“[T]he Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields himself no true self-consciousness. . . . It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
— W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folks
Steve McQueen's sobering and exacting third feature, 12 Years a Slave, towered over many of the films I saw at Toronto last month. Watching it a second time only deepened its power and solidified its accomplishment as a galvanizing and deeply intelligent work.
The movie repudiates the trash aesthetics of junk like Django Unchained or The Butler; it accurately reduces those unlearned, debased movies as minstrel acts. Using the full expressive power of the medium, drawing out light, color, tone and point of view, McQueen creates a work of terrifying urgency and anger.
It is also a work of moral complexity. The unreconcilable is the movie’s dominant mode of expression. McQueen and the writer, the talented though erratic John Ridley, adapt the astonishing memoir of Solomon Northup, a mid-19th century black Northerner who, victimized by an elaborate ruse of white bounty hunters, was kidnapped in Washington, D.C. and sold into the servitude of a series of Southern plantation owners.
Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Northup as a dandy and aesthete, a gifted violinist, who’s subjected to the same peculiar brand of punishing self-laceration as Michael Fassbender endured in McQueen's first two features (Hunger and Shame, respectively). Ridley has sole writer's credit, but McQueen surely worked closely with at shaping the material.
The opening, an elaborate flash-forward, is tense and frightening, the camera opening on the deep interior of a Southern plantation as an overseer demonstrates the grinding practice of cutting sugar cane. Ejiofor's pained and broken man dominates the frame, immediately establishing a constant and direct emotional connection between the dehumanizing conditions and the frightening and emotional demands made of the captives; meanwhile, the camera, sinuous and prowling, cuts through the swath of fibrous stalks that jut from the florid and frightening landscape.
The proper narrative starts in 1841 Saratoga, New York, introducing Solomon and his family (his daughter is Quvenzhané Wallis, the wonderful young actress from Beasts of the Southern Wild). Believing himself to be commissioned for short-term work in a circus, his freedom is shockingly altered when he awakens from his drugged state. After establishing the frightening reality of Solomon's new condition, McQueen's camera floats outside and upward to reveal the outlines of the Capitol, a pungent disconnect between the country's founding principles and the appalling alternate reality for African-Americans.
The rendering of captivity and confinement are worthy of Robert Bresson, the contrast of Northup's freedom played against the privations of his new conditions marking DuBois' notion of the black "twoness." Solomon must renounce his own abilities, talents, his very worth and being, in order to survive. "I want to live," he asserts.
Again working with his great cinematographer Sean Bobbit, McQueen locates the poetry of terror in the everyday: an overhead shot of a wagon as its tarp is uncovered, revealing the black bodies, some quite small, packed into compacted space; the sinister churning of a paddle boat, echoing the Middle Passages that brought the first generation of Africans to the New World; a corpse floating amid the calm water; and the harshness of the Rembrandt lighting as Northup realizes his loss of status, identity and existence.
The movie is bound by harshness and staggering injustice, at the systematic and brutal manner blacks are denied their worth, sexually subjugated or worst of all, violently torn from their families. Entire generations are transactional figures, sold and bartered as political, economic or social currency. "My sentimentality extends to the length of a coin," the blithely cold slave trader (Paul Giamatti) remarks. ("You'll soon forget your children," is the most chilling line spoken.)
Solomon's loss of identity is made explicit by the appropriated name, Platt, and that of an itinerant Georgia background, assigned him. Originally sold to the somewhat benevolent landowner Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), he becomes the foil of a sadistic carpenter (Paul Dano) who resents his learning and competence.
Solomon's personal uprising carries horrifying consequences in the film's most devastating sequence of his near lynching. With his hands bound, he must stand, for hours at end, with a noose dangling around his neck and one foot barely able to touch the ground.
Solomon survives the ordeal but his debt is transferred to Epps (Fassbender), a wastrel and debauched cotton plantation owner who quotes Scripture to rationalize his barbaric pathology. These passages are raw, difficult and at times almost impossible to bear. The tone is never mannered; it’s observed and detailed, a shock to the system that assails some of the popular cultural presuppositions about the antebellum South. (Mandingo is a chillingly great film, but I’d argue it is because of the brilliance and formal talent of its director, Richard Fleischer.)
Like Edward P. Jones' great novel, The Known World, the work has a moral sophistication and depth, especially about race and class, that defies easy analysis, evident in the figure of the great Alfre Woodard. She has a single scene, and it’s fantastic. She plays a former slave and now common law wife of a progressive white Southern plantation owner. She provides learned counsel and friendship to a traumatized young black woman (the astounding Lupita Nyong'o) desperate to retain her humanity.
The film is a work of moral, political and intellectual subterfuge. The language, at times suggestive of Shakespeare or Dickens, is a beautiful and outrageous act of self-defiance or radical self-assertion of humanity and grace. (The great critic devoted a whole essay about that.) This is the kind of vivid, tremulous work where every actor, however briefly shown, makes an impression, like Chris Chalk in his few scenes with Ejiofor, with his majestic and evocative voice of learned despair, or Sarah Paulson's Mary, the alternately aggrieved and vindictive wife of Epps.
12 Years a Slave looks both backward and forward. McQueen’s film, like Claude Lanzmann with his great and transcendent Shoah, exists to bear a particular kind of witness. With Shoah, this is great filmmaking shaped to a subject that stands outside our ability to ever explicate.
Call it the sorrow and the pity