Reflections on 12 Years A Slave

Posted on Wed 8 Jan 2014
Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years A Slave

Steve McQueen's 12 Years A Slave, a blisteringly powerful drama that illuminates like no other film before it the sheer horror of slavery, opens here at Watershed on Fri 10 Jan. Writer, historian and commentator Edson Burton attended a preview screening of the film with our Cinema Curator Mark Cosgrove (who has also written an article on McQueen's intense work here), and has kindly shared some of his responses to the film.

You can read his article below and once you have seen the film you can contribute your own thoughts either online or in person. Edson will be at the Sun 19 Jan 14:00 screening of the film, where he will discuss slavery on screen in a Q&A, discussing depictions of slavery on film and explaining why 12 Years A Slave is very different from its predecessors.

Reflections from Edson Burton - Writer, Historian, Commentator

Words used to describe a film can become a cliché, particularly when the Academy Season looms. Yet the ubiquitous 'visceral' to describe 12 Years A Slave is entirely apt.

Set in 1841, 12 Years a Slave tells the nightmarish story of the enslavement of Solomon Northup, a free man of colour living and working in New York. Northup, a master fiddle player, is tricked into joining the circus by a pair of slave captors, masquerading as promoters. On joining the tour, he is subsequently drugged, imprisoned, given a false name and sold into slavery. From then on, he enters a world that is cruel and perverse in extremis.

Ingenuity is a liability, a work ethic begets more exploitation, men talk of God yet act as Devils, the lash and the skipping rope are set in parallel rhythm. Escape is proffered only by death and in an otherworldly God. Solomon learns quickly that to petition his handlers with talk of his free status invites only the cruellest retribution. We see him broken into accepting the Janus face necessary to survival - a man among his fellow slaves, an object to his masters. He learns also, to look away.

In this regard, the camera does not flinch, showing us what Solomon does not see. But Solomon cannot truly give himself over to his own annihilation. Intelligence looms in his eyes, defiance in his reluctant step. This ensures his psychic survival but also intensifies the cruelty he suffers. Even in terror, he is alive. His sense of the injustice of his position clings to him throughout his years of bondage. Chiwetel Ejiofor is a natural in this part.

12 Years a Slave is the reset button in cinematic treatments of slavery. It cuts deeper, it strikes harder - it is emotional without orchestration. This is a systematic dismantling of the romantic slave South glorified in Gone with the Wind. There are no good masters in an inhumane system. Where others have offered glimpses of the reality of slavery - Beloved, Glory, Lincoln - 12 Years takes us into slavery's heart and stays there.

Unlike the impenetrable edifice of Django, in Quentin Tarantino's eponymous movie, Solomon is a man with whom we can identify. We see in Solomon our possible selves. This is not a man born to subservience - 'seasoned' from birth into slavery - but a person, a being robbed of liberty. In this regard, he tells us something of the first enslaved Africans landing on American shores. It is a sobering thought that the biography upon which McQueen faithfully based this film is likely to have contained its own omissions, its own softenings.

Slavery was still in force when Solomon documented his experience. He wrote for a Northern abolitionist public for whom some details of experience may be deemed too explicit - for whom his own moral character has to be, fundamentally, unimpeachable. There is perhaps more than Solomon was able to tell but there is sufficient in this film.

For anyone who is curious as to why slavery continues to evoke such a sharp response, they could do no better than to watch this film. Audiences should not be put off by the distressing power in some of the scenes. Of its many resounding impressions, the one which endures is the film's affirmation of one man's unwillingness to relinquish his spirit. Incredible performances throughout combined with subtle and vivid directing make 12 Years A Slave a must see film.

See 12 Years A Slave at Watershed from Fri 10 Jan.