It’s easy to view cinemas as portals that propel us to unexplored worlds, providing our meek lives with an affordable form of escapism. They are essentially the ejector seat for the crashing plane known as life. Because we’re constantly seeking refuge from our own lives, I can’t help but feel we overlook films that are firmly entrenched in the world we live in, or films that recount a past we can’t help but feel compelled to bury at every turn. Normally these films are ruthless in their depiction of life, offering monstrosities up at a deliberate pace. For lack of a better phrase, I call these type of films “endurance cinema”. Their necessity warrants our patience and stomach, daring us to keep our eyes affixed to the screen despite an oppressive streak. Director Steve McQueen has made his name on films of this nature. From Hunger to Shame, McQueen has made an immeasurable impact on the film world with grounded, emotionally devastating, and uncompromising films dissecting the human condition. McQueen continues his unflinching methods in the gut wrenching 12 Years a Slave.
Based off the true account of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free African-American man who is drugged and sold into slavery, 12 Years a Slave is an unrelenting envisioning of America’s slave trade. Solomon, who is an uncanny violinist, lives a life of desolation on various plantations. Gone is his name, his family, and safety. He is merely a debt to collect in America’s flesh business, being sighted as a valuable piece of property while ironically being lashed for perceived malfeasance and improprieties. Solomon’s first plantation, that belonging to William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), is, in relative terms, a dream scenario. Solomon’s master is appreciative of his intelligence, but, despite Solomon’s appreciated presence, unforeseen circumstances ultimately remind Solomon that he is nothing but a piece of equipment. Eventually, Solomon finds his way to the plantation of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a brute of man who feels his enslavement of human beings is biblically justified. Epps is a maniacal man, possessed both by hooch and one of his female slaves, Patsy (Lupita Nyong‘O), much to his wife’s chagrin.
It’s at Epp’s plantation that slavery is on full display, in all its repugnant glory, and it is a stench McQueen makes sure we will never shake. There are shots in this film that are at once abhorrent and beautiful in their honesty. In one particular shot, one that many may find gratuitous and long in the tooth, McQueen frames an impromptu lynching of Solomon with great detail. Solomon, hanging inches off the ground with his feet seeking steadier footing in a pile of mud, desperately gasps for air as a New Orleans breeze rolls on by. The day slowly passes, with only one person giving attention to Solomon’s battle with gravity. This astonishing moment perfectly encapsulates a slave’s path: their life, their will, and their dignity are slowly choked out of them, with the sight of a new day merely being a patch of mud granting momentary levity. But it’s a patch their feet will surely slide out from, tightening the noose once again. By highlighting slavery’s barbaric terms, McQueen masterfully resets the bone that hasn‘t properly healed over the last 170 years, compelling us to endure with Solomon and the countless number of faceless human beings that never tasted freedom.
As dour as the film is, McQueen does an impressive job of finding a collection of tremendous, uplifting performances boiling underneath unspeakable acts. At the forefront is Ejiofor, whose quiet stoicism leads us through the darkness. The lashes that tore up Solomon’s mind, body and soul are undeniably shared between us and Ejiofor, granting us access to a broken but not defeated man. Lupita Nyong’o matches our lead with a tear inducing performance, as a woman who slowly grows weary of her life, beckoning death to end the suffering unjustifiably bestowed upon her. It’s simply a brave performance. Initiating much of the pain Ejiofor and Nyong’o transmit is a stunningly vile Fassbender. Fassbender’s Epps is arguably one of the film’s most complicated characters, as he is a malevolent man shaped by his self-hatred and, at times, manipulated to great lengths by a jealous wife. McQueen, much like he does the audience, isn’t afraid to strip his actors raw, pushing them to the edge of every scene. By the end, McQueen reminds us that we’ll never break the shackles of slavery, but darkness can never be illuminated when you turn your back on it; only when you look back can a flicker of hope be ignited.