Director Steve McQueen seems to be making a speciality of taking difficult and unconventional historical subjects and making art from them. His film Hunger, inspired by Bobby Sands’ hunger strike, obliged actor Michael Fassbender to starve himself under medical supervision so that audiences were confronted with the horror of that form of protest. It’s a superb piece of work but at times very difficult to watch.
The same is true of 12 Years a Slave. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a free man living in Saratoga who is kidnapped and sold. This seems to have been a relatively common practice, for without papers it was almost impossible for a black person to prove they were not a runaway slave, even in the states where what was sometimes called the “peculiar institution” wasn’t legal. Like Fassbender Ejiofor must have been forced to push his body to its limits to add realism to McQueen’s vision. In one scene he is saved from lynching but that’s only because he’s considered to be a very valuable piece of livestock. However, he has struck back at a white man and deserves to be punished, so he’s left semi strangled by a rope for almost a day. A Hollywood film may have allowed this scene to go on for thirty seconds. McQueen drags it out for several minutes. He wants no one to doubt that slavery was brutal, sadistic institution which could only be maintained by extremes of violence.
It’ll be interesting to see how this film is received in the former slave states. McQueen has no truck with those myths of Southern graciousness and gentility. Slave owners, their wives, overseers and everyone who made a profit from selling people like cattle are shown as variously corrupted, psychopathic and amoral. Their relationships with slaves never go beyond the patronising affection they might give to a pet. More usually they refer to them as niggers and beasts and never doubt their right to treat them as cruelly as they feel they want to.
The concept of possession is pushed well beyond the boundaries of slaves as “talking tools”, which is how they were referred to in ancient Greece. The women were property of whom sex could be demanded. Rape and sexual violence were an intrinsic part of the institution and Lupita Nyong’o, who plays Patsey, is repeatedly the victim of the most awful abuse which mirrors Ejifor’s long strangulation she is whipped for visiting a friend. Again it’s extended well beyond what normal cinema would show. The deep bloody wounds on her back and the voyeuristic pleasure of the slave owners are a judgement on their society and those who would speak up for them.
This is a masterful, unflinching piece of film making which seems certain to become a classic. It aims to show you how infinitely brutal slavery was and it will make it impossible to watch pro slavery apologias like Gone With The Wind in the same way again. When you leave the cinema you’ll be tempted to raise a glass to the Union armies who burned the slaveowners’ plantations to the ground.