For much of the time Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave strikes a curiously stately rhythm, as if it didn’t want to be a movie but an art exhibition or a class in design. The frame fills with colours and lines, gold, green, black, yellow, dusty grey, sharp, blurry, fading. The effect is one of pure abstraction, and very beautiful. This effect remains even when the colours and lines resolve into figures, landscapes, objects. Now we see a river, a meadow, a line of trees, the churning wheels of a paddle steamer, a harrowed human face, and the camera lingers, resisting all idea of time and narrative. This is true even when an image is taken directly from the book on which the movie is based, where the scene is instantly and plausibly interpreted for us. ‘The inanimate body of poor Robert was consigned to the white waters of the gulf … and I gazed out over the great waste of waters with a spirit that was indeed disconsolate.’ In the film we see the wake of the ship, the sack with the body floating in the gleaming water, but it doesn’t translate into an unconsoled spirit. Or rather it does if we choose this translation, but on the screen the water just gleams, the sack slips away, the sea stretches to the horizon.
These pictures have plenty to say, it seems, but no immediate story to tell – or no story whose servants they are willing to become. Of course this way of talking about the images is borrowed from, infected by the narrative of the film, which is all about unwilling servants, and it’s tempting to moralise the pictures in line with the plot: heartless beauty of nature, cruelty of machinery, dignity of the human face, counterpoint and correspondence of the story being told. This is rational and economical, but it’s not the way the images in the film feel. Their beauty is part of their refusal of meaning. They are the strength of the movie for its first half, its way of sustaining a sense of bewilderment about what is happening to the central figure, a free black man who has been sold into slavery: of getting close to his bewilderment and obliquely remembering his lost freedom. The film uses other far less abstract imagery too, of course, and very well. I think especially of a scene where our man is almost hanged, then spared but not cut down. He can save himself from strangling only by touching his toes constantly against the ground. We watch the desperate toes, and everyone else going on with their lives around them. And then the film lapses into a visual and aural language that is the reverse of abstract because it is so contentedly melodramatic, and becomes another film altogether.
The rhythm of abstraction is all the more remarkable because the narrative questions of the film (and the book) begin as early as the title. Why 12 years? Which 12 years? What about the people who were slaves all their years? The 12 years run from 1841 to 1853. Solomon Northup was the son of a freed slave, lived with his wife and three children in upstate New York, farmed, played the fiddle and was not looking for trouble. One day in Saratoga Springs he met two men who invited him to join their circus as a musician. The pay was good, the engagement was short. All he had to do was spend a little time in New York and Washington. In Washington he was drugged and woke up in a slave pen. When he said he was a free man he was beaten brutally and told the same thing would happen every time he claimed to be anything other than a runaway slave from Georgia. He and other victims were shipped to the South for auction and sold to the highest bidder. The book and the film chronicle his experiences as a slave. He was rescued when he finally managed to send a letter to his friends back home, who came and identified him as a free man and therefore no one’s legal property. Northup published his memoir in 1853.
The physical costs of survival in these years are tremendous, but the film’s most powerful moments concern its moral cost too. In the first Northup, who has learned to keep quiet about his old freedom and his ability to read and write, and is well treated by his current master, if not by that master’s employees, yells at a woman who can’t stop crying over the loss of her children, sold to different owners. She asks him if he has forgotten his own children and reproaches him for accepting his (relatively) comfortable life. He doesn’t see any alternative to his own strategy but recognises her right to grieve in any way she needs to. The performances here, by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Adepero Oduye, are both searching and underplayed, an eloquent representation of the complicated humanity so often denied in racist theory.
In the second moment Northup is forced to whip a woman slave or himself be whipped or worse. He whips her as lightly as he can but his enraged master – a different master now – is not going to be satisfied with this. He waves his gun and says he’ll shoot all the slaves if Northup doesn’t whip the woman properly. He does. More than properly. A few seconds later we get a close picture of her ravaged back, and slave women trying to treat it, as she moans and twitches in pain. I have to say that at this point and one or two others I found myself thinking, ‘This is a movie, when is the romantic revolt going to occur, the refusal to serve, the overthrow and comeuppance of the evil masters?’ But this is not Spartacus. McQueen’s film and Northup’s book give us nothing of the kind: just pain and living with what feels like its unavoidable infliction. These images and sounds are embedded in narrative, of course, but they still talk to us in their own right, like the sea: we keep looking at (and hearing) the whip, the back and the moans.
It’s eerily easy to spot the instant at which the movie goes wrong – or goes right if you really wanted it to be another movie. The instant involves a tight close-up on the face of Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps, the vicious second owner of Northup. He is, characteristically, reading to his slaves a passage from the Bible about the administration of stripes or lashes, and there is something about the closeness of the camera here, and the affection of its pause, which tells you at once that the film is changing gear. It’s not about Northup any more, it’s about this man. He will steal every scene there is, partly because he is Michael Fassbender and partly because an inventive, elaborate and sometimes stealthy nastiness will always be more interesting than mere stolid suffering. Epps has his slower cotton-pickers whipped, makes his slaves dance, rapes his favourite, intimately taunts Northup, in whom he senses something vulnerable and different. Fassbender is terrific in this role, but the result is similar to Hannibal Lecter’s running away with The Silence of the Lambs.
Actually, Northup’s suffering is not stolid, it’s intelligent and dignified and complicated throughout. But it looks stolid compared with Epps’s infinite enjoyment of his own cruelty, his cossetting his own pathology as if it were an unruly pet, and there was an intriguing echo of this effect in the controversy surrounding the advertising of the film in Italy, a sort of interpretative contagion. The posters offered large-scale images of Fassbender and Brad Pitt (who is one of the producers of the film, and in the film portrays the kindly if frightened Canadian who writes the crucial letter for Northup), with Ejiofor glimpsed only in a small corner frame. This proportion is not representative of the movie, but it does mirror the Epps section of it. The larger question of slavery is already edged away by the theme of the time-bound enslavement of a free man – a horror, but not controversial as far as rights are concerned. Some of Northup’s remarks about ‘real’ slaves are pretty troubling: ‘Brought up in fear and ignorance as they are,’ he says, ‘it can scarcely be conceived how servilely they will cringe before a white man’s look.’ But then even the question of Northup’s rights is usurped by the new/old show of the exotic evil of the mad master. So that was the problem: a few crazy sadists like Epps. Remove the bad apples, and the crop will be as good as it ever was. This is not where the film has any intention of going, but it is where it gets.