(An edited version of this was first published in The New Indian Express)
There is a scene about three quarters into 12 Years a Slave, when all hope of freedom and redemption is lost for Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor). But that’s only on our part. Solomon harbors hope at every turn. He keeps repeating to himself and other tortured slaves that it is not prudent to fall into that kind of despair. At the slightest of opportunities, Solomon tries to find his way to establish that he is literate (something that could get him killed in mid 19th century America) or that he needs a letter forwarded to his family all the way up north in New York. For he once was a free man till he was drugged and jettisoned into the ocean of slavery in southern United States. In the scene his master Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) has discovered his plans thanks to a betrayal that all of Louisiana saw coming and confronts him in the dead of night. Solomon thinks on his feet and gets out of it but the two share a high intensity moment that director Steve McQueen lets linger just a bit longer, where literally neither of them blinks. That’s what it takes to survive as a slave in deep South and Solomon Northup doesn’t want to just survive.
This level of intensity makes the film. It is maintained throughout from suffering after suffering of the slaves, through every whipping and every exploitative and manipulative schemes of the master and in this case, including the filmmaker. McQueen thrives in making his characters do difficult things and making us watch those difficult things. He did it in Shame, his previous (and arguably better) feature with Michael Fassbender and he does it here too but the thematic differences render a different palette. The world of Shame was greyer while here it is all black and white. This is a conscious stylistic choice from McQueen and as a story on slavery it gives him all the freedom to wield it. The scene it all comes together is when Solomon Northup – again literally – has to stay on his toes. He takes on a cruel carpenter who decides to lynch Solomon but thanks to the foreman he just about manages to find his ground hanging by a noose. McQueen films him in this state forever, first with nothing moving in the shot and later on everyone around the plantation going about with their daily chores completely oblivious to the man balancing on his toes. The other imagery McQueen uses as a metaphor is the incomplete structure Solomon leaves behind every time he is sold. It is a recurring theme and it captures the state of Solomon accurately. Solomon is a skilled carpenter and he always ends up building something physical along with his mental fortitude and hope for the future. But just when it seems like there is a way out for Solomon his conditions worsen or he is transferred to a different master leaving his structure incomplete. He meets Bass(Brad Pitt), a fellow carpenter from Canada who helps him out and the structure he builds with him reflects in his fortunes.
The film has first rate performances from Ejiofor, Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o and a small but significant role for Benedict Cumberbatch as an awkward benevolent master who is clearly from a different time. 12 Years A Slave is a difficult one to watch. It is also a difficult film to chew and digest on. It may not impress you but it lingers on in your mind like those lash wounds of the slaves McQueen wants us to see.