In anticipation of the 86th Academy Awards on March 2, we present
a series exploring the philosophical and theological elements in each
of the nine films nominated for Best Picture. (Caveat: spoilers ahead.)
12 Years a Slave
Reunited with his family after twelve years of separation, with tears one unmeasured blink from spilling over, Solomon Northup (Best Actor nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor), his voice raised scarcely above a whisper, unevenly but gently trembles, “I apologize for my appearance, but I have had a difficult time these past several years.” One of the final, shattering lines of the film 12 Years a Slave, this dramatic understatement draws the impact of Best Director nominee Steve McQueen’s piercing exploration of the complexities, brutality, and ambiguities of slavery to its apex.
Based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir of the same name, McQueen’s film adaptation of 12 Years a Slave begins in medias res with Solomon (at this point in the film known simply as Platt), slave identification tag hanging around his neck and dripping with sweat as he works the sugar cane fields of Louisiana Judge Turner (Bryan Bratt). Through a series of flashbacks we learn that Solomon is a free man and accomplished violinist from Saratoga, New York who, in 1841, is lured to Washington, D.C. to play in a traveling circus. After an evening of merriment, he wakes up to find himself lying on a damp stone floor, his limbs circumscribed by irons and chains.
Protesting his imprisonment, Solomon identifies himself: “My name is Solomon Northup. I’m a free man, a resident of Saratoga, New York, the residence of my wife and children who are equally free.” Unable to produce his papers, Solomon’s identity is stripped by the slave pen owner Burch (Christopher Berry), who begins to reconstruct Solomon’s identity: “You ain’t a free man, and you ain’t from Saratoga. You’re from Georgia. You ain’t a free man. You ain’t nothin’ but a Georgia runaway. You’re just a runaway nigger from Georgia.” Burch follows this tirade with the first of many brutal beatings, screaming, “You’re a slave. You’re a Georgia slave,” as Solomon’s blood and flesh sprays in the air. The psychological and physical attacks on Solomon’s identity continue. In one particular symbolically devastating scene, one of his captors offers him “something proper to wear”—a fresh, clean shirt—but when Solomon protests the confiscation of his torn, soiled and blood-stained tunic because it is from his wife, his jailer shakes the shirt and casually repeats, “Just rags and tatters, rags and tatters.”
From the Washington slave pen Solomon is transported on the waters of the Mississippi in a boat packed with human cargo: men and women whom fellow freeman and kidnapping victim Clemens (Chris Chalk) describes as “niggers, born and bred slaves.” Clemens will later save himself by assuming the identity of another man’s stolen slave. Here we begin to observe layers and shades of ambiguity that pervade the film. Slavery’s perversion leaves no one untouched, though indeed its disfiguring effects penetrate the individuals in this film in complex and varying ways and to varying degrees.
Patsey (Best Supporting Actress nominee Lupita Nyong’o), the young cotton-picking slave referred to by drunken and sadistic plantation owner Edward Epps (Best Supporting Actor nominee Michael Fassbender) as his “Queen of the Fields”, is the object of his sexual appetite and violent predilections, which co-mingle throughout the film. We see Epps lead Patsey out under the dark of night where he rapes her on a wooden worktable. The minimalism of this scene—the absence of sound other than the soft breeze in the trees and the crickets in the field, Epps’s thick breathing, and Patsey’s groans and gasps of pain—captures the depth of the scene’s brutality. The next moment highlights this perversion of intimacy: when Patsey lies unresponsive after Epps is finished raping her, he slaps and chokes her. The scene ends with Patsey lying alone on the table gasping for breath. Near the film’s conclusion, Epps, in a moment that has undertones of sexual impotence, is unable to bring himself to whip his prized possession despite his wife’s (Sarah Paulson) urgings to “strike the life out of her.” Indeed, throughout the film, Mistress Epps has intimately participated in Patsey’s physical disfigurement, hurling a crystal decanter at her head and viciously clawing her face, demanding that her husband “get rid of the black bitch.” Epps responds to his wife’s demand, “Do not set yourself up against Patsey, my dear. Because I will rid myself of you well before I do away with her.” Now he stands, lash in hand, impotent before the naked back, thick with scars, of his “Queen of the Fields.” So instead, Epps compels Solomon, who has striven to shield Patsey as he is able, to “Give her the whip. Give it all to her.” It is in watching Solomon “pantomime” his master’s cruelty (he strikes her as meekly as possible) Epps’s desire to viciously attack Patsey is ignited, and while he grunts with vicious pleasure and Patsey shrieks as her skin is rent from her back, Solomon declares, “Sooner or later, somewhere in the course of eternal justice, thou shalt answer for this sin.” The scene with ends with Epps panting in perverse ecstasy, “There is no sin. A man does how he pleases with his property. At this moment, Platt, I’m of great pleasure.”
One cannot watch this scene without feeling the full impact of former overseer Armsby’s (Garet Dillahunt) seemingly earnest observation that “no man of conscience can take the lash to another human day in and day out without shredding at his own self” (Armsby unwittingly bears out the truth of his own words when he betrays Solomon in hopes of advancing himself). Though Epps presents the most obvious instantiation of the shedding of oneself, all of the plantation caste is similarly disfigured by their contact with slavery, though perhaps to lesser degrees. Nor are slaves untouched. The brutalization and physical disfigurement of slaves is patently clear throughout the film, but it is McQueen’s unflinching yet compassionate exploration of the psychological effects of slavery that is particularly eloquent.
Eliza, a fellow slave who weeps like Rachel for her children and refuses to be consoled, articulates the painful reality that, in order to survive, one is forced to compromise one’s very self. She declares to Solomon, “I have done dishonorable things to survive and for all of them I have ended up here. No better than if I had stood up for myself. God, forgive me. Solomon, let me weep for my children!” But perhaps the most devastating example of psychological disfigurement is presented in the person of Patsey, whose desire to survive is extinguished. Waking Solomon in the middle of the night, she offers him a token she has spirited from Mistress Epps and begs him: “End my life. Take my body to the margin of the swamp. Take me by the throat, hold me low in the water until I is still and without life. Bury me in the lonely place of dying.”
Together with John Ridley’s psychologically penetrating, Oscar-nominated screenplay, Sean Bobbitt’s stunning cinematography juxtaposes beautiful shots of Spanish moss swaying in the evening breeze with brutality of slavery. These two distinct images come together in the film’s two lynching scenes, as black bodies contort and convulse while Spanish moss hangs gently down the branches; and with brilliant performances by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, and Michael Fassbender (among others), Steve McQueen crafts, both in the film’s cadence and texture, something akin to a narrative poem in its unflinching look at the contours of suffering, ambiguity, and cruelty. Replete with parallelism, haunting imagery, and dramatic irony, this film is no mere moralistic, univocal narrative; rather, it is through the particularity of Solomon Northup that we encounter a world rife with complexities, and it is this commitment to particularity that makes the film less of social commentary on slavery (though it is that) and more of a poetic meditation on world in which the darkness of slavery casts a shadow over every human encounter, every human relationship, every human person.