Tuesday, January 7, 2014

'12 Years a Slave' (2013) directed by Steve McQueen

12 Years a Slave is a precision-engineered piece of machinery designed to impress upon an audience exactly what slavery means. Through the terrifying story of Solomon Northup we get an unflinching lesson on what it means for a person to exist within in a system that subjugates human beings.  McQueen's film shows slavery as a process of gradual erosion, universally grinding down everyone involved in it, from slaves to slavers and anyone peripherally caught in its upswell.

Narratively it's as straightforward as a bullet fired from a gun.  It's 1841 and Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is living happily and securely as a free man in the North with his wife and two children. During a celebratory dinner with business partners he's drugged, manacled, transported to the South and sold into slavery.  Then follows twelve years of humiliation and misery as his identity, dignity and personhood is systematically stripped away from him at the hands of plantation owners; chief among them the hypocritical  William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the psychotic Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).

McQueen's style is about as assured as can find in cinema.  This is a director who has absolute confidence in the images he presents to audience, working with a disarming languidity that boils events down to a series of frozen infinities.  In one stunning shot early in Northup's slavery he's lynched as punishment for attacking an overseer.  The men suspend him by his neck, though are forced to let him down after being chased off by a superior. Northup is left with the tips of his toes scrabbling for purchase in the mud, in a state of constant tense movement to prevent his strangulation.  McQueen holds this wide shot of Northup for what feels like an eternity, forcing the audience to imagine the rope around their necks, to experience a faint simulation of silent, slow suffocation.

This shot (and others like it) demonstrate McQueen's trust in both his own craft and the power of the images he's created.  Crucially, he's not afraid to let the audience stop and think - something that's far rarer in cinema than it should be.  Many contemporary directors will do everything in their power to stop the audience thinking to themselves, mistaking contemplation for disengagement, preferring to overpower us with a nonstop blizzard of imagery, frantic editing and sound.  Here McQueen achieves a mild cinematic hypnosis, making endless days of drudgery in a weatherless purgatory compelling.

I can how people can criticise McQueen's directorial style as sterile, but 12 Years a Slave works because it expressly doesn't play on sentimentality or overtly trying force us through emotional catharsis.  The power of this film comes from the mosaic of tightly observed moments,each small piece of the puzzle contributing to a remarkably comprehensive picture of what slavery actually entails.  These moments can be as simple as the difficulty of trying to find a comfortable position to sleep in on a hard floor, cleaning the dirt from a whipped back, pricking your fingers while picking cotton, trying to write with substandard material, working in broken shoes or the correct way to cut sugar cane.  

As Northup's 12 years tick agonisingly by we subtly learn the rhythms and hierarchies of slavery: how the slaves interact, how the overseers interact with the slaves, how they overseers report to their superiors and how they in turn report to the plantation owner. Within these hierarchies we see complex psychologies at play between the individual slaves and the plantation owners and their families, literally every action that every character takes informed by the system of slavery they exist within.  The plantations Northup works on thus function as a microcosm of the entirety of slavery, the interactions in the film painstakingly explaining the mindsets required to sustain atrocity.

This mindset centres around the strictly defined roles of slave and master.  Northup is repeatedly advised never to let his owners learn of his literacy and past freedom, learning quickly that life as a slave is only possible if you behave like a "dumb nigger" rather than a person.  The slavers do their utmost to perpetuate this dehumanisation; the film showing us through the slaver Epps that the only way to sanely 'own' people is to deny them personhood.  Epps fascinatingly complex: a slaveowner who's managed to combine love and hate into a weapon, becoming erotically obsessed with a particularly hard working cotton picker, a warped affection that puts him through mental contortions that drive him to perverse cruelties.

On a macro scale the film considers the economies of slavery. Repeated scenes show the slaves ranked by how many pounds of cotton they can pick in a day.  There's a background hum of predatory capitalism throughout the film; the agribusiness of the plantations are precisely detailed, with the repeated references to the monetary worth of each individual slave - the reduction of person to tradeable commodity. 

It would be facile and reductive to read the story of Solomon Northup as a criticism of contemporary capitalism - to view the atrocity of C18th slavery as directly comparable to the situation of a modern first-world worker would detract from the film's power. Nonetheless, as a story of a free and liberated man being thrown into a meatgrinder we cannot help but wonder how we might fare if we were standing in Northup's tattered rags. We cannot realistically imagine what it would be to have the flesh torn from our backs, but we can imagine ourselves trapped within a system of productivity targets with a concrete idea of our economic worth to our bosses.

This is the rabbit hole that we're dragged down, the crisply saturated photography, the understated score and evocative performances allowing us to experience slavery not as an alien historical phenomenon 200 years past, but as a system born of recognisable human instincts; greed, solipsism and the all-too-easy temptation to 'other' human beings.  The terrible electricity of 12 Years a Slave isn't in simply watching humiliation, beating and rape, but in the horror of realising that deep within everyone lies a potential slave or worse, a slavemaster.


12 Years a Slave is on general release from 10 January

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