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Review by Joshua Gibbs
It is fitting that the hero of 12 Years a Slave is called Solomon. I thought often of Ecclesiastes while watching the film. Few books in Scripture are responsible for more intellectual patricide than Ecclesiastes; begin reading any commentary on the work, and the first comment most authors feel compelled to make is something like, “Everybody who has ever tried to explain Ecclesiastes has gotten it all wrong.” This speaks well of the book’s intensely personal appeal, mysteriously able to not only address every reader, but to address every reader in the hour and very minute they sit down to study. You cannot step twice into the same Ecclesiastes. I suspect that 12 Years a Slave has garnered universal praise not because it is a technically flawless film, but because everyone will personally recognize some aspect of their own slavery and their own freedom in the story.
This is to say I find 12 Years a Slave far easier to read as an account of slavery and freedom as spiritual conditions through which all men are forever passing. As for the historical accuracy of the film, I could not comment because I have not studied the early 19th century American South to any appreciable degree. For all I know, the film is too mild in presenting the brutality of slave owners. While 12 Years is exceedingly brutal, film critics of the last twenty years have often assumed that a more brutal depiction of anything which happened in the past is necessarily more accurate; the Modernist desire to exile the past so the present might appear more glorious, more peaceful, lusts hard for nasty period pieces. I will leave aside questions of historical verisimilitude, then, because the film could stand on its even if American soil had never seen a single slave.
Anyone who saw a preview for the film sat down to watch knowing that the hero Solomon Northup was born free in the North, successful, but then kidnapped and sold into slavery down South. When the film begins, though, Solomon is already a slave. We see him working hard in a field during the day, then, in the evening, eating a small dinner, alone and quiet. Director Steve McQueen shows us Solomon’s plate, which holds several large blackberries and the juice of the berries rolls around the inner rim of the plate while Solomon looks on studiously. A moment later, Solomon has collected the juice and is attempting to use it as ink to write a letter. The stuff fails, and he angrily knocks the can of juice away and it splatters over every frame of the film which follows. Solomon Northup needs to speak a few simple words, but he cannot.
Solomon is born free and works as a carpenter and fiddler in New York. When his wife takes their children on a vacation, he finds himself with nothing to do and so accepts an invitation to play fiddle for two traveling showmen who promise that theirs is nothing like a low class circus. He is promised good pay, consents, and a week later, he is toasting the men over a lavish dinner at how well the shows have sold. But Solomon becomes ill before the end of the evening, vomiting and mumbling, and the two showmen carry him up the stairs of their hotel and put him to bed. When he wakes, he is laying in chains on a dirt floor in Washington. Two slave traders accuse him of being a runaway slave from Georgia, and beat him when he claims otherwise. Thus begins the titular twelve years.
Something metaphysical, something biblical hangs about the structure of the film. In 2006, Rémi Brague published a piece in The American Spectator (“Sin No More”) wherein the Sorbonne philosophy prof offers the most original, lucid account of freedom, spiritual and political, I think I have ever heard. At length:
When the Bible describes God as withdrawing from His work in order to enjoy rest, God is described as free. But the world is, so to speak, free from God’s action, too, and is allowed to rest. God does not interfere any more with what He has created. On the contrary, He somehow sets His creatures on a free footing. His providence gives them whatever is required for them to be able to “shift for themselves” in the pursuit of what is good for them. The necessary outfit that enables a creature to reach its own good is what we call its nature. The biblical God does not create bundles of independent properties that He arbitrarily puts together or asunder; He creates things that are endowed with natures of their own. To be sure, God keeps whatever exists in being, for without His continuous will to maintain them, they would disappear. But He respects the nature of the things He has created.
Elsewhere, Brague suggests the Ten Commandments are not worded as commands (“Do not murder…”) but as descriptions of a free people (“Thou shalt not…,” or rather, “You will not…”) who have been liberated from Egyptian slavery. The commands of God befit a liberated person, an aristocratic person who is not forced to adhere to high standards of culture and morality and righteousness, but does so unconstrained and out of uncomplicated desire. To love as God loves is to love freely; God was not compelled to make man, but made man and became man “for us and for our salvation.” As the creature which is “free to fall,” as Milton suggests, man is born in a state of liberty and is “everywhere in chains” only much later. But do the chains ever fully revoke the freedom into which man is born? Brague suggests they do not, but that freedom and human nature are mutually dependent upon one another. To a point, McQueen agrees.
Once he is sold into slavery, Solomon seems to have a hard time articulating to himself whether he is a free man or not. Somewhere in the North, papers exist which prove his birth as a freeman. A whole community would testify to his life as a free person, and the knowledge he maintains from his days as a freeman forever testify to his freedom. And yet, if he is in chains, beaten and coerced to work for nothing, is he still free? Does the situation he finds himself in nullify the freedom which is rightly his to claim? Is his very being dependent on his material circumstances? Or is freedom an existential condition, and not beholden to politics?
If Solomon is meant to be a dynamic character, and if the story is not meant to be read as a tragedy, then we are left to discover what early flaw in his character is corrected in the rising arc of the story. The audience is perhaps loathe to do this, given that whatever lesson is learned hardly seems worth the pain Solomon is put through.
At first, Solomon bites hard at the shackles, trying to organize a rebellion from the belly of a slave ship only a few days after he is kidnapped. The others are content to survive, to work the slave system for what small advantages might be gained by playing along. “I don’t want to survive,” Solomon says. “I want to live.” The rebellion does not get beyond the planning stage, although a potential co-conspirator is knifed in the night, and in the morning Solomon and another slave dump the bagged body over the side of the ship. Solomon’s partner remarks that the dead man is better off, and while Solomon does not reply, we doubt he agrees. “It is better to go to the house of mourning than the house of feasting,” writes the Biblical Solomon, and later, “Better is the end of a thing than its beginning…” Whether Solomon will learn these lessons, or whether McQueen has an interest in teaching them, are dramatic questions which loom large over the first act.
Early on, Solomon is convinced the men who hired him to play the fiddle had nothing to do with his kidnapping. “These men are artists,” he says, denying the allegations of another slave that the two are guilty. McQueen leaves the question of their guilt unanswered, although Solomon seems naïve, guilty of the same kind of class prejudices the film works hard to undermine. The horrors of the slave trade, and the life of a slave working a field, are ever before us; at times, Solomon seeks justice and refuses to kowtow before the petty white thugs who push him around for his own amusement. The first master Solomon works for is the arguably beneficent William Ford, played by a nervous, but mild Benedict Cumberbatch. After first seeing Cumberbatch as a shattered, confused British intel drone in Tom Alfredson’s ponderously perfect Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I have been waiting to see him work a small, nuanced part again. He’s spent the last few years on big, showy roles, but gets a solid twenty minutes in 12 Years to whittle away at Ford, who is a plantation owner, but beholden to just about every white person he stands near, including the petty taskmasters he has hired to keep the estate functional. On Sundays, Ford reads the Bible to his slaves, and Solomon (who is henceforth referred to as “Platt,” the Georgia runaway for whom he is mistaken) has a few triumphs which win him Ford’s affection, so he is content to listen to Scripture in the garden, even while another slave woman cries for her lost children. Ford lacks the ferocity to kick her out of the Bible study, but lacks the humanity to comfort her personally, and so the woman cries while he reads, and everyone is mildly embarrassed. McQueen sympathizes with the slaves, but he does not try to make saints of them all. Whenever slaves respond as a group to an atrocity taking place before them, it is with fear at best or cowardice at worst. A botched hanging leaves Simon dangling from a tree, his toes grazing the ground such that he is barely not-suffocating. McQueen lingers on the desperate Solomon for perhaps an entire minute, uncut, as his toes try to cling to the earth. The slaves carry on with their day (could no one slip an upturned bucket beneath him? we wonder), as though nothing is out of the ordinary, and when the evening comes, the master Ford, who was away, returns and cuts Solomon down immediately. Ford is caught up in the evils of the slave trade, and is willing only to gently apply the brakes to its horrors. His love is real, but weak and thin. He sells Solomon as soon as it becomes uncomfortable to keep him.
Solomon is purchased by Edwin Epps, played by Michael Fassbender, and after mulling over the film for more than three weeks now, Epps (and perhaps I mean only Fassbender) seems the real story of 12 Years a Slave. Epps is unlike Ford in that he is cruel and exacting, however, both masters suffer from self-doubt and uncertainty. I could believe that not every slave master knew he was a slave master, and that for some, owning slaves might have been an invisible, ambient aspect of doing business in the middle of the 19th century. Still, in Book XIX of the City of God, Augustine writes:
And beyond question it is a happier thing to be the slave of a man than of a lust; for even this very lust of ruling, to mention no others, lays waste men's hearts with the most ruthless dominion. Moreover, when men are subjected to one another in a peaceful order, the lowly position does as much good to the servant as the proud position does harm to the master. But by nature, as God first created us, no one is the slave either of man or of sin.
By the third act, Epps’ enslavement to his own twisted passions have more than proven his to be the least enviable life in recent film history. Epps is painfully aware of the fact he owns slaves. He seems to dwell on nothing else. At work and at leisure, Epps constantly minds his slaves, but also his own feeling and conduct toward them. He beats them, tortures them, rapes at least one of them, but is afflicted by sudden pangs of guilt and sometimes rouses them all from their sleep and throws together macabre little parties wherein they are all forced to dance, drink and have a good time. When they do not have a good enough time, he charges them with ingratitude. Epps depends on his slaves, and he hates this dependence; when a slave fails to bring in enough cotton, he orders them to be beaten, and yet he makes the order with a kind of frustrated sadness, knowing full well he isn’t actually helping himself.
Fassbender keeps an unblinking gaze on anyone who speaks to him, and has so discharged his own eyes of feeling and intellection that it seems a coin toss anytime there is silence as to whether Epps will beat a man to a pulp or walk away disinterestedly. Fassbender keeps Epps within just a pin’s length from full-blown madness. We sense it would be a great relief to Epps if he were completely disabused of his sanity, so that he could grow claws and eat grass for seven years like a beast. Instead, Epps is a demon stuffed in a linen suit, trying to act like a human, mostly failing, never failing completely.
The brilliance of Fassbender’s performance is that he presents Epps as a man at war with himself, and in this, the film becomes more a timeless comment on the nature of sin and less a piece of history. Epps is in a cold war with his wife, who knows he favors a slave girl named Patsey, and so his wife abuses Patsey while Epps grants her an extra scrap of meat from time to time. The war with his wife is a fine emblem of the civil war raging in his own soul; Epps is never satisfied by his sin, but holds on to the lie that he might someday take great solace and comfort in the thoughtless power to beat others. He hurts himself, suffers, but tells himself there is no pain; Epps loves all his neighbors like he loves himself. He shreds men to ribbons while boasting of his own dedication to justice. On this point, the film is a profound success. Everyone will find themselves somewhere, somehow in Epps. Everyone caves to temptation, makes excuses, suffers in the spirit, then returns the next day for another beating. Since seeing the film, on several occasions I have muttered the word "slave" to myself when in a moment of temptation and Fassbender's Epps comes back to me.
In the paramount scene of the film, Epps has contrived a reason to whip Patsey, but then says to Solomon, “Yah will strike her. Yah will strike her until her flesh is rent and meat and blood flow equal, or I will kill every nigger in my sight!” John Ridley’s script for the scene interjects the following comment after Epps’ line:
Solomon can't strike a blow, even if it means his life.
But then Patsey yells, “Do it, Platt. Don't stop until I am dead.” Again, between lines of dialog in the script, Ridley asks:
What else can he do? Solomon begins to whip, to truly whip Patsey. Her back welts, then tears... Patsey screams in agony. Solomon strikes again and again...
While the question is framed rhetorically, actually, what else could Solomon do? The film never quite ascends to touch on the possibility of martyrdom. Epps takes over after ten strokes or so and Solomon stands off to the side, watching as Epps beats the woman to death. At this point, the audience is left to wonder what separates Solomon from Epps. Epps hates what he is doing, but does it anyway, and the same is true of Solomon.
The film exonerates Solomon of any wrongdoing, though. When he is finally freed and reunited with his family, he embraces them all and weeps and says, “Forgive me,” to which his wife responds, “There is nothing to forgive.” Of course, his wife knows nothing of what Solomon has done and been through in the last twelve years, but her words better represent the writer, whose personal voice directly emerges in the closing moments of the story to pronounce the profound, universal innocence of the hero. Julian of Norwich would have been pleased. Who knows what Solomon would have said had Epps come to him and tearfully repented? “There is nothing to forgive”? No, and McQueen has not prepared us to even want that manner of benediction for Epps.
And for that, Julian would protest.