Walking nightmare into Hell and profit

November 25, 2013

12 Years a Slave
Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch
Directed by Steve McQueen

12 Years a Slave has received countless accolades from critics. The New Yorker has called it “easily the greatest feature film ever made about American slavery”.

High praise, and the end result lives up to it. The film is a moving portrait of Solomon Northup's struggle to survive as a man while he is made to be a beast to enrich a Southern ruling class.

In adapting Northup's story, director Steve McQueen captures the highest contradiction of an artist, a writer and a father being shackled to the role of tortured labour in the name of profit. The film carves a picture of slavery so naked in its horror that audiences and critics have been transformed by the experience.

Karl Marx said the mode of production determines social being. It is because the narrative is so firmly rooted in the endless beat of exploitation under the slavocracy's mode of production that each character's struggle has such profound resonance.

The opening shot is a white overseer patiently explaining how to harvest sugar cane to a group of new slaves. Mothers and their children are stood up naked as commodities in front of monied buyers.

Slavers call out the pounds of cotton collected from each day's work, determining who gets tortured for an inadequate yield. Exchange value is god and the slavers are kings.

And yet right beside the daily nightmare of torture, bondage and rape is the immense beauty of each Black worker's struggle to live as a human being. Every labourer sings with somber passion in the field.

Solomon struggles in the dead of night to put forbidden words on paper using a stick and blackberry juice. Patsey, a young woman who always collects the most cotton, spends her free time making beautiful dolls from grass, and has her back torn to shreds for stealing soap so she can clean herself.

Each performance reflects a crucial piece of the desperate social fabric. Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon seethes with determination and compassion as he strives deeper into Hell.

Michael Fassbender plays a ruthless slaver and businessman eager to make a return on his investments.

Paul Dano plays a dirty and insecure overseer, who is easily beaten back by Solomon during a fistfight (the audience was cheering in this brief moment of triumph), but enlists the authorities to exact revenge.

Lupita Nyong'o makes her film debut as Patsey, who begs Solomon to end her life in the moonlight so that she doesn't have to suffer her waking nightmare any longer.

Sean Bobbitt's cinematography burns with emotion as we meander through the primeval forests surrounding the plantation. Wooden architecture looms over laboring bodies.

Slave drivers with whirling whips are painted behind pricked fingers picking cotton. Sweaty faces, bleeding ripped skin and eyes wide with tears burst with the weight of the world so horrible around them.

In one scene, Solomon tip-toes to avoid strangling himself from the noose around his neck as the other slaves go about their daily work behind him. The images transform characters into symbols constructing the social edifice and then back again as they long for dignity against the endless chains of bondage.

Brad Pitt's character, a white carpenter who raises casual objection to the slave worker's conditions, is rebuked by Fassbender who proclaims: “A man does how he pleases with his property.”

To a radicalising generation rising to face the widespread oppressions of today, it is the nature of private property that points a way forward to understanding the fight for a better world.

More importantly, this visceral experience of the devastating racism and oppression that the United States was founded on is crucial to the struggles for justice today. This is a fact not lost on McQueen, who has referenced Trayvon Martin's murder in discussing the relevance of slavery's legacy.

The film seems to have recouped most of it's budget in domestic US sales, an important fact given the uncertainty about whether the film will do well commercially, as films starring African Americans have struggled to do so in the past.

It's worth saying that 12 Years a Slave is one of the only major motion pictures about slavery directed by a Black filmmaker (perhaps contrasted to the recent box office success Django Unchained).

Much of the star power involved, such as Brad Pitt, who stepped up as a producer, have put their weight behind the film in order to help get the movie seen partly for this reason.

While I'm rooting for the film to make commercial returns and for it to receive the grace of Oscar season so that work of this calibre will continue to be funded, financial success is hardly what's on my mind.

McQueen has contributed something special to cinema, and audiences leaving 12 Years a Slave will have made a qualitative emotional leap in their understanding of the legacy of slavery in the United States.

[First appeared at Red Wedge Magazine. Ryan Nanni is a filmmaker and writer in Chicago.]

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