I'd be skeptical of any review of 12 Years a Slave (which won the People's Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival last weekend and releases to theaters next month) that does not begin and end with "Lord, have mercy on us." For all its technical merits, the film stands or falls as a moral argument: "Slavery is an evil that should befall no one," says Bass, played by the film's producer - Brad Pitt - in a small but crucial role.
12 Years a Slave makes plenty of assertions. Some are subtle; most are painfully simple. But all of them come in an immersive experience that operates from the inside out, that moves the viewer by engaging the whole person - body, mind, and soul.
The story is based on the narrative of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black citizen from New York who is kidnapped while on a trip to Washington, D.C. and sold into slavery. We're meant to assume that he is drugged by his white performing partners.
When he awakes in a basement cell, the camera pans slowly upward to the Washington skyline, juxtaposing icons of freedom and democracy with the painful image of imprisonment and oppression. It is a forceful shot, perhaps the most on-the-nose of the film, and I wouldn't be surprised if less sympathetic reviewers accuse McQueen of being too heavy handed.
Except how can one be too heavy handed about slavery? Isn't part of our irritation because we want, need, and have come to expect our individual and corporate failures to be forgiven as soon as they are acknowledged and glossed over in safe abstractions and historical generalizations?
In many ways, Northrup, an educated free man, is the ideal avatar for the modern audience. He, like us, does not come to slavery naturally or easily. Also like us, he tries and fails to understand slavery, master its internal logic, and use his intelligence to do the right things in order to survive. Solomon frequently replies with some form of "just as instructed" when confronted by power, as though perfectly following instructions gives some modicum of protection in a world where nobody forces the rich and powerful to be fair and reasonable.
But what if there is no rhyme or reason, no logic, no right move to be played? How can someone find protection in being a perfect slave, when slavery itself is a series of irreconcilable orders and impossible commands? We all like to believe that we could transcend these circumstances, that the values and beliefs instilled in us could equip us to make the right decisions. But what about when one must always do more with less – with, for instance, a quota system that calls for whipping a man at the end of each day if he picks less than average? When the demands of a mistress and those of a master are in conflict, how can one please them both? What about when the choice is between picking up a lash or consigning others to the noose?
It's also convenient to think that we would be like Bass, aware of the evils of slavery and willing to risk our own safety to confront it. But Bass acts out of a sense of duty, not personal goodness. In a scene that may resonate the most with modern audiences, Master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) gives in to evil against his own inclination for the most prosaic of reasons - debt - and the film shines here, and throughout, when it illustrates and explores different kinds of bondage without undercutting the place of total enslavement in the hierarchy of evils.