12 Years a Slave may have a clear title, but this film is anything but what you’d expect. It is not the saccharine-sweet pat on the back like Spielberg’s Lincoln or anything warm-fuzzy like Roots. Steve McQueen has hit his third home run in a row with this gritty, haunting story of American cruelty.
In some ways, it almost reminded me of Pasolini’s Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom in how it showed the cruelty humanity can put up with, or even commit, in order to survive. It is just as painful to watch the enslaved Solomon Northup be whipped and beaten as it is to watch him do nothing as the same happens to victims around him.
On a broader level, it’s fascinating how these characters create a sense of order for themselves, in a world so full of cruelty and chaos. Almost everyone speaks in beautiful, nearly-Shakespearean language, heightening the sheer intelligence and thought everyone has put into how they face their often desperate circumstances. Whether Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps practicing horrific cruelty believing such is God’s will, or Chiwetel Ejiofor defending his master William Ford as a good one “under the circumstances,” it’s illuminating to see how these characters warp their realities in order to live through them.
McQueen takes no emotional cheap shots, or force any sentimentality or remorse out of it. Your guttural response is from merely the actions, as the camera is forcing you to witness them for yourself. No artistic work I’ve yet seen shows the condition of slavery as horrifyingly as 12 Years a Slave.
It’s not easy to watch but I’d consider it almost essential viewing. This film is a landmark not only for how neorealistically it approaches its subject matter, but also for its broader and, frankly, disturbing message about humanity.