dir: Steve McQueen
How can you eat your pudding if you don't eat your greens?
The answer is, of course, you've got to eat your greens first before you have your pudding.
It was not a chore to sit through this flick, at all. It's an amazing, harrowing, sickening flick. But the hardest part for me was motivating myself to start watching it in the first place.
It's the very definition of 'homework', of eating your vegetables before getting your dessert, to see something Awardsworthy because everyone says it's the most Serious Important Film of the Year.
But I still knew I had to do it, chore or not, it had to be done. To do otherwise, as Ellen DeGeneres pointed out, would be to admit that I am deeply racist.
Yes, I'm being facetious. More so, I respect the work of Steve McQueen, who has the singular honour of being the only director who has ever, in the tens of thousands of films that have been made, made a film that could cause me to pass out in shock (being Hunger), who managed to make the pursuit of sex seem dull and horrible (Shame), and who now reminds us that Slavery was Bad, Okay?
No-one else, except for all the other directors who've done the same thing, has dared show just how much of an abomination slavery was, at least not recently. Well, not in the last couple of weeks.
The funniest thing for me, in all the discussions of American history, of the worthiness of this endeavour, of how many awards everyone deserved, is that the person this entire production depended on wasn't the masterful, sweaty, desperate Chiwitel Ejiofor, or Solomon Northup, whose story is the one being told, or the director Steve McQueen.
The person this endeavour depended on entirely was Brad Pitt. Brad Pitt! He's the only reason this film got made, because otherwise no-one was willing to fund it. How do I know this? Well, Steve McQueen himself at the BAFTAs clearly articulated the fact that without Brad's approval, none of this would have occurred.
Talk about a new form of slavery: imagine if your entire livelihood depended on whether Brad and/or Angelina approved of your actions, like Southern gentry sitting on their porch overseeing their labouring slaves in the field; he dressed in a white suit, sipping a mint julip, she in crinoline and chenille, complaining about her maid putting too much starch in her bustle. A nod or a shake of their heads sees you either rewarded with bread or water, or lashed to the nearest post and whipped to within an inch of your life.
It's no way to live. My biggest problem with this film is a problem that the performers and the director are well aware of, a problem which permeates and weaves its way throughout everything we see. The problem is the personal versus the political.
I'm not trying to be glib, but the problem faced by Solomon Northup is that people confuse him with a slave, with a person who's not a person, who deserves and needs to be bought and sold as livestock.
But, but, but I'm a free man! he can yell until he's blue in the face, or beaten until his face is blue. I'm no slave, not like the others. The rest of them are slaves, but not me, Sir, not me.
The injustice done to him is peculiar in this sense. Everyone else, sure, it's lamentable that they were born into bondage and will die there too, but that's their fate. Their lot in life. Some of them, perhaps, even deserve it. I mean, what else were they going to do with their meaningless lives? But when you take a well-educated, urbane, cultured man like Solomon Northup, and turn him into a slave solely because his skin is black, well, now you've gone too far.
This is a true story, in that, obviously, the States had slavery, but there was a guy called Solomon, and this did happen to him, for 12 or so years. A film giving us the entire overview of the history of slavery would be too big, too broad, too depressing, but in Solomon we are meant to see the injustice as it applied to one man. When we see how horribly the 'system' treated one man, well, we can imagine that it was horrible enough for millions of others.
This flick isn't so much about slavery, itself. I mean, it's an unavoidable part of it, it suffuses every scene, but it's more about Solomon's unquenchable desire to get back to his wife and children, and the endless reservoir of human cruelty that created and perpetuated a system like this.
The point isn't made in films enough that the reason for slavery is that without it, the feudalism - serfdom of the South couldn't have persisted as long as it did. In this flick, like most others, it's just what it is: a dehumanising, totalitarian system designed to be insurmountable and maintained often by the people suffering the worst of its strictures.
Plus, it had the added bonus of this logical syllogism: all dark skinned peoples aren't really human, and are slaves: you're a dark skinned person - therefore - you're a slave. How do you escape from that?
Solomon (Ejiofor) is born a free man and lives in a non-slavery state. He has a home, a wife and children. He is a talented musician, and this leads to tours and work, and probably blowjobs every now and then.
To the unscrupulous, though, he represents a cash bounty: two scumbags essentially drug him, kidnap him, and sell him to people who take him to Louisiana, telling him that, as far as they're concerned, he's no different from any other slave. He is a slave because he’s black. Anything else is just noise, for which he’ll be beaten until he stops talking.
I'm not going to use the word they use with disturbing frequency, but you know what the word is. They use it so much, so often, and it's pretty ugly every time. It's not a word that you get desensitised to (at least in this context, because it doesn't have the same impact when I'm hearing it countless times on rap records), because the people saying it are saying it with extra gusto, venom, or importance. Hopefully, for most of them, it’s the only time they’ll get to use it, hence that special thrill.
I mean, when else is Paul Giamatti going to yell “nigger” at people and not get the shit kicked out of him?
When people tell you that you are something that you're not, and someone that you're not, and all the evidence they need to discount what you say is written on your skin, then how can you prevail against the system? Solomon strains constantly to find some way to inform his friends and loved ones of his circumstances, but the simple process of even putting pen to paper, or quill to parchment is completely beyond him. He is instructed in no uncertain terms to hide his education lest he be killed, and when does a field slave get access to such writing materials? And where and how would he send such a letter?
Of course had he access to the internet back then, he could have just sent a selfie of his pained, indignant expression to his wife, and she'd be able to figure out quick smart what happened to him. Instead, he has to go through this whole film, and twelve years, looking somewhat horrified, somewhat disbelieving that this is all happening to him and not someone else.
It's quite a feat of face acting, it really is. He stands in a group of other slaves, and all of them have a downcast, sullen and accepting expression (except for the ones who violently don't), but he goes through everything as if trying to convince people with his face that he doesn't belong there.
In a lot of other ways, since this is a memoir, and its purpose is the demonisation of a demonic system, this is really a horror film. Any moments of respite or mercy are eventually followed up with even more horrific brutalities. And as unfortunate as Solomon is to find himself here, there are others who suffer even worse fates.
I think it's safe to say that the circumstances of Patsey's (Lupita N’yongo) existence, a fellow slave on the second plantation Solomon ends up on, are even worse than Solomon's. She is the only one, barring two runaway slaves we see getting ready to meet their makers at the ends of ropes, who we clearly see suffers somehow more than our saintly protagonist. Her crime is that her master (Michael Fassbender) finds her irresistible, and torments her especially so because of it. And by ‘torments’, I mean rapes, beats, lavishes with attention, strangles, every awful thing Michael Fassbender can think of (don’t tell me that was the script: I don’t think anyone was even capable of directing him in some of those scenes).
If that wasn’t bad enough, the Master’s wife (Sarah Paulson) is even worse.
What Patsey endures, to the point where she prays for death, is what countless slaves endured, sure, but it’s a reminder of the uniqueness of Solomon’s plight, which is somewhat confusing. Of course we want Solomon to no longer endure this slow-motion daily tragedy, but what about everyone else? What about Patsey? What about all the other slaves? Why aren’t we hoping for them to be freed as well?
Is it relief we’re meant to feel in the end? Satisfaction? That justice was served, that the truth would out? What about Patsey, that’s all I could think of in the end, what about Patsey?
Next to Django Unchained, of course 12 Years a Slave seems like a sober, sobering shock of cold water, but it possesses something in its Taratinoesque dishonesty that 12 Years doesn’t: catharsis. As comedic or absurd as sections of Django were, what it offered us was a release from our sickened disgust: another exceptional character (‘exceptional’ in that they’re unlike all the other slaves but only for some arbitrary reason) gets to exact revenge in a cartoonish way.
As silly as that seems, it makes for a more enjoyable experience, perhaps because it is silly. I’m far more likely to watch Django again than I am ever to watch 12 Years, but that’s because the latter is such a beautifully made and depressing experience, and seems somewhat misguided. Both make the point that this system should never have happened, never have continued, never have been justifiable, but only one of them admits that one man getting out of it was great for him and absolutely no-one else.
8 times if you can convince the masses that one group of people are inhuman, you can convince them that anyone is inhuman out of 10
“I apologise for my appearance. But I have had a difficult time these past several years.” – you don’t say – 12 Years a Slave