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.
Of course, we would all rather be in debt than enslaved. But perhaps by seeing how going against conscience chips away at our humanity (rather than simply blasting it to smithereens), we begin to understand how some of the conflicts faced by the characters are primal and eternal, not just political or of the moment. Because 12 Years a Slave frames its moral conundrums in these terms, it feels the most contemporarily relevant of all the depictions of slavery we see at the movies.
It seems important here to understand how the film depicts religion and, specifically, Christianity. McQueen often lets the sound or dialogue from one scene continue after the visuals have transferred to the next, and this device is used pointedly when the words of sermons given by Master Ford are superimposed onto the reality of the lives his slaves live. And Master Epps's (Fassbinder) theology is openly repugnant to modern sensibilities—he uses the language of the Bible ("that's scripture") to insist that God has appointed the order of slave and master. After one brutal act of torture, he proclaims that "there is no sin," since a man may do as he pleases with his property.
Yet the film is not simply and only anti-Christian. Certainly, Pitt's character speaks and acts in moral terms. But more than that, 12 Years doesn't shy away from showing the inexpressibly complicated relationship the slaves have with the God of their oppressors. Embittered by the hypocrisy and sanctimony of the slave-owners and angry at God's seeming abandonment of him and his fellow slaves, Solomon often rages silently, as all his doubts and anger must be repressed.
Others are able to find solace in furtive expression of faith. One prays, "God love him; God bless him; God keep him" over a buried comrade. Even that moment comes with some bitterly cynical overtones: God keep him better than he kept him in this life.
Yet the film's emotional zenith comes in a cathartic moment when Solomon participates in a spiritual. Ejiofor is able to convey so much in his vocal inflections: anger, despair, renewal, and, finally hope. Hope for what? Earlier he has said, "I don't want to survive; I want to live." The spiritual, I would argue, indicates that he can hope to survive until one day he will live again.
The other masterful scene in the film is Solomon's farewell to Patsy, a fellow slave whom the film painfully but rightly never mentions again. The resolution to Solomon's story is laced with pain, not triumph, as he comes to realize that with new life comes survivor's guilt—and grief for all those still waiting to live again.
God have mercy on us all until they do.
12 Years a Slave is rated R, as it should be. It contains multiple usages of painful language, depictions of lynching, murder, and torture. There is nudity and depictions of human sexuality. A major theme of the film is the dehumanizing effects of slavery. In presenting such a theme, it is often painful to watch, as it should be.
Kenneth R. Morefield is an Associate Professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I & II, and the founder of 1More Film Blog.