12 Years a Slave is an absolutely brutal movie. It gives the audience no breathing room and no escape from the horrors of slavery on full display; not just violence, but the twisting of relationships, the abuse of power, the dehumanization. Director Steve McQueen is fond of letting scenes run long, far longer than where you’d expect there to be a cut to spare us some stomach-clenching cringing.
Which is at it should be, considering the absolute injustice and horror of what is often termed “America’s original sin.”
That phrase sprang to mind often as I watched the movie, because the other word I’d use to describe it is beautiful. Steve McQueen lets the landscape of the south speak volumes in long shots of moving water, reeds, or trees covered in spanish moss. It’s this last that makes the beauty feel distinctly sepulchral. The landscape is haunted.
The horror of 12 Years a Slave is in what humans do to each other, in the evil lies of justification they tell themselves, and what was pitilessly done to an entire people. The story of the film is built on betrayal after betrayal, from the foundation up when Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor, who is utterly perfect) is tricked to coming to Washington, DC in order to be drugged and sold into slavery in sight of the US capitol. Near the beginning, a plantation owner’s wife says to an enslaved woman who has just had her family broken up, “Something to eat and some rest, your children will soon be forgotten.” Even that is a casual, terrible brutality.
Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack was good–as usual, come on, it’s Hans Zimmer–but far more striking were the silences in the movie, where there’s nothing but the sound of insects, of wind, of people crying out. In one scene, Solomon is hanged from a tree with his feet just barely touching the ground so he can just manage to breathe. And he’s left there for nearly the whole day in a long, endless scene that made me want to beg for mercy so I could look away. There is no dialog in that scene, no music, nothing but the sound of the rope creaking, Solomon gasping for breath, the soft sound of his feet digging at the ground as he fights to stay upright and alive. These silences, too, are absolutely brutal.
But 12 Years a Slave is also about survival in the face of these horrors, about one man fighting against despair for twelve years. Early on, Solomon says he doesn’t want to survive–he wants to live. And later: “You let yourself be overcome by sorrow, you will drown in it.” That he maintains some sense of hope as he is repeatedly betrayed and brutalized is the truest beauty of the film.
This is a movie filled with more truth than is easy to stomach. More truth than I could handle without crying, that’s for certain. But I think that’s what makes it important.