A tale of triumph in the face of unspeakable cruelty, a damning portrayal of a decaying society built on the commodification of humanity with a lush, lyrical, visual aestheticism, only a cynical, hardhearted curmudgeon could fail to be moved by Steve McQueen’s Oscar-stalking 12 Years A Slave.
Luckily for you, ladies and germs, I am that cynical curmudgeon, the one pair of resolutely dry eyes in a cinema full of crybabies, my stony heart unsoftened by the two-plus hours of very pretty, photogenic misery porn precision tooled to engender hand wringing and guilt in what will probably be it’s predominately white middle class audience. In case you didn’t already know or weren’t too sure, slavery is bad! And that’s about as much as McQueen has to say in a film which, from its interminable shots of nature to the by-the-numbers Hans Zimmer score would have been better titled Terrence Malick’s Roots.
The year is 1841 and free African-American carpenter/musician Solomon Northup (Ejofor) is drugged and kidnapped for fun and profit by a pair of dastardly vaudevillians (the always shifty McNairy and Killam) who sell him into slavery. Beaten into concealing his status as an educated free man, Northup is renamed Platt and shipped to New Orleans where boggle-eyed slave trader Giamatti sells him to benevolent nice-guy plantation owner and slave enthusiast William Ford (Cumberbatch) who takes Northup’s advice on timber transportation and gives him a real sweet violin, in the process engendering the seething resentment of whiny, sweaty, racist overseer Tibeats (Dano, who else?).
When tensions between Tibeats and Northup reach boiling point and Tibeats tries to have Northup lynched, Ford is forced, against his better judgment, to sell Northup to the cruel Edwin Epps (Fassbender) an alcoholic psychopath who uses scripture to justify the brutality he metes out to his slaves. He also has a serious case of jungle fever for star cotton picker Patsey (Nyong’o) whom he makes his favourite, repeatedly raping her, much to the bitterness of his frustrated wife (Paulson). Eventually, a glimmer of salvation presents itself in the form of a passing Canadian abolitionist carpenter (Pitt).
Exquisitely composed and excruciating for all the wrong reasons, McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave is a ponderous, po-faced exercise in cinematic "truth", declaring itself with every frame to be a serious, important film while celebrating all the customary clichés we’ve come to expect from cinematic Songs of the South; vicious, leering, rapey slave owners, giggling, uneducated racists, suffering martyrs and the deux ex machina of white saviour (in this case Pitt) who drops in just long enough to liberate the protagonist.
The film lingers long on the cruelty and violence, the lynchings, whippings, the rapes, the rent, bleeding flesh. And yet for all its displays of passive scopophilia, the violence never hurts, we, or at least I remain unmoved. Nothing that Northup suffers is half as harrowing as the brutal hobbling of Roots’ proud, rebellious Kunta Kinte – and that was 37 years ago on primetime television! 12 Years A Slave lacks passion, it lacks anger, is practically antiseptic. For all the truth McQueen gives us we may as well be watching The Legend Of Nigger Charley but for one vital difference – Charley didn’t need a white man to save him. He saved himself!
As Northup’s disparate owners, Cumberbatch delivers a sympathetic, charismatic turn, cementing the promise of Star Trek Into Dumbness while Fassbender gleefully chews the scenery in a fashion rarely seen since Kiefer Sutherland’s tubby white trash glory days. As Patsey, Nyong’o delivers the kind of performance that will probably see her justly rewarded then forgotten in about a year while the wonderful Paulson is again wasted in a thankless role as Fassbender’s viscious wife. Meanwhile, Pitt turns up playing Pitt with odd facial hair. As Northup, Ejofor is something of a cipher, bearing witness to the daily indignities he suffers without ever betraying any inner life. We never learn what makes him tick, he brings the same mannered concentration to virtually every scene regardless of whether he’s being beaten, playing the violin or fingerbanging a fellow slave to a joyless orgasm.
But it’s hardly surprising we learn little of Northup’s interior life – McQueen’s hardly a people person and, like his previous films (Shame and Hunger), 12 Years A Slave is closer to a piece of almost mechanical voyeuristic performance art more concerned with the study of the body and the physical experience than anything deeper. Just as Hunger was a study of the body written in shit and deprivation and Shame was written in stale spunk and soiled latex, 12 Years A Slave is written in blood and sweat. Perhaps McQueen’s ideal next collaborator then would be artist Ron Athey if only Athey wasn’t so passionate.