After watching 12 Years a Slave, I felt the way I’d felt after visiting Auschwitz: raw and exposed, and gripped by a keen sadness. It induced in me something like a state of shock. A history long known and its facts long understood, but its implications for humanity suddenly made real.
We all learn about these events from our (scarily recent) past, from teachers and parents and textbooks and television – everyone is taught the facts; but 12 Years a Slave is concerned with a very human story. Adapted from Solomon Northup’s memoir, it recounts his experience of being kidnapped and sold into the slave trade in 1841. Taken from his comfortable life in New York State where he lived with his family as a free man, Northup is stripped of his identity, forced to work on various Louisiana plantations, and obliged to hide his literacy and musical talent for the sake of his life.
Steve McQueen’s direction expertly facilitates the film’s focus on the experiences of its characters. The camera just hangs there during the most shocking scenes, giving a wide open, unblinking view of the extreme acts of cruelty it portrays. It lingers painfully in the quiet aftermath of violent attacks, just long enough to capture our empathy and give us time to consider the situations of those on the screen after the action is over.
McQueen’s attempts to draw out our sympathy are especially successful thanks to an array of superb performances from a well-chosen cast. Chiwetel Ejiofor is particularly striking in the role of Solomon. He learns early on that submission means survival, but his face constantly discloses the horror of his situation and the prickling anger he must suppress if he wishes to remain alive. Hans Zimmer’s score is just as enchanting and adds greatly to the atmosphere of the film without distracting. The Southern setting is beautiful, consistent with the starkly honest direction – there is no attempt to make the lush farmlands of the slave states appear ugly (though eerie images of willow trees bring to mind Abel Meeropol’s protest poem “Strange Fruit”). The real impact of the film, however, lies in its depiction of the slave economy’s de-humanisation of an entire race.
Few things are as frightening as man’s capacity for cruelty and 12 Years a Slave portrays how easily empathy can be forgotten or ignored, and the humanity of others disregarded. Whether it be slave-trader Mr Freeman’s unfeeling eagerness to sell off his wares or the sheer baseness of Tibeats, a particularly gung-ho overseer who relishes his position of power, the perception of black people as a practical commodity rather than sentient beings is established throughout the film. The script is subtly revealing in this aspect. “Your children will soon be forgotten,” says one slaver’s wife to her husband’s new purchase, Eliza, who weeps grief-stricken for her broken family. The word “nigger” is used frequently and casually until it no longer shocks, but its connotations are ripe and its profound offensiveness understood.
12 Years a Slave is an example of, probably, the most important type of art: it highlights the impact of this terrible period of history on ordinary lives. Many might feel a natural sense of revulsion for these events from our past but, inevitably, there is also a detachment that comes from living in what we like to think of as a different world. We can learn and disapprove of the facts, but to really understand their implications and to really feel something about them can be difficult. McQueen’s film elicits a response that history books struggle to evoke, making it essential.