February Issue 2014

By | Movies | Published 10 years ago

As director Steve McQueen went to collect his Best Film award for his critically-acclaimed 12 Years A Slave at the New York Film Festival, he was heckled by one of the critics present at the ceremony. Armond White, who was subsequently bumped off the New York Film Critics Circle, categorised the film as “torture porn” that belonged in the same genre as gore-fests such as Saw and Hostel.

12 Years A Slave is not Saw exactly, but it’s a horror story nonetheless, made all the more horrific by the fact that it’s based on a true account: The memoirs of Solomon Northup, an African-American free citizen from New York, who was kidnapped and illegally kept as a slave in Louisiana for 12 years.

In one of the first few scenes, we see Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) attempting to write a letter with the juice of the blackberries he had for lunch. Though a slave, we instantly recognise him as an educated man. Flashback to the past (and McQueen frequently makes use of this technique), we see him with his wife and two children, and learn he is also a talented violin player. As he strolls the streets of Saratoga, well-dressed and dignified, white men tip their hats to him and call him ‘sir.’ He makes an acquaintance with two men from a circus, who request him to travel with them as a violinist and take him out for dinner and drinks. The next scene cuts to Northup waking up to find his hands and legs in chains, tied like a circus animal. In flashback, we see that the men had drugged him and sold him into slavery. He demands to be released,  saying that he is a free man. An unruly man with a southern drawl asks him to show documents to prove his freedom. He cannot, and the man mocks him: “You just a runaway n***** from Georgia.” Northup is stripped not only of his freedom, but also his identity, and his name is changed to “Platt.” The man then resorts to beating him senselessly.

The film approaches slavery more as mental enslavement that keeps a man from fighting back, than as mere physical subjugation. “Survival is not about certain death, it’s about keeping your head down,” says Clemens (Chris Chalks), another slave with whom Northup shares the boat journey to New Orleans.

One of the most powerful scenes in the film is when Northup hangs from a noose, his toes just barely touching the ground, as others around him nonchalantly go about their day and children play in the background. The scene is about three minutes long, yet feels much longer. Here is a man hanging by his neck, just barely alive, oscillating  between life and death – the summation of the life of a slave.

Each of the actors do justice to their roles, particularly lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender, who plays the plantation owner, Edwin Epps. Zealous, lascivious, cruel and mad, Epps is frightening, but Fassbender – who seems to be at his best game when playing the worst villains – is particularly good in his role.

As for the accusation of the film being “torture porn,” it’s true that 12 Years a Slave, like McQueen’s other films, makes for difficult viewing. However, the director is not out to gain some kind of perverse pleasure from fantasy-based violence, but to make audiences empathise with historical realities. If slavery humiliated and dehumanised man, McQueen, in his film, attempts to humanise him. And considering that bonded labour and sexual trafficking are still major human rights issues today, and that we live in a country where a 10-year-old maid is beaten to death for allegedly stealing a few rupees, slavery is not just a thing of the past.

This review was originally published in Newsline’s February 2014 issue under the headline, “Humanising the Dehumanised.”

The writer is a journalist and former assistant editor at Newsline.