There is a scene in 12 Years a Slave where actress Lupita Nyong'o character Patsey sits in an open field, humming and creating a family made of cloth dolls. This is a family life that she herself, a slave and object of brutal subjugation will never experience; it is a life that protagonist Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) has been stripped away from, and yet here they both find themselves: living in merciless circumstances, drawing on what they can only feel, not have, in order to make it through the day.
Survival is the overarching theme in the latest offering from director Steve McQueen's (Shame, Hunger)—both the end of the oppressor and the oppressed are struggling for it.
12 Years a Slave succeeds where other films have failed by exposing the human toll of the slave industrial complex; the most egregious of which was forcing every individual—master, slave or otherwise—to abandon hope of life outside it.
The film is based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup, who was born a free man living with his family in Saratoga, New York before being conned and sold into slavery. The film captures Northup's twelve years on a brutal Louisiana plantation, and his determination to return to his family. Before his captivity, Northup is a remarkably accomplished artist, father and husband. He is respected in his community. Slavery robs him of the sense control he has over his life, but more importantly, it robs him of his basic humanity. We witness his fight to maintain a sense of dignity in a world that is bent on destruction of our most fundamental rights as human beings.
In many cases, the slave narrative in American film has been both slighted and caricaturized, the master-slave relation almost cartoonish in its approach of good versus evil. This is where 12 Years a Slave distinguishes itself: even the most villainous characters vibrate with a frailty they seek desperately to mask. Indeed, the more they seek to hide it, the more monstrous they become.
Actor Michael Fassbender, who plays the master of the plantation Edwin Epps, portrays a callousness that bubbles with fear. Like many White people on the plantation, he is threatened by Northup's obvious intelligence and determination to reclaim his rights as a free man. Epps is also tormented by his attraction to Patsey, who remains the constant object of his violent rages throughout the film. Indeed, McQueen does not mask the brutality and psychological damage of slavery. This film is no D'jango riding gallantly on a horse for laughs: this film is the echoing shriek of mother's when their children are torn away from them and sold, it is the sound of a whip so utterly intense that with each lash administered, the audience will gasp in horror as they are reminded of America's sordid history.
While 12 Years a Slave does not dilute the brutality of slavery, it succeeds the most in portraying the almost impossible pursuit of survival. While some characters dance with the idea of death, unable to fathom another day on the plantation, in many cases, there still remains a will to exist stronger than any lash. Even when nearing the brink of death, there is still the vision of family or God that promises a lasting delivery. In fact, religion and moral justification are continuous themes in the film; as masters rationalize their violence as the will of God, slaves draw upon God to deliver them from that same violence.
"As we know, through the centuries religion has kept a lot of people sane, especially in the United States—or insane, for that matter. You have to hold onto something, or else all is lost," said McQueen at a recent screening.
In speaking of the film, McQueen does not mince his words. He is not after a Tarantino characterization of slavery featuring superheroes and punchlines, nor a story of defeat. His choice was to begin this film with a Black family in power, both free and respected; then begins a tale of the loss of innocence, and the trials that lead again to a final triumph. The audience is left rooting for Northup, even in moments were his resolve seems to diminish, but even at the end of the film, many will be left with a sense of emptiness because one, not all have escaped. For me, this is perhaps one of the bigger conundrums that still faces our community today: while some of us gain our economic freedom, many more still live in today's own drawn-out system of slavery, from the prison industrial system, to the food deserts in our communities. Add to this the one-sided images we are fed of ourselves by the media, and one can begin to see how this narrative plays on today. In that way, once we have convinced ourselves (or been convinced) of certain narratives, oppression is an inevitable outcome of a loss of hope.
After the screening, McQueen asked the audience: "Could you imagine being born a slave? I think that's the worst thing that could happen to a human being. I think that when you fast forward slavery to today, walking down the streets, you see the evidence of slavery everywhere, in America, in the West Indies, in London, Europe, you see the evidence of it. This stuff hasn't been dealt with. When you look at the Holocaust, and Germany, and how many people have actually studied that, dealt with that and continue to deal with that. Slavery, it hasn't even started. It's a deep psychological wound."
12 Years a Slave is more than a beautiful and harrowing tale of redemption; it is a call for America to no longer look away from the legacy of its history and an unflinching judgment on the inhumanity of a system that still lingers today.