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12 Years a Slave

10 January 14 words: Ashley Carter
British filmmaker Steve McQueen makes the kidnapping and enslavement of a freeman the subject of his latest cinematic outing...
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There exists a living history museum in Virginia named Colonial Williamsburg, within the confines of which the paying public are able to experience a little of what life would have been like in the eighteenth century.  Up until the 1970s, the subject of slavery had not been part of their presentation, but the decision was taken that, in order to represent the time period accurately, the subject must be broached. Subsequent visitors to the site now witness the horrors of the slave-auctions, where screaming children are ripped from the arms of their mothers, re-enacted by the museum’s actors. Public response to this was one of abject shock. Some offered their apologies to the black actors portraying slaves, others still, lost in the moment altogether, violently tried to liberate from their make-believe enslavers. Though this aspect remains an integral part of the tourist site’s syllabus today, the introduction of re-enacted slavery had a drastically negative effect on its number of visitors.

It is clear that the subject of slavery remains a contentious and divisive issue. As recently as December, Michael Jackson biographer Martin Bashir was fired from his position at MSNBC for his “ill-judged comments” about Sarah Palin. The former Governor of Alaska had compared the country’s federal debt to slavery, leading Bashir to read from the account of slave owner Thomas Thistlewood, describing the penalty known as “Derby’s dose”: the act in which slaves were forced to defecate and urinate in one-another’s mouths as form of punishment.  According to Bashir, Palin “confirms if anyone truly qualified for a dose of discipline from Thomas Thistlewood, she would be the outstanding candidate."

Evidently, America’s ongoing struggles with its own past remain something of a taboo. It is with difficulty that the country that extols the virtues of personal liberty and freedom from persecution acknowledges its foundation as a country built on the slave trade. Perhaps then, it is fitting that it would take an outsider to create what is arguably the first honest, unstinting view of the subject of slavery, as British filmmaker Steve McQueen has masterfully done with 12 Years a Slave.

Opening to almost universal critical praise, his film depicts the events of Soloman Northup’s memoir of the same name. As a free man in 1841, Northup (a magnificent Chiwetel Ejiofor) with his wife and two children, was a successful and respected violinist living in New York State. After being taken to Washington under the false pretences of a lucrative work opportunity he is kidnapped and sold into slavery. What follows is a brutal odyssey through the savage system of slavery in the antebellum South, as he tries to regain the freedom he once had.

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Rightly praised for his trademark exhibition of extreme violence, McQueen never hides from portraying brutality, though his visceral style never feels needlessly hedonistic. Two scenes in particular are shocking for their extreme, and surprising fits of viciousness, but both, as difficult as they are to watch, are felicitous within the context.

Long-standing caricatures from the era are refreshingly dispensed with as each character, whether slave or enslaver feels balanced and three-dimensional. The bible-thumping plantation owner, and broken, subservient slave are present, but not exclusive within the cast of characters. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), Northup’s initial owner, is relatively sympathetic.  Ford takes Northup’s advice on practical matters, gifts him a violin, and protects him when attacked by rabid hired hand Tibeats (Paul Dano).

It is this dispute that leads to his passing to the cotton plantation of the equally maniacal Edwin and Mistress Epps (powerfully portrayed by Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson), at the hands of whom his worst treatment is suffered and the majority of his enslavement occurs.

The duality of religion makes an interest subtext, as it acts as both a justification for the enslavers and a solace for the enslaved. So too is the previously unexplored clash between women of the era; Edwin’s obvious favour of an enigmatic young female slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) is treated with ferocious barbarity by Mistress Epps, with the ongoing clash between the two providing the most horrific on-screen cruelty.

Hollywood’s previous explorations of the subject have been uncurious and disingenuous to the point of tedium. The simplistic over-sentimentality of Steven Spielberg is probably most suspect, with both his Amistad and Lincoln tentatively probing the question of slavery through the apparently more palatable eyes of the heroic white protagonist. Glory was admirable, but focused more on the Civil War rather than slavery itself. And as entertaining as Quentin Tarantino’s Django: Unchained was, it offered little by way of insight into the subject matter.

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Director Steve McQueen was keen to point out the jarring dichotomy between the presentation and sheer quantity of films about World War II in comparison to those made about slavery. Perhaps this is due to the American view of themselves as the saviors of that conflict, whereas their role as enslavers within that sinister chapter of history is far from being in the forefront of their minds.

However, some have argued the answer may lie within the ongoing racial issues within the country. Black filmmakers perhaps aren’t afforded the same opportunity to tell the more painful stories from their history as, for example, Jewish directors like Spielberg are able to produce films about the Holocaust. This same argument has emerged with regard to awards season, with the suggestion being that the Academy consisting of a 95% white membership will vote with bias.

The fact that these conversations even exist makes it clear that the issue is anything but on the way to resolution. The cries of racism should it not win major awards will only be drowned out by the shouts of ‘white guilt’ should it win them all. With the on-going racial tug-of-war surrounding 12 Years a Slave, its chances at a fair trial come awards season seem to be diminishing quickly.

The film is by no means a pleasant watch, and the scenes of violence will test the hardiest of viewers. The extraordinary power of the performances as well as masterful and passionate direction contributes to it being a sincerely striking and effective film. Further augmented by the magnitude and sincere portrayal of its subject matter, 12 Years a Slave is as essential a work of art as narrative cinema can be. 

12 Years a Slave will be showing at Broadway Cinema until Thursday 30 January 2014.

12 Years a Slave Official Site

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