The opening scene of “12 Years a Slave,” directed by Steve McQueen, follows the perspective of an unknown figure slowly uncovering the leaves of a lush sugar cane field perhaps searching for food, trying to survive. It bears a strong resemblance to what the protagonist, Solomon Northrup, says: “I don’t want to survive…I want to live.” Solomon Northrup was a free-black musician living in New York City of 1841 with his family of two children and his wife Anne until he was lured into a false job, ensnared, and sold into slavery. When he pleads to his captors that he is a free man, he is beaten till nothing is left of the wooden plank.
While the first few scenes evoke an intimate atmosphere of difficulty and hopelessness, the flashback of Solomon’s family walking down the streets of New York City highlight the essence of the film which is not the return of the ‘hero’ to his family but the experiences of Solomon’s and other’s victimization. It transcends simple narratives and emotional exaggerations for a perfectly constructed and balanced film that encompasses the full gamut of the horrific realities and vicissitudes that have befallen the enslaved.
As such, Steve McQueen and screenplay writer John Ridley had to put a great deal of time in shaping the characters. And, it’s clear from the achievements of the movie that their work paid off. Every character takes a special and complex turn offering more than a stark rendition. The relationships in the film from master to slave and slave to slave change drastically as Solomon jumps from one master to another (although the backdrop always looks the same.) Solomon’s change from a state of disbelief and helplessness to acceptance is perfectly portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor. Although Solomon changes his outlook on the situation, he never loses sight of who he is and his dignity. Brad Pitt as the carpenter—perhaps the only ‘good’ person—brings some light in the evil and sadistic world of Michael Fassbender’s Edwin Epp, a bored drunk man who enjoys playing with his toy slaves. His nightly dancing shows are distressing scenes that are very reminiscent of a puppeteer playing with puppets. Even more deplorable are his detours into Patsey’s—a distraught young slave played powerfully by Lupita Nyong’o –cabin to fill his sexual hunger. Against all his repugnant acts however, Fassbender still manages to show Epp’s conscience via his hidden insecurity and guilt.
“12 Years a Slave” is not an easy film to watch and it’s not meant to be easy. Silent and dark scenes are directly followed by noisy and bright shots sans the dissolving and fading interpositions. In fact, McQueen uses this technique several times by juxtaposing the dark and light beauty of nature with the loud and hectic violence of the day. The transition between the scenes forces audience members not only to see the pain but also empathize with the characters. This is a perfect addition to the already graphic and gruesome sequences that are meant to pierce through the viewer’s eyes and heart.
One might argue that a misstep in the movie is its ‘inability’ to portray the diuturnity of Solomon’s enslavement, the whole 12 years he spent apart from his family. However, Steve McQueen sacrifices the portrayal of time for something more important—the existential isolation and slavery. This is where the distinction between living and surviving is made clearer. And, instead of gradually showing the passage of time, McQueen favors a subtle and ingenious approach whereby the final scene culminates all the absence of time in one powerful and shocking image of the fully-grown family that Solomon once knew as children. (Begging the question—where have I been?)
It’s quite sad that such a great movie is accompanied by a derivative and undeveloped score composed by Hans Zimmer. Over the years, Hans Zimmer has lost his originality and almost everything he touches ranging from “Man of Steel” and “Captain Phillips” has the same cue from “Inception’s” ‘Time’ or from “The Thin Red Line’s” ‘Journey to the Line’ but with a few edits in volume and orchestration.