One Man’s Life

Film review: 12 Years a Slave (Director: Steve McQueen)

By Sascha Krieger

12 Years a Slave, the new film by British director Steve McQueen is the latest in a series of filmic treatment of slavery, one of the darkest chapters in US history. After Quentin Tarantino’s revenge tale Django Unchained and Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s political drama about slavery’s official abolition, it leads us into the heart of human degradation and cruelty, and to the core of an American trauma that has not been properly dealt with in the past, that still lingers in all the unsolved issues plaguing US society today. Perhaps now the time is right. For the first time in history, a black man is holding the highest office in the land, living proof how far the country has come. A look at America today, however, shoes the long distance still ahead and maybe a film like 12 Years a Slave can serve as a reminder that the wounds that the system of treating humans as things, extending the principle of property to living souls, has created have not healed.

The film opens with a series of seemingly disconnected images: a group of slaves standing motionless in a field; a man and a woman turning towards each other in the night, a man in shackles. Not a word is spoken, past and present indistinguishable, a human life reduced to brief glimpses. 12 Years a Slave tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a father of two and skilled violinist, a respected member of the community of Saratoga Springs in upstate New York. He gets lured to Washington, DC, under a pretense, is kidnapped and sold as a slave to Louisiana. He first works for a relatively humane slaver before he, following a confrontation with his chief carpenter, is sold to a brutal and sadistic new “master”. Only after twelve years he can, with much luck and help from his home community, regain his freedom. A rare exception that allows him to tell a story he shares with many but which most never lived to tell.

In other directors’ hands, 12 Years a Slave might have turned into a sentimental, pathos drenched melodrama, drowning in a heavy musical score, driven by high drama and overblown emotions. Steve McQueen, a rising star among Hollywood directors, however, tells the story in an equally  poetic as well as serious, unsentimental, unsparing way, accompanied by a surprisingly unassuming score by Hans Zimmer, that remains close to the protagonist throughout, that sets out to tell his unique story and to reach the universal strictly through the individual. Chiwetel Ejiofor is Solomon a man robbed of his life, his identity, his name, even his right to call himself human. His acting is subtle, as he moves from defiance through pragmatic survival to all the deformations this de-humanization enforces on body and soul. He is no hero but a man who wants to live, one who tries to stay low, who even allows to become an instrument of suppression only not to be its target.

McQueen rolls past and present into one, juxtaposes strikingly beautiful images of the Southern countryside with extreme and very graphic cruelty, continues a cynical racist song into the next scene when the seemingly kind master preaches from the bible, contrasts the everyday with the inhumane as in a long scene in which Solomon, following an interrupted hanging remains for hours dangling from the rope, his feet just touching the ground and groping to keep the body up, while in the background children play. In this world, normal life and the loss of all basic principles of humaneness are one, as are beauty and the turning of humans into objects, an upside down world in which time has stopped, an eternity of suffering in which past and present are the same because there is no future. But as much as these people are forced to play their roles, they cannot help but remain humans with their very own hopes and fears and characters and personalities. An involuntary defiance that is almost harder to bear for the oppressors as outright rebellion would be. Michael Fassbender is Ejiofor’s counterpart, a sadistic slaveholder with no hint of true human feelings, yet a soul even more deformed by this unnatural economy that those of his victims. The agent of terror is no free man either, tortured by demons stronger than any whip. But there is no excuse, as haunted as he is, he remains culpable without limitation.

McQueen describes without excusing. No-one gets out of this unharmed, the coming home scene in which Solomon apologizes to his wife for his appearance is starkly shocking. The film’s great strength is the combination of complex and poetic storytelling and relentless honesty, making it a poem of human suffering as well as a stark and relentless portrait of what man can do to man. And he does so by telling one man’s story, the tale of an individual body and soul, a flawed human being who stands for himself – and through that for millions of others.

Admittedly, the film has its faults. Brad Pitt as the only good white man is unbearably bland, occasionally the film cannot avoid the trap of drifting into tear jerking territory, and even a little patronizing is not absent – after all, Solomon’s freeing is the work of white men – but these are very minor flaws in what is otherwise a deeply disturbing, uncompromisingly honest depiction of humanity at its cruelest. When the academy Awards are handed out in late February, 13 Years a Slave is widely expected to be named “Best Picture”. There hasn’t been a more deserving winner in years.

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