Reviews — From the March 2014 issue

Here There Is No Why

The trial of 12 Years a Slave

( 3 of 4 )

Born in London of West Indian parents, McQueen was a video artist for fifteen years before making his first feature, Hunger (2008). McQueen’s shorter pieces were confrontational, tactile, and often focused on the body (in many cases, his own). One shows the actress Charlotte Rampling in close-up as the artist’s finger probes her eye. Another uses a helicopter and a telephoto lens to explore the armpit of the Statue of Liberty.

McQueen’s gallery installations were both highly formal — using a Warholian sense of “real time” — and overtly political. A 2001 video shows the artist in a hotel room relaxing in the glow of a TV report on the dispatch of NATO troops to Afghanistan. In McQueen’s best-known video piece, the half-hour Western Deep, the camera accompanies an elevator filled with anonymous workers on a descent in near total darkness and silence miles into the depths of a South African gold mine.

Duration also plays an important part in McQueen’s feature-length movies, which are unusually concentrated on the physical suffering of the protagonists. Though McQueen’s interest in privation, brutality, and degradation can make his films grueling to watch, the films also leave the impression of having been grueling for the actors to make. Extreme experience is dispassionately offered up for contemplation. Hunger, which is set almost entirely inside Belfast’s Maze prison, opens with a shot of inmates rhythmically banging their cups — and holds it long enough to establish the movie as something deliberate, cool, and perversely musical. It ends with the jailed IRA member Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) starving himself to death, a harrowing final movement informed by a thousand years of Christian iconography: the emaciated martyr lies on a prison-hospital cot covered with weeping sores and stigmatic lesions. (Fassbender lost forty pounds for the role.) Solemn music and crucifixion imagery abound as well in 2011’s Shame, but in that film Fassbender’s thirtysomething Manhattan office drone mortifies his flesh in another fashion. Enslaved by an insatiable appetite for porn, whores, and hookups, both cyber and actual, he’s a sex addict — utterly narcissistic and single-minded in his pursuit, which nonetheless offers him no release.

Although more conventional in form than Hunger or Shame, 12 Years a Slave is likewise a film about bodies in prison and in pain. It’s composed almost as a linked series of short films, not unlike McQueen’s gallery work. Most sequences are closely adapted from the text, though several scenes appear as nearly autonomous inserts. These include the opening, which introduces the enslaved Northup (now rechristened Platt), as well as a brief sequence in which Platt stumbles on a lynching in a sylvan glade to realize, as Primo Levi learned in Auschwitz, that “here there is no ‘why.’ ”

John Ridley’s screenplay has streamlined Northup’s chronicle to a few experiences, all of which McQueen dwells on much longer than is usual in a narrative film. The protagonist’s initial beating in a Washington cellar within sight of the Capitol dome, for example, is a movie within the movie. So is the scene in which, after Platt attacks and beats a cruel overseer, he is strung up by the neck to a tree branch and left to dangle for endless minutes with his weight supported on tiptoes. The length of this unbearable scene is emphasized by the calm flow of daily plantation life all around him.

As its title reminds us, 12 Years a Slave is about time passing as well as about times past. “The time of the slave’s world is increasingly disjoined from any standard sense of time,” as the scholar Sam Worley, writing about Northup’s chronicle, observed in the literary journal Callaloo. The slaves’ present is not their own; instead, they are “made to stay up all night dancing to entertain the master, work around the clock during the cane harvest, and work on the Sabbath.” Only once in 12 Years do the slaves articulate their own relationship to time — to, in fact, eternity. In a scene invented for the movie, the camera records Platt’s reaction at a fellow slave’s funeral as he submerges himself in the group-sung spiritual “Roll Jordan Roll.” (The historian Eugene Genovese used the same powerfully affirmative anthem to title his excellent examination of slave society.)

Still, scenes depicting the capricious nature of the violence slaves endured are at the heart of McQueen’s film. In his book, Northup distinguishes between good and bad masters and goes so far as to speak of “the bright side of slavery.” At one point, he even finds himself cast as a slave driver (though this is not something that McQueen, whose view is more systemic, includes in his movie). With the notable exception of the abolitionist carpenter played by Brad Pitt (the deus ex machina who enables Platt to regain his freedom, and whose scenes follow Northup’s narrative verbatim), the whites are either passive go-alongs submitting to what they take as God’s will or sadistic brutes enabled by a system that debases all.

In interviews, McQueen has declared his sympathy for the worst master Northup encounters, the cotton planter Edwin Epps (Fassbender again). For the filmmaker, Epps is another sort of prisoner, in thrall to his lust for the young slave Patsey, whom he repeatedly rapes and obsessively torments, driven by both love and a desire to extinguish its object — as well as by the need to placate his vindictive wife. (In a sense, Fassbender, who has spoken of his difficulty in playing Epps, is reprising his role as the tormented sex addict from Shame.)

Patsey (the Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o) is, the protagonist aside, the most important figure in 12 Years a Slave. It would seem, from Northup’s text, that he loved her as much as Epps did:

Patsey was slim and straight. She stood erect as the human form is capable of standing. There was an air of loftiness in her movement, that neither labor, nor weariness, nor punishment could destroy. Truly, Patsey was a splendid animal, and were it not that bondage had enshrouded her intellect in utter and everlasting darkness, would have been chief among ten thousand of her people. She could leap the highest fences, and a fleet hound it was indeed, that could outstrip her in a race. No horse could fling her from his back. She was a skillful teamster. She turned as true a furrow as the best, and at splitting rails there were none who could excel her.

Patsey is also the fastest and most dexterous at picking cotton, routinely doubling the amount brought in by the male slaves. Northup calls her “queen of the field,” a sobriquet bestowed in the film by the besotted Epps.

A print depicting the flogging of Patsey, from 12 Years a Slave, ca. 1853 © Eon Images

A print depicting the flogging of Patsey, from 12 Years a Slave, ca. 1853 © Eon Images

Patsey is also cursed. She is scarred with a thousand stripes, Northup writes, because “it had fallen to her lot to be the slave of a licentious master and a jealous mistress.” After one terrible beating, Patsey begs Platt to put her out of her misery. (The movie follows the book, although Northup’s language is ambiguous as to whether it is Patsey pleading for oblivion or Mrs. Epps demanding it: “Nothing delighted the mistress so much as to see [Patsey] suffer, and more than once, when Epps had refused to sell her, has she tempted me with bribes to put her secretly to death, and bury her body in some lonely place in the margin of the swamp.”)

Gripped by an insane suspicion that Patsey is having a secret affair with a neighboring planter, Epps has her stripped naked and forces Platt to lash her before the assembled plantation hands. When Platt finally refuses to go further, Epps seizes the whip and in his frenzy beats Patsey gruesomely. Northup devotes the better part of a chapter to this ordeal, “the most cruel whipping that ever I was doomed to witness”; McQueen lingers on Epps’s violence and Patsey’s flayed back long enough to torment the audience. But Patsey is not permitted to die for our sins.

's most recent book is Film After Film; or, What Became of 21st-Century Cinema? (Verso). His last article for Harper’s Magazine, “Open Happiness,” appeared in the May 2013 issue.

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  • soph

    Loved reading this. Thank you

  • Pudumo Ramelamu

    I am writing from the Dark Continent. There was a discussion at which referenced the review in the magazine. I am glad I came through to this site. The review is quite thought provoking. i grew up under apartheid and the narrative if the movie brings back a lot of flashbacks. I need to ask the question, what are the good people doing to rise against similar injustices still being perpetrated around the world: caste system, mass imprisoment of African-American young men, Roma people in Europe, Palestine, gender violence, etc.? Thank you.


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