A man hangs from a tree. Well, he isn’t hanging, not quite; he was meant to but because of some fortuitous events, he has just enough slack to get his toes in the mud below to keep himself barely alive. He’s lucky. The men, women and children who walk around him, play beside him and carry on with their lives are luckier; however, though they know all too well, they could be in his place or worse and have known it for so long, they can’t be bothered to be too dismayed by the man clinging to life on the tree. They’re all clinging to life; he’s just not doing as good of a job of it at the moment. This image, central to Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013), distills, as any single image can, the madness and cruelty of slavery and its insidious ability to tear away humanity until people are property and property is expendable, and you’d do best to not even notice and just be thankful it’s not you in that noose.
The story is the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man in upstate New York in 1841. He’s a musician and a family man, apparently well-liked in the area, and he agrees to go to Washington, D.C., with a pair of circus promoters to perform in a limited engagement. As it turns out, that engagement will last 12 years and change his life irrevocably. His colleagues drug him and sell him into slavery; denied his identification and so close to the Mason-Dixon line, there is no way of proving who he is or, more important, who he isn’t, and he is beaten and kept captive in a small building under the shadow of the U.S. Capitol, a place governed by a document that proclaims all men are equal.
Northup, now known as Platt, is shuffled about, witnessing unspeakable act after unspeakable act, forced to stand unmoved as a woman is separated from her children, while countless are beaten to death and others succumb from the beatings or from exhaustion. He is sold to the Rev. William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) who is, only in relative terms, benevolent. His overseers are not, and Northup clashes with a particularly nasty one played by Paul Dano. This antagonism comes to a head and results in the aborted lynching, but this danger, coupled with Ford’s financial straits, forces Northup’s sale to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a cruel sociopath with a poisoned mind. He shares the poison with his wife (Sarah Paulson), who urges him to beat the hope out of their slaves; it may, in fact, have been her who first poisoned him. On the Epps plantation, Northup encounters Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), who Epps crows can pick more cotton than any man. She is his unwilling mistress and the target of Epps’ wife’s jealousy and violence.
Every new day brings a new terror and McQueen admirably shows it all to us, in full view and at length. In this Dixieland, it’s all you can do to look away, look away, look away and yet, you have to resist that urge, because this happened; it’s part of the fabric of the nation we live in today, and in 115 years of cinema, there’s never been a movie that deals with this national cancer as frankly, directly and unflinchingly as 12 Years a Slave.That would be remarkable enough, but what also distinguishes the movie is not just the violence but the terrible psychology behind the violence. The inconsistencies, paradoxes and perversities of the cruelty are maddening, existing with the logic of a nightmare. The laws of this universe appear to be the same as ours but everything’s skewed, deformed. Both Ford and Epps hide behind a divine right to bondage and preach love while either condoning or enacting furious pain and anguish. Basic decency would dictate that fellow humans wouldn’t treat each other this way, and even business acumen would suggest that a landowner wouldn’t treat his workforce this way, but those concepts are gone from this wasteland, poisoned by generations of corrupting power disparities. For Northup, he is dragged from freedom into this world in which up appears to be down and logic and decency are myths.
The sickness of slavery twists at the pit of every being it touches. The crushing anxiety and dread crushes down on Northup every day and doesn’t even leave the Eppses alone. This is no leisure class but a mangled mess of anger, jealousy and fear, spending their best years keeping their slaves in that constant dread so that the dread could hardly not hover over them as well. The Eppses seem to know of the precariousness of this arrangement, the flimsiness of their assertions of racial superiority, and live encased in a fear of retribution. This malaise of society makes the landscape impossible to traverse. Northup initially believes his path to freedom is to be the best worker he can be, to display to his masters his intelligence and ingenuity. On his initial capture he learns a quick and terrible lesson about speaking out in defense of his fellow slaves, and from then on Northup tries to over-perform. This grants him favor with Ford, who touchingly gives Northup, the musician, a fiddle as a present, but Northup realizes under the lash of Master Epps how little his exceptionally affords him, just as Patsey’s efficiency in the cotton field doesn’t excuse her from midnight visits from Epps or the swift and terrible punishment of Mrs. Epps. When it’s clear his respectable behavior will do nothing to better his lot, it becomes clear what a hollow gift is a fiddle when what you wanted was freedom.
McQueen is able to present this horror with an immediacy that slavery movies rarely possess. There’s nowhere to hide from this, and his choice to infuse the filmmaking—from the cinematography to the gorgeous willow-laden locations—with a kind of beauty is the right one. The stark contrast of aesthetics reinforces the power of the violence. To see such cruelty set against such a beautiful backdrop underlines that what slavery is doesn’t come from nature. McQueen’s sprawling canvas, expanded by John Ridley’s screenplay, is not comprehensive but gives an admirable cross-section of the depth of antebellum social disease. The landowners vary in degrees of cruelty, but they all enslave other humans. Those enslaved have their own inhuman sickness forced upon them, as we see children play under the shadow of vicious beatings, and we watch through pained eyes as Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard), a former slave who married a plantation master and is therefore a slave owner, explains her position—in this Hell on Earth, compassion is dead, so look out for you, and anybody who doesn’t better themselves when the opportunity arises is a fool and won’t be anything for long. Finally we watch Solomon, who once had the self-respect to stand up for himself and attack an overseer, pick up a whip and beat his fellow slave, on pain of death, yes, but done just the same.
The experience of watching the movie is a hard one but important one, not only because its history is too terribly true but because, on a different scale, the root of this evil is still with us—not only racism but the fealty to commerce that launched this catastrophe and created this human swamp. A mountain of cruelty forms as bodies writhe against each other to stay ahead of the bottom line. The movie argues that this hierarchy is not limited by geographical or racial bounds, only economic ones, as Northup, in a flashback to his days as a free man, looks through a visiting slave in a shop the same way Epps disregards a slave by resting his arm on his head as if he were a table. We use our station in life to excuse our treatment of others and even to forget that they were there; that happens the same now as it did in 1841. If I felt this maddened, frustrated, aggrieved and despairing in a little more than two hours, I can only imagine what unendurable horror and anguish would accompany 12 years, or a lifetime or 400 years and counting. This is, like our history, a movie to be reckoned with.