Directed by Steve McQueen
With only three features to his name, McQueen is a young director already carving out a legacy that will soon rival the other celebrity with his namesake. Like Milos Foreman, McQueen seems to be a man fascinated with an individual at odds with society and institutions but more than that, each film has taken a unique approach to examining what robs a man of agency and his struggles to retake control of his life.
His first film, Hunger, follows Michael Fassbender as an imprisoned member of the IRA who goes on a hunger strike. Shame also stars Fassbender as a man suffering from sex addiction. Each of these struggles is harrowing, nuanced, raw, honest, and fully realized tied together by a deft cinematic hand that has a strong sense for visual story telling. These films would stand alone by these qualities yet are elevated by dynamite performances.
So it is of no surprise that McQueen’s biggest film, which has already garnered an incredible reputation, would follow suit. Rather than Fassbender play the leading role, however, he is relegated to slave owner and antagonist. He does, however, maintain the intensity and dedication of his previous work and gives a performance that is terrifyingly authentic in its brutality and intimidation.
Taking the lead is Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup. I’ve been a fan of him for years with his performances in Serenity, Children of Men, Inside Man, and even Kinky Boots making quite an impression that made me wonder “Why is this man not a star?”. It seems that this is going to change now as his performance is sensational without being showy. It isn’t the scenes where he bellows about not slipping into despair that make the performance titanic but rather the scenes where McQueen allows the camera and the film to linger on him in silence as we watch the emotions flow through his face.
Outside of the two leads, the film is loaded with an incredible casts of character actors and rising actors. Benedict Cumberbatch plays a benevolent slave owner, Paul Dano plays a weasel of a foreman, Michael K. Williams plays a disgruntled slave, and Paul Giamatti plays a financially driven trader. Among other fantastic actors in the movie like McNairy, Henry, Wallis, Batt, Paulson, et cetera, the only real star to be found is Brad Pitt in a minor role. This causes the film to evoke feelings of Malick’s films the Thin Red Line and the New World with every role stuff with fantastic talent.
Also like Malick, the cinematography guides and pushes the film, telling the story more than any amount of dialogue and spouting of rhetoric. In an especially powerful scene, Northup is hanged from a tree and left to support himself by the tips of his toes. The scene is methodically drawn out, with Northup positioned in the foreground. All around him, fellow slaves come and go. They wash laundry, tend the garden, and generally go about their business. The children play around him. The overseer and lady of the house watch him yet do nothing. Not a single word is spoken yet we are shown the extent of damage the institution has had on basic human instincts to help others. Only a lone girl sneaks him some water yet does not dare cut him down.
Again and again, McQueen gives an unflinching portrayal of slavery, refusing to bat an eyelash, showing the true brutality of being whipped, lynched, and raped, illustrating the inescapable precariousness of life as a black person in this time. Freedom and life can be snatched away with little to no warning or recourse. The film must be absolutely applauded for this. Too often films tackle the dregs of human history yet turn away. Schindler’s List dances away from the gas chambers as well as the absurd horror of the camps, Hotel Rwanda outright avoids the ghastly machete-induced injuries that left millions mangled and dead in order to keep a PG-13 rating, and even City of Life and Death, a harrowing and brilliant film for sure, refuses to approach the gristliest atrocities. I understand why films do this. It’s hard to find balance between honesty and artistry, to avoid exploitation when dealing with something as ridiculous of widespread torture and abuse, yet somehow, this film walks this tight rope with astounding grace.
Yet, the film is more than pure brutality. It examines slavery on a level public schools have yet to attempt. It provides the sociological, ideological, and financial motivations that provoke people into allowing and engaging in something like slavery. Early on, filmed in a long take, Benedict Cumberbatch attempts to buy a slave and her daughter, as to not break apart the family. It shows a glimpse of humanity and how people often did not innately want to dehumanize slaves, only for Giamatti’s character to demand a price that Cumberbatch could not afford for both, which caused them to split the family.
On a personal experience note, a prevalent justification for slavery used in the film, primarily by Fassbender’s Edwin Epps, is the bible. This is common knowledge to many who have studied slavery, as the bible includes explicit passages on the treatment and behavior of slaves. Despite this, most America seems to have forgotten this and this became very puzzling to me due to an audience members reaction. A young black woman who was sitting beside me burst out laughing hysterically when Fassbinder read the passage to his slaves. She murmured some stuff to her boyfriend. She simply couldn’t believe what was on screen to such a degree that she actively broke from the film.
This is why this film is necessary and should be lauded. McQueen has managed to capture a truth about history and society in a manner that manages to treat the absurdities as things human beings found reasons to perpetuate.
Despite all the horrors, both in action and justification, the film manages to capture a great deal of beauty in the very human ways slaves resisted their situations, be it the tragic Patsey, played magnificently by Lupita Nyong’o, as she builds dolls out of corn husks or Northup himself, as he plays his violin and continually refuses to lose hope. The film builds a quiet power in these moments that removes it from any accusations of being “cold”. Despite McQueen’s penchant for placing the camera in places distant from their subjects as well as letting it tell the story, the film is deeply and movingly human.
Tragic, beautiful, brilliant, brutal, and human. This is a film of exceptional quality and helps solidify 2013 as one of the great modern years of film, rivaled only by 2007.