Just a single scene of 12 Years a Slave makes more of a statement on America’s struggle with its racial history than the entirety of Lee Daniels’ The Butler. By that I don’t mean any scene in particular. I mean that any one scene in Steve McQueen‘s 12 Years a Slave carries such a profound impact that few films, even as a whole, can hope to match.
12 Years a Slave is based on the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man of some renown who lived in Saratoga, New York. In 1841 his wife had to go on a business trip for several weeks and took their two children. Solomon is a violinist of high regard, and two circus promoters convince him to go on a tour with them in his family’s absence. Once they are in Washington DC, the pair gets Solomon drunk and sells him into slavery, where he is told his name is Platt. The film follows Solomon’s harrowing experiences of his life as a slave and his desperation to return to his family. What makes Solomon’s story so resonate is that he was a man torn from freedom and forced into slavery, so unlike someone born a slave he is fully aware of all that he has been denied by society’s cruel laws.
Solomon encounters many white Southerners of varying attitudes toward slavery. Solomon’s first owner is the compassionate (relatively speaking, of course) William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Ford’s character is established in his very first scene. He is buying slaves from slave trader Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti), who parades his merchandise like a slick used car salesman. Ford offers to purchase a slave and her daughter in order to keep them together and tries to appeal to Freeman’s “sentimentality.” Without a moment of hesitation, Freeman answers, “My sentimentality extends only the length of the thin side of a coin.”
Though Solomon changes hands several times, his most domineering master is his last owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a vicious, yet cowardly, cotton plantation owner whose attitudes are tied to his Christian justification of slavery (for example, he blames a bad cotton crop on a plague caused by his slaves) and the shame he feels for his love for Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), his hardest-working slave. His wife, Mary (Sarah Paulson), is chillingly brutal because of her husband’s infidelities and even the slightest kindness she displays toward her slaves is laced with wicked intentions.
The weight of the film falls of the shoulders of its star Ejiofor, but McQueen’s deft hand is also behind the characterization. Unlike other films about slavery, Solomon is not constantly depicted in chains or in the midst of being whipped. While these brutalities are certainly here, McQueen instead relies on Ejiofor’s expressive, scarred face and agonizingly long takes to show his suffering. One shot of Solomon hanging from a tree seems to go on for hours, but in reality it lasts about a minute. With these long takes, McQueen and Ejiofor show seemingly every brutal moment of those twelve years in just over two hours.
However, in many ways Ejiofor is overshadowed by Fassbender as Epps, starring in his third consecutive film with McQueen. Epps is such a horrid character that it’s impossible to not admire how much Fassbender delves into Epps in his performance. He is at times nuanced and at others shamelessly transparent in his characterization when a scene calls for it. Perhaps because of its subject matter, Fassbender’s stellar performance in McQueen’s Shame was not nominated for an Oscar even though every other organization recognized it. I hope Epps’ disgusting nature will not cause history to repeat itself.
Other “name” actors have small roles in the film, and unlike Lee Daniels’ The Butler none of these appearances are gratuitous or distracting. Along with Giamatti, Paul Dano plays an equally-vicious slaver drive, Tibeats. Dano’s character feels threatened by Solomon’s intelligence, and it’s a testament to Dano and McQueen’s ability as a filmmaker that the lanky Dano’s character is portrayed so intimidating because of his position of power. Alfre Woodard appears as Mistress Shaw, the black wife of a plantation owner who shows Solomon that she is both a slaver and slave-owner in her own way as a means of survival. Lastly, Brad Pitt (who also produced the film) portrays a contractor who works for Epps but is disgusted by slavery and Epps’ use of Scripture to justify it.
It is appropriate that the brutal, but in no way exploitative, 12 Years a Slave follows the releases of Django Unchained and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, two other films that have sparked discussion about America’s issues with race. 12 Years a Slave is a true-life narrative that wasn’t embellished for the film to make its points because it didn’t need to, unlike The Butler. Both Django Unchained and The Butler are cartoonish is different ways — Django Unchained as a revenge fantasy and The Butler as a political fantasy. But McQueen is a strong enough storyteller to know that his story (with script by John Ridley, who has never written anything this good) is the statement he needs (which begs the question of why more filmmakers don’t mine lesser-known historical accounts for harrowing human dramas). Even the score by Hans Zimmer, which is reminiscent of a John Williams score for a Spielberg historical drama, is kept to a minimum of flourishes. McQueen doesn’t need sentimental music to manipulate the audience — it’s all already on screen.
The reason why I keep harping on The Butler is because 12 Years a Slave is every bit the Oscar contender that people have been holding The Butler up to be. This is the film that will be used in schools to demonstrate slavery to future generations. Its is film that could, quite simply, change the conversation. And I feel that’s exactly what McQueen intended all along.
Rating: A deeply moving and oftentimes tough to watch narrative from a director who continues to prove he’ll one day be considered among the greats (9/10).