“12 Years a Slave”: No, It’s Not “Roots”-Meets-“Saw”

Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave

I love that the phrase “Academy Award Nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor” is now a reality. Whether in his first U.S. film role as the Serenity crew’s most formidable villain, or even as the heroic scientist who delivers the requisite do-the-right-thing speech in Roland Emmerich’s 2012, Ejiofor has been one of those electrifying talents who improves every script he’s handed. I had hoped he would move on to bigger and better things in the years ahead. With 12 Years a Slave my wish was granted.

And yet…I procrastinated seeing it for months because other reviews gave me the impression that 12 Years would do for slavery what The Passion of the Christ did for Christ’s crucifixion — i.e., replicate the horrifying violence of the events with an exacting, unflinching, stomach-churning verisimilitude in a manner that expects your unwavering sympathy even while it’s going for the total gross-out. While Passion was arguably a necessary experience, it’s also one I expect never to repeat if I can help it. Once I was shown the sort of damage a cat-o’-nine-tails can do to unprotected flesh, I’ve steered clear of them ever since. Lesson learned.

While 12 Years is no less insistent that we look sin squarely in the eye and acknowledge the severity of history as it happened, I was (somewhat) relieved to learn that director Steve McQueen didn’t go overboard as I thought Mel Gibson did. It’s still graphic and not for children, but to be honest, I’m surprised McQueen didn’t push the violence further. I like to think I would’ve understood.

Short version for the unfamiliar: Slave is based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup, a well-educated free man from the North who was kidnapped, shackled, stripped of his identity, dragged down South, sold into slavery, and passed from one master to another over the course of a dozen torturous, dehumanizing years. After short stints of oppression by the likes of Paul Giamatti and Benedict Cumberbatch, the bulk of his captivity was spent groveling in the clutches of one Edwin Epps (a mercurial, frightening Michael Fassbender), where things turned from worse to worst.

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Also playing for Team Southern Monsters: Paul Dano (Looper, There Will Be Blood) as a weaselly bully; Bryan Batt (Sal Romano from Mad Men!) as a one-time, fair-minded employer; Garrett Dillahunt (Raising Hope) as an aberrant white slave; and Sarah Paulson (Studio 60, American Horror Story) as Epps’ wife, who’s every bit as cruel and vindictive as her husband is.

Among those who aren’t out to get Northup: Michael K. Williams (Omar from The Wire!) as a fellow slave; Alfre Woodard as a wife who negotiated her way up the chain of command; Quvenzhane Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild) as one of Northup’s children; and producer Brad Pitt as an Amish-Canadian handyman whose peaceful countenance has “saintly intervention” written all over it.

Nitpicking? The film almost has too many recognizable actors. Northup’s leash changes hands so frequently in the first half that I was disappointed to see him stay put with Epps for so long, because I was expecting a continuous parade of even more famous faces taking turns lashing out at him. Longtime MCC readers can tell I have a fixation on spotting workaholic character actors, and all-star casts can sometimes compromise a film’s ability to keep my mindset in the right emotional track.

Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? The point is short but simple: this is the way things were. For slaves without hope of liberation, this was everyday life in all its unrepentant ugliness. The wanton abuse. The treatment of human lives as disposable punching bags. The misappropriation of selective Scripture to redefine sins as God-given rights. It’s not easy to watch, but it should lift the veil off anyone who thinks master/slave relations weren’t much different from, say, 21st-century union negotiations.

It’s worth noting that Northup’s tribulations ultimately don’t conclude as a result of action-packed heroism. There’s no climactic fistfight between him and Epps that culminates with him using his Serenity martial-arts skills to win his freedom. Though Northup is all blustery indignation and eloquent protestations at first, all his energies are leached out by a decade-plus of helplessly watching murder up close, undergoing all manner of agony, and running headlong into dead ends for every possible escape plan he can brainstorm. While Northup’s talents play a part in his survival, he never would’ve succeeded on his own. His life experiences allow us a rear window into shameful American history, but they don’t shape him into an impervious knight in shining armor.

So did I like it or not? “Like” isn’t the right verb here. I’m not even sure how to complete this section. As a white male who hasn’t been lower-class for a few years now, I’m not convinced my opinion should matter. I appreciated the opportunity to watch Ejiofor explore inner and outer turmoil with passion and nuance. I agree that slavery isn’t something to be downplayed into a trivial footnote. I couldn’t find any fault in the execution and was moved by more than a few scenes. I can see why Lupita Nyong’o was also nominated for an Academy Award, as still another slave whose sufferings make Northup look privileged by comparison.

To be honest, everything I saw is pretty much how evil and repugnant I already imagined slavery was. I’m not sure I can call it revelatory, but if it widens a few eyes, expands the minds of others, and keeps sparking much-needed discussions about how far we really haven’t come since Northup’s time…well, frankly, so much the better.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the 12 Years a Slave end credits, but you may need to sit there that long just to decompress. At my screening the only other attendees were three older black women, one of whom asked me on their way out if I was okay. I guess I looked more shell-shocked than I thought. It was very nice of her to ask.

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