American Nightmare

Humans Versus Monsters in 12 Years a Slave

American Nightmare

12 YEARS A SLAVE Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, and Chiwetel Ejiofor reenact hell on earth.

Heading in to the cinema to watch 12 Years a Slave, I felt a level of trepidation that called up images of the marches Germans made through Nazi death camps after the war, as ordinary citizens were forced to behold the evil they allowed to flourish in their homeland. Distress on the part of the viewer was the point, but also beside the point: The pain experienced by after-the-fact witnesses is so far removed from the horror being witnessed that it effectively counts as privilege.

That said, watching a film by Steve McQueen cannot be compared to marching through the remains of a death camp. This is a man who makes beautiful things. As a Turner Prize–winning video artist and Cannes-honored filmmaker, McQueen brings a highly accomplished visual aesthetic to this brutal true tale, the facts of which come from the 1853 autobiography of Solomon Northup. Northup was a free black man living in Saratoga Springs, New York, with his wife and children when, in 1841, he was kidnapped, transported south, sold to the highest bidder, and subjected to a barbaric 12-year enslavement.

In the film, Northup is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, the highly accomplished British actor who does extraordinary work here. As McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley take us through each step of this nightmare—where the crossing of a state line legally turns a man into property—Ejiofor anchors the film with a performance that can feel mythic, until it breaks apart into something a hundred times messier and more complicated. Peppered among the scenes of hideous inhumanity are long, close shots of Ejiofor's face, maybe three such shots in all, each of which sends an intense blast of humanity into the ever-accumulating horror. Viewers will likely leave this film accustomed to looking at Chiwetel Ejiofor through a wash of tears.

Throughout 12 Years are scenes of such barbarity, brought to life by actors talented enough to tap every nuance of that barbarity, that at times I had to look away. I don't know if the ratcheting up of intensity to face-covering levels was deliberate, but it feels just. After all, the characters are being ripped from their families, exported for profit, and forced to work in torturous conditions for free.

If there's a gripe to be made about the merits of McQueen's film, it concerns the story's villains, a good number of whom speed past banal evil to superhuman monsterism. The worst of the slavers aren't just humans capable of treating other humans as property—they're psychopaths who get off on treating their property like shit. The idea that some slavers might be garbage rat people incapable of decency isn't hard to accept or justify, but to amp the psycho-villainy up to Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet levels threatens to let viewers off the hook, suggesting that the US slave trade was the work of evil monsters, instead of an entirely human endeavor.

Still, beyond the psychomonsters (brought to terrifying life by Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulsen), McQueen packs his film with so much identifiable humanity you'll leave sore. Watching 12 Years is a grueling experience, and the artistry of the filmmakers and actors is a generous, pain-diminishing life raft. recommended


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You_Gotta_Be_Kidding_Me 1
Funny that you should focus your indignation on atrocities committed generations ago (the US slave trade) instead of sparing a word (much less a thought) for the nearly 30 million people estimated to be enslaved elsewhere in the world today…

But I get your point: America bad! Bad America!!!

Posted by You_Gotta_Be_Kidding_Me on November 1, 2013 at 5:14 PM · Report this
I want to see this movie, but I will not see it in a theater. I saw "Django Unchained" on opening night last year, and while there were some scenes of humor, people were laughing at some of the most depraved, disgusting, disturbing parts of the movie that were not meant for laughs. I fear the same thing will happen here if I go to see it in the theaters, and will leave it feeling more rage than what I would have from just the content of the film.
Posted by Mindymoo on November 1, 2013 at 6:23 PM · Report this
@1 Are you trying to excuse American injustice because injustice occurs elsewhere in a "it's ok I kicked a puppy yesterday, 'cuz someone else kicked a puppy today" kinda way, or do you just not understand that films often tell particular stories without including a full accounting of every similar narrative in the history of humanity?
Posted by gdcv on November 2, 2013 at 12:30 AM · Report this
" I felt a level of trepidation that called up images of the marches Germans made through Nazi death camps after the war."

What an overwrought sentence. And no, you didn't.
Posted by Billy Chav on November 2, 2013 at 11:35 AM · Report this
thelyamhound 5
@1 - Feel outrage for whatever outrages you; the sins of others aren't ours to expiate.
Posted by thelyamhound on November 4, 2013 at 2:39 PM · Report this
@2 I felt the same way about watching Django in the Theater. But I just saw 12 years a slave at Siff Uptown and it was a very different experience. The audience was mostly white (I'm white as well) and the was a really feeling of humbling shaming and guilt. I'd suggest seeing it in the theater.
Posted by j2patter on November 8, 2013 at 10:29 PM · Report this
Another comparison would be watching Lincoln in the theater. That's a movie that completely whitewashed slavery and was mostly about white people saving the day. At the end of Lincoln, most of the crowd in Pacific Place stood up and clapped, as if to say sure white people caused slavery, but hey we also had Lincoln, so it's all good. It was pretty horrifying.

But it was a whole different feeling at the end of 12 years slave.
Posted by j2patter on November 8, 2013 at 10:32 PM · Report this
Claypatch 8
@2: Your points are valid about Django, but I would recommend seeing '12 years' in the theatres. I saw it over at Lincoln Square, in downtown Bellevue, which is as white a place as white can get; at the end of the film the audience clapped.
Posted by Claypatch on November 13, 2013 at 10:06 PM · Report this

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