Despite its unquestionable power, I left this movie troubled as much by what I felt to be a false note as by its indictment of the cruelties of slavery, whose dreadful heritage still haunts the American conscience and scars the American soul. Thinking it through, I settled on the observation that the off note was struck by the movie's core "message": the heart insisted that it should have been about the great, criminal injustice and inhumanity of slavery itself, but instead it was about the misfortune of this one individual, a solid, educated middle-class citizen who was misplaced in that evil system. The story resolved, uncomfortably for me, into a "happy ending," its central character rightfully restored to his suburban home and family. Left behind in their unresolved misery were the true slaves, lifers, irredeemable victims of a system in which our hero had mistakenly and temporarily been ensnared. We knew from the start that escape was possible, indeed predestined for him, at the end of his "twelve years." For the vast majority, the nightmare did not end so conveniently.
That issue aside, "12 Years a Slave" was an unsparing depiction of the cruelties of that "peculiar institution," a slice of the history of the enslavement of a multitude of black Africans--not yet hyphenated "Americans"!--under the rule of a class of people whose ignorance and barbarity were matched only by their sense of entitlement to the possession of human beings as property, which allowed them to treat these fellow humans as less than human. The film offers us a truly harrowing account of the unremitting toil, the sexual exploitation, the vicious beatings, and the nonchalant--or sadistic--murders that filled the daily life of the slave in the American South. In this respect it's a history lesson told with a realism guaranteed to horrify the flintiest conscience.
Steve McQueen, the film's director, came to prominence first as a video artist, and the sensibilities he developed in that art form are amply evident in the visual detail, the textures, and the rhythmic modulations of "12 Years a Slave." We find ourselves torn between the film's aesthetic delights and the gruesome facts of the story that it tells. The eye is invited to dwell not only on rich tapestries of Louisiana landscape but, subtly, on the textured surfaces of wood compared to the dark faces of human beings treated as though equally insentient. Images shift and blur, find sudden focus, and fade into each other with the textured color of a painting, sometimes abstracted into pure saturated color. Our perception can be jolted like the weight of a body at the end of the rope, or courted seductively by the sheer beauty of an image or the tenderness of a moment.
Throughout, the acting is superb. In the role of Solomon Northup, Chiwetel Ejiofor shows us the pain and humiliation, the anger and the grief resulting from his abduction and enslavement. Despite the hardship and cruelty he experiences, despite having to hide his education and the civility of his social status, he manages to maintain the essential human dignity of his character even through frequent brushes with despair. Adepero Oduye turns in a heart-breaking performance as Eliza, the slave girl chosen by the master as the special object of his sadistic sexual urges and his need to demonstrate power over the powerless. In the role of that slaveowner/master, Edwin Epps, Michael Fassbinder manages to convey the morally weak inner core of a man who takes his insecurity and ignorance out on the hides, literally, of his slaves; the mock tenderness he offers occasionally to those forced to do his bidding is no less terrifying than his rage.
The wounds of slavery run deep and are not yet healed in our society. Ignorance still abounds in too many quarters, and is compensated all too often by the angry assertion of power and repression of the rights of others. The whip and the noose may be no more than shameful memories, but they persist as metaphors for a buried vein of hatred and distrust. (The gun, however, is still with us, more prevalent and powerful than ever, clutched by the "cold, dead hand" of those who are adamant in their refusal to recognize its potential to bring harm down upon those who do no harm.) Even slavery persists, to our great shame, in the form of the abusive, money-driven trade in the lives of millions of defenseless women and children throughout the world.
"12 Years a Slave" demands that we bear in mind not only the shameful history of slavery, but the persistence of its driving forces--greed, inhumanity, abuse of power, exploitation of innocence and powerlessness--in too many aspects of our society today. To its great credit, the film refuses to allow us the luxury of complacency. Like all great art, it holds the mirror up for us to see ourselves.