Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup
Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps
Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey
Sarah Paulson as Mary Epps
Benedict Cumberbatch as William Ford
Brad Pitt as Samuel Bass
Paul Dano as John Tibeats
Adepero Oduye as Eliza
Paul Giamatti as Theophilus Freeman
Garret Dillahunt as Armsby
Scoot McNairy as Brown
Taran Killam as Hamilton
Chris Chalk as Clemens Ray
Director: Steve McQueen
12 years a slave is dull, very very dull. The plot trudges from one banally brutal or degrading episode to the next as the kidnapped black freeman Solomon Northrup undergoes his dozen years of illegal enslavement in the America of the 1840s. There is little sense of the story moving forward. Rather like pornography it becomes boring because repeating the same general thing over and over is tedious no matter what the subject. Indeed, the film could be regarded as pornography for white liberals. The fact that we know the eventually outcome – Northrup’s re-obtaining of freedom- before the film begins deepens the dramatic void. The weakness of plot is typified by the scene in which Northrup is finally freed. What should have been the prime moment of emotional engagement in the film is shown in such a startlingly perfunctory fashion that Northrup’s freeing is made to seem inconsequential.
The film would have been much more dynamic as a drama if there had been subplots to vary the plantation scenes. This could have been readily done because Northrup’s written story provided plenty of opportunity for diversification of the plot - the full text of 12 Years a Slave can be found at https://archive.org/stream/twelveyearsasla00nortgoog#page/n8/mode/2up. (The page numbers in the review refer to this text). For example, when he is being shipped for sale after being kidnapped Northrup manages to send a letter to those he knows in New York (p 73), but they cannot come after him because there is no clear indication of where he is or where he will be going. Northrup also mentions in his book that his son vowed to find his father and purchase his freedom. The sufferings of his family could have been used to provide a powerful backdrop to Northrup’s travails. Then there were the opportunities for diversifying the action offered by the efforts made to obtain his freedom after he eventually gets word of his predicament and where he is to those in New York who eventually procure his release. There is also an episode in the book (p136) where Northrup goes on the run through a sub-tropical swampland. That would have made a strong action sequence.
It is a little difficult to see why the director ignored such opportunities. He is certainly a competent filmmaker as his previous decidedly interesting film Shame showed. Being black himself, perhaps McQueen was simply too close to the subject and became obsessed with the abuse storyline. Despite the dismal litany of abuse in Northrup’s book, he cannot resist using a screenplay by John Ridley which over-eggs the mistreatment of slaves by going beyond what Northrup recounted. For example, after Northrup has been abducted, he is taken with other slaves down-river on a paddle-steamer . During the voyage there is an attempt by a white man to rape one of the black female slaves. Another slave attempts to prevent this and is knifed to death by the world-be rapist. This event is not in Northrup’s book, a fact which is unsurprising because slaves were valuable and the loss of one would not be welcome. Indeed, Northrup makes it clear that any injury reduced the value of the slave and that signs of punishment could be particularly damaging to value, viz: “Scars upon a slave’s back were considered evidence of a rebellious or unruly spirit and hurt his sale” (p80) . Another important fabrication is a scene where Northrup tells Ford he is a free man who has been kidnapped into slavery and Ford says he cannot listen. Northrup’s book says he never raised the subject of his true identity with Ford (p 91)
There is also subtle exaggeration of abuse. For example, in the scene where Northrup and some other slaves are being put up for sale, the film shows them partially or fully naked, to be viewed by any prospective buyer. What Northrup actually writes is that the slaves were clothed but “Sometimes a man or a woman was taken to the small house in the yard and inspected more minutely” (p80), a rather less public humiliation.
There is also a pc driven absurdity which occurs in the scenes in the film before Northrup’s kidnapping and sale into slavery. He is shown not only as being decidedly prosperous (something not borne out by his own account of his pre-slave days) but as being greeted by virtually every white person he meets with that curious passive aggressive fawning behaviour which white liberals adopt when interacting with anyone who is black. Even allowing for the fact that Northrup is a free man and the scenes are set in the non-slave states, it is somewhat difficult to imagine that he would have been such an object of unalloyed admiration in the 1840s.
To the one-dimensional plot can be added a general absence of character development. The problem starts with the leading man Chiwetel Ejiofor in the role of Northrup. There is a curious passivity about this actor no matter what role he inhabits. Here he simply comes over as emotionally flat even when he is resisting abuse. Nor does Ejiofor resemble Northrup in appearance. From the illustration of Northrup which accompanied his book he had a darkish skin but distinctly European features. This is unsurprising because in the book he is described as a mulatto ( strictly of half white, half black ancestry but more loosely of mixed race). Chiwetel Ejiofor is the child of two Nigerian parents. He looks very different from Northrup. Was an actor who showed no signs of having a large admixture of white blood in him deliberately chosen because the film maker wanted to have no racial ambiguity in the film’s male lead?
Then there is his physique. Northrup is depicted as a physically powerful man in the film, yet according to his book he is only 5’ 7” tall (p311). That would have been rather small even by the standards of the day. Sadly for the film, physically larger does not equal greater screen presence.
Lupita Nyong’o character of Patsey is very slight if viewed unsentimentally and exactly what she has done in the role to be nominated for best supporting actress at the Oscars and to win the same award at the Golden Globes is mystifying in terms of performance. She does not spend that much time on screen or have a great deal to say. Her most notable scene is of her being savagely flogged. Her beating has provoked much comment amongst the critics, but in truth the violence in film is not way beyond that seen in other slave-themed films such as Mandingo and Drum in the 1970s and the recent Django Unchained. Apart from the brutal flogging of Patsey, the only other serious beating is that given to Northrup with a wooden paddle and whip soon after he has been kidnapped. The three other films I mention all arguably had more scenes of violence meted out to slaves. For example, Django Unchained has two slaves fighting to the death for amusement of their masters and another slave killed by setting dogs on him.
Michael Fassbender is always watchable but as the harsh slaveowner Edwin Epps he is little more than a cartoon villain whose acts of brutality lacks credible motivation. His obsession with Patsey lusting after her one minute, having her flogged the next, is unconvincing, not least because she is no great beauty. I suppose it could be represented as sexual gratification through sadism, but that is not very plausible because much her beating is in response to the urging of his wife. Mary. Sarah Paulson as Epps’ wife is good as far as her role goes, which not far because she is there to display jealousy of Patsey and urge Epps to beat the unfortunate slave at every opportunity and do precious little else. Northrup’s estimation of her is surprisingly generous: “Mistress Epps was not such an evil woman after all. She was possessed of the devil, jealousy. It is true, but aside from that there was much in her character to admire…. She had been well educated at some institution this side of the Mississippi ; was beautiful and accomplished and usually good humoured. She was kind to all of us but Patsey… (p198). Thisis not reflected in the film.
Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as the “liberal” slave owner Ford is unconvincing on a level of basic acting because he struggles dreadfully with an American accent. But there is also a more major problem, that of Ford’s representation in the film being less than faithful to Northrup’s remarkably glowing judgement of him, viz: “. “there never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford….He was a model master, walking upright according to the light of his understanding and fortunate was the slave who came into his possession. Were all men such as he, slavery would be deprived of more than half its bitterness.” (p90). In the film Ford appears as comparatively humane but weak and a hypocrite who uses the Bible to justify slavery.
Then there is Brad Pitt as Samuel Bass, the man who sends Northrup’s letter to those who know him in New York, a letter which brings about Northrup’s release from slavery. Bass in is an itinerant Canadian mechanic and general jack-of-all-artisan trades. Against stiff competition Bass is the most unconvincing character in the film because he seems painfully like a modern right-on Hollywood liberal. He is shown preaching at length to the slave-owning class including Edwin Epps about the evils of slavery and being met with remarkably little critical response. This is how Northrup’s book portrays him, but it does seem to be wildly improbable if one takes Northrup’s description of Epps’ wildly erratic and violent behaviour seriously.
The general veracity of the film is dubious because it treats Northrup’s account as the gospel truth. After I saw the film I read the whole of 12 Years a Slave. The impression I was left with was that it has strong elements of implausibility because some things did just not ring true when set in the context of Northrup’s time and place. Nor does the literary style seem natural.
To begin with he routinely uses the Obama trick (found in great excess in Dreams from my father) of producing long passages of supposedly reported verbatim speech relating from the time just before he was kidnapped to the end of his enslavement. These cannot possibly be a factually true record because Northrup kept no journal during his captivity and wrote his book years after most of the conversations occurred. The second general problem is that this is just Northrup’s account. Apart from the fact that it is unverified, there is a great deal of Northrup constantly representing himself as being referred to by whites and blacks alike as being a very superior type of black and boasting of his own abilities. This looks suspiciously like egotism.
To this puffing of himself there is the strange way in which despite trying to run away and several times assaulting a white man in authority over him, the carpenter cum overseer John Tibeats (played by Paul Dano), Northrup remains alive. Northrup’s account says that he not only fought with Tibeats twice (pps 109, 188) – only one incident is covered in the film), but also had a struggle with Epps (p288). His escape from death or even a savage beating is made all the more astonishing because Tibeats owned Northrup at the time of their fights, Ford having sold him to Tibeats (after owning him for little more than a year) to settle a debt he owed Tibeats (p 106). If one takes Northup’s general tale of abuse by slave owners at face value this is astonishing.
Some of the artificiality of the book may have arisen from the fact that it was not Northup’s unassisted work . How literate Northrup was is debatable and he was assisted in the writing of the book by two white men, the writer and lawyer David Wilson and Henry Northup, the head of the Northup family which had owned and freed Northup’s father (http://www.historyvshollywood.com/reelfaces/12-years-a-slave.php). The involvement of Wilson and Henry Northrop may have coloured what Solomon Northrup said of his time as a slave, perhaps exaggerating the good behaviour and righteousness of anti-slavers and demonising slave owners and the white men working for them. Based on the characters depicted amongst the slave owners and traders, there is even a good case for saying the book was moulded to present the anti-slavery case both in terms of its inhumanity but also to give some of the slave owning class at least a partial absolution from being part of the “peculiar institution” by providing examples of relatively humane treatment such as that of Ford.
Finally, there is the problem of a complete absence of context, namely, a failure to place the behaviour of slave owners and traders in the broader setting of the customs of the time generally and in particular of the way the free poor of the time lived and, to modern eyes, the gross cruelties to which they were often subjected. ( A charge often levelled against William Wilberforce was that he cared a great deal about slaves but nothing for the poor in England).
Take corporal punishments, examples of which in the film have produced a great deal of anguish amongst reviewers. The flogging of slaves seems brutal to modern eyes but would have been much less likely to cause disgust amongst the general public in both the USA and Britain in the early Victorian period (the time of Northrup’s abduction). Heavy duty flogging was still commonplace in the British army and Royal Navy (and the press gang was lavishly used to man the Royal Navy until the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815) and was used widely as a judicial punishment. In addition, beating was routinely used in schools and in the home, both on children and wives.
There was a good deal more in the society contemporary with the time of Northrup’s enslavement which revolts modern sensibilities. Bear and bull baiting and dog fighting were only outlawed in Britain in 1835 and bare-knuckle boxing was very popular not merely amongst the poor but also the gentry. Executions, which involved a good deal of cruelty because simple hanging by suspension was used, were conducted in public (and attracted huge crowds). The number of crimes which attracted the death penalty in England until the late 1820s numbered over 200 and transportation to Australia was still going strong in the 1840s. The threat of imprisonment for debt hovered over all but the seriously rich, for even the middle classes could be rendered penniless by misfortune or recklessness.
Then there was the general condition of the poor. To be needy in early Victorian Britain was to live a very precarious life and those who were reduced to taking advantage of the 1835 Poor Law suffered such things as the separation of man and wife, child and parent. Trade Unions were illegal and women who worked were frequently forced into sexual acts by employers or others who had authority over them .
The poor had the advantage of being free, or at least of having made a choice to be less than free when they enlisted as a soldier or sailor or chose to enter the workhouse, but often the choice was between starving or the result of signing up to something the person did not understand or done under the influence of drink
What is startling are the remarkably large number of individual abuses of the poor which match those found in the type of chattel slavery which existed in the USA. That is not to say the free poor were as grievously handicapped as slave, for formal unfreedom is a heavy burden to bear, but merely to explain that the material distance between American slaves and the poor was not unimaginably great and in some cases, especially the house slaves of the rich. The material circumstances of the slaves would have been better than many of the free poor.
We are now deep into the film awards season. The response so far has been less than ecstatic for 12 Years a Slave. For a film lauded to the skies by the critics both in America and Britain, it has not swept all before it as might be expected: in the two sets of awards given out so far 12 Years a Slave has received a underwhelming response. It won only a single Golden Globe for best picture (voted for by members of the world’s media who call themselves the Hollywood Foreign Press Association). The Screen Actors Guild awards (voted for by actors) was even less overwhelmed and gave only the best supporting actress award to Lupita Nyong’o for her depiction of Patsy. As for those awards still pending after nominations have been made, 12 Years a Slave was not the most nominated film for either the BAFTAs, (nine nominations against Gravity’s ten) or the Oscars (nine nominations) coming behind American Hustle and Gravity with ten nominations apiece.
Nominations for film awards are one thing; voting for what you actually think is best quite another. Those who make nominations will be at least ostensibly politically correct and films such as 12 Years a Slave are for that reason more or less guaranteed to make a strong showing in the nominations. But having done their pc duty by nominating many of those entitled to vote will vote for who they actually believe should win. This will often mean that, as with the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild , the nominations bear little fruit when it comes to who wins.
Judged purely on the grounds of quality the film deserves, little praise official or otherwise for it is a truly ordinary film judged as a drama and dishonest as an historical record.
Note added 4 March 2014
12 Years a Slave won only a single Golden Globe for best picture. The BAFTAs saw it collect the best film and best actor awards while the Oscars gained it a three awards for best film, best supporting actress and best adapted screenplay. This was a poor return for a film which was the subject of a huge unofficial PR campaign by critics. The sparseness of the awards suggests tokenism.