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Pain amid Humanity: Twelve Years a Slave

Slavery regained social attention following last year’s two Oscar nominated films—Tarantino’s gory Django Unchained and Spielberg’s more somber Lincoln. This year’s antebellum film is Steve McQueen’s new feature Twelve Years a Slave, based on an autobiography written in 1853. Twelve Years combines the gore of Django with the serious attitude of Lincoln. But emotional intensity separates Twelve Years from other portrayals of slavery. McQueen’s disturbing and powerful account of slavery doesn’t make for a lighthearted afternoon movie. It is deep, effective, and extremely moving.

The movie revolves around the story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free African American living in New York, who is taken captive and sold into slavery. In one of the film’s first scenes, Solomon is kidnapped and taken to the South on a slave boat. Onboard, he and two other captives discuss possible escape plans. One man tells him that they must accept their slavery to to survive. Solomon responds, “I don’t want to survive, I want to live.” Herein lies the struggle underlying Solomon’s physical and emotional journey. Throughout the film, he attempts to achieve a sort of middle ground, to cling to his dignity without ceding to slavery or attempting escape. He doesn’t truly become a slave, and he doesn’t simply survive, but he cannot fully live, either. Eijofor deftly embodies Solomon’s great moral, physical, and emotional struggle.

As the title suggests, the movie is concerned not with Solomon’s quest for freedom, but with his time spent as a slave. For the most part, Twelve Years does not portray ghastly living conditions for the slaves. They are generally well-fed, well-dressed, and with one exception, physically healthy. Instead, the film dwells on their emotional struggles caused by the cruelties of their masters. Solomon and Eliza, a female slave (Adepero Oduye), debate how they are supposed to approach their previous lives, and again the theme of retaining humanity amid inhumanity resurfaces. The film’s novel story, the re-enslavement of a free man, deconstructs slavery’s internal contradiction—the attempt to make inhuman what is human. The performances of African American folk songs, including one in which Eijofor stares directly into the camera, seem to direct the audience to examine the very essence of what it means to have a face—to be human.

Twelve Years pulls off its high drama thanks to the dexterity of its cast who display great depth and deliver powerful lines from John Ridley’s elegantly effective screenplay. But the film also benefits from McQueen’s masterful arrangement of scenes, which deftly intercuts silent suffering with intense passionate dialogue, and mixes off-screen dialogue with the current scene’s dialogue in a chilling conversation between the present and the past.

During the boat’s journey, Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography and Hans Zimmer’s score—which are effective throughout—steal the show. Without showing any hint of exactly what lies in Solomon’s future, they manage to capture Solomon’s immense terror and fear of his approaching fate.

The film supports a host of minor roles played by Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt, and Benedict Cumberbatch (excellent, but I still have trouble seeing him as anything other than his amazing Sherlock). Don’t go expecting to see much of Pitt, though he is good, as always, he is on screen for, at most, five minutes. Michael Fassbender, who starred in McQueen’s previous films Shame (2011) and Hunger (2008),  portrays Edwin Epps, the slave owner under whom Solomon spends most of his term. Fassbender delivers an electrifying performance of a cruel yet vulnerable and humanized slave owner. We sympathize for the slaves to whom he inflicts pain, but we also commiserate with those who inflict this cruelty, as we watch Edwin internalize the humanity of the slaves and the inhumanity of slavery.

In fact, the movie’s greatest strength lies in its unblinking, extremely intense examination of this cruelty. Eijofor and the rest of the cast portray complex forms of pain--ranging from physical exhaustion to deep emotional contradictions--and McQueen masterfully communicates these emotions. One particular horrifying and tear-jerking scene involving a female slave Patsey (played by Lupita Nyong’o) earns the movie its R rating.

The film does contain moments of intrigue. Brad Pitt plays a Canadian abolitionist who has a seemingly unnecessary philosophical debate with slaveholder Epps. But this debate, I believe, serves a slightly different purpose. To return to the comparison to Django and Lincoln for a moment: Lincoln takes place in 1865, and is accompanied by a total victory over slavery. Django takes place earlier, but also offers a complete victory over the evils of slavery. One is allowed to leave the theater uplifted and joyous with the defeat of slavery.

During Twelve Years, Solomon keeps claiming he deserves freedom “because I was once free,” and by the end of the movie, we find ourselves agreeing with him, but perhaps forgetting that there is a far more universal claim to freedom. Pitt reframes the philosophical undertones in the film, reminding us that all slaves deserved freedom, no matter their particular circumstance.

McQueen reminds us of this truth just before the end of the movie, but unlike Django, he does not allow us a full victory;  we are reminded that although Solomon achieves freedom, his is a drop-in-the-bucket victory. McQueen does not allow us to walk out of the theater alleviated from the pain of slavery after witnessing its destruction. Instead, he forces us to carry this pain and guilt, to add a new layer onto our personal conception of America’s legacy of slavery.