There’s a moment towards the end of 12 Years A Slave that sums up the whole movie – everything that’s good and bad about Steve McQueen’s picture. A single extended shot lingers on the face of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and as he stares down the barrel of the camera, his expression shows every moment of hurt, pain, torment, torture and suffering the character has endured. It’s an extraordinary performance and a powerful and emotionally charged image that remains locked in the mind long after the credits have ended.
There’s something else in that expression though: anger. It lends the image an accusatory tone, that one stare a wordless address directed squarely at the audience, forcing us to question our own values and beliefs. It’s also an overblown image (literally, in close-up) as McQueen places this man’s suffering explicitly front and centre in what is an emotionally manipulative film that somewhat patronises the audience with its lack of subtlety. In a film filled with so much pain, is the audience’s shame and horror not implicit enough without this single accusatory stare – the stare not of Solomon, Ejiofor or McQueen, but of every slave in history?
If McQueen’s last film was entitled Shame, then this film should be named ‘Guilt’. No other film has inspired such overwhelming emotions. It’s for this reason that 12 Years A Slave will sweep the board at the awards shows, striking guilty fear into the hearts of every voter.
Those nominations are not, however, unwarranted. 12 Years A Slave is an incredible film – both in its production and in its historical importance. Based on a true story, we witness the kidnap of Solomon Northup as he is sold into slavery and forced to work on sugar cane and cotton plantations; witness the mistreatment of the black population under white supremacy. The film pulls into question the (im)morality of every white character and their varying degrees of racism. There may be a lack of characterisation with Solomon, but this is a man reduced to only the thin clothes on his heavily scarred back. Ejiofor’s performance is utterly heart-wrenching, outdone only by Lupita Nyong’o as the tragically suicidal Patsey. It’s Michael Fassbender who puts in the bravest performance, however, as plantation owner Edwin Epps – an unflinching portrayal of an abhorrent man who reduces these men and women to simply his “property”.
Unflinching is the best word to described McQueen’s cinematography, too. His claustrophobic camera lingers on every hurt expression, every whip crack, every act of brutal and/or sexual violence. Just when you think things can’t get any more horrific, they do. We are there witnessing Solomon’s story at every step of this visceral, harrowing journey, its raw emotional power simply unequivocal. Yet whilst the eventual emotional payoff is huge, it’s a terrifying ordeal to get there. This is, of course, McQueen’s intention for the audience to feel alongside his protagonist, but it’s as if he’s trying too hard to shock, to trigger an emotional response. He is ramming history down our throats and forcing the audience to feel a certain way, without any degree of subtlety or ambiguity. His film is, quite literally, black and white.
But there’s a flipside to this – with such a subject matter, is there any other way to feel? And as a result, is there any need for McQueen to be so emotionally heavy handed? Does his film go too far in its portrayal of the cruelty of humankind – or is that even possible? Will there ever be a time when this story doesn’t need to be told? It’s for this reason that 12 Years A Slave is such an important film. The suffering of black slaves can never be replicated on celluloid, but this film comes closest.