing among the economic, social and cultural explanations of American slavery and in many of its representations: human suffering. “My wrists and ankles, and the cords of my legs and arms began to swell, burying the rope that bound them into the swollen flesh.”

Part of the significance of Northup’s memoir is its description of everyday life. McQueen recreates, with texture and sweep, scenes of slavery’s extreme privations and cruelties, but also its work rhythms and routines, sunup to sundown, along with the unsettling intimacies it produced among the owners and the owned. In Louisiana, Solomon is sold by a brutish trader (Paul Giamatti) to an outwardly decent plantation owner, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who, in turn, sells him to a madman and drunk, Edwin Epps (Fassbender). In his memoir, Northup refers to Ford charitably, doubtless for the benefit of the white readers who were the target of his abolitionist appeal. Freed from that burden, the filmmakers can instead show the hypocrisies of such paternalism.

It’s on Epps’s plantation that 12 Years a Slave deepens, and then hardens. It’s also where the existential reality of what it meant to be enslaved, hour after hour, decade after decade, generation after generation, is laid bare, at times on the flayed backs of Epps’s human property, including that of his brutalised favourite, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’). Fassbender, skittish and weirdly spiderlike, grabs your attention with curdled intensity. He’s so arresting that at first it seems as if the performance will soon slip out of McQueen’s control, and that the character will become just another irresistibly watchable, flamboyant heavy. Movie villainy is so easy, partly because it allows actors to showboat, but also because a lot of filmmakers can’t resist siding with power.

McQueen’s sympathies are as unqualified as his control. There is much to admire about 12 Years a Slave, including the clear-eyed, unsentimental quality of its images — this is a place where trees hang with beautiful moss and black bodies — and how Ejiofor’s restrained, open, translucent performance works as a ballast, something to cling onto, especially during the frenzies of violence. These are rightly hard to watch and bring to mind the startling moment in Maus, Art Spiegelman’s cartoon opus about the Holocaust, in which he asks his “shrink” to explain what it felt like to be in Auschwitz. “Boo! It felt like that. But ALWAYS!” The genius of 12 Years a Slave is its insistence on banal evil, and on terror, that seeped into souls, bound bodies and reaped an enduring, terrible price.

Manohla Dargis
(The New York Times News Service)

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