THERE IS A SCENE in Steve McQueen’s film 12 Years a Slave that, as far as I can tell, has become the cornerstone of many viewers’ experiences with and critics’ understanding of the film. Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor, unforgettably), a freeborn black man abducted and sold into the eponymous term of bondage, is left to dangle after a botched hanging by a white journeyman carpenter (Paul Dano) and two of his white cronies. The plantation’s overseer arrives in time to save Northup from death, though he leaves him hanging just low enough not to fully asphyxiate so long as he stays balanced on the tips of his toes, which keep slipping in the mud. The camera lingers on this scene for an excruciatingly long time — Northup will hang here from morning to nightfall — and as Northup’s struggle for life takes place in the middle foreground, the world around him gradually comes to life; slaves emerge from their nearby shacks and go about picking weeds or flowers with their heads down and eyes averted, near enough to Northup to hear his rasping half-breath, the groaning of the hemp rope, the slopping of his toes in the mud.
The tableau of Northup’s near-hanging torture is a masterpiece of staging, and it calls to mind at once Bruegel the Elder’s painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus and the lynching postcards of the post-reconstruction South. But unlike Breughel’s painting, in which the boy’s deadly fall, like most tragedy, takes place virtually unnoticed while the world goes on around it, and unlike the postcards which are more uncanny than horrifying, McQueen puts Northup’s human suffering front and center. The extraordinary set piece of Northup’s ordeal — well, one of his many ordeals — calls to mind an even longer take in McQueen’s 2008 feature debut Hunger in which IRA martyr-to-be Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) conducts a dialogue on politics and morality with a republican priest. The scene in 12 Years is also a moral colloquy of sorts, a wordless examination of human slavery and cruelty between the hanging man, his fellow slaves, the slave owners, the poor whites, and the audience. It evokes a heady mixture of fear, revulsion, guilt, and helplessness in the viewer, not just as a result of the pathetic metonymy of Northup’s toes struggling for purchase in the mud, but also because the viewer is, over time, made to feel complicit in looking and not acting. The visceral desire to cut Northup down — to do something, anything — is powerful, and this feeling of profound injustice is countermanded by the quotidian constellation of blacks and whites going about their work, by the still and steady camera, and by the implication that if you were there, then, you would have looked on, too.
The scene at once screams for and forestalls moral indictment of anyone beside the crudely drawn hangmen, and interestingly it is one of the few instances of textual infidelity in the film. (In Northup’s 1853 narrative, adapted for the screen by McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley, the buildup and much of the dialogue is indeed the same, though the result is that he is left standing, not hanging, all day with his legs and arms bound.) Few scenes in the history of cinema do more to conjure the reality of slavery’s toll not just on the backs of the enslaved, but on the minds and identities (what might have been called the souls) of blacks, slave and free, and to a different but non-negligible extent, the whites around them.
12 Years A Slave opens with an almost dreamy sequence of Northup years into his slavery, shots which will be repeated later in the film: Northup cutting sugar cane, Northup trying and failing to write with a pen carved from a cane shoot and ink made from blackberries, and a troubling scene of Northup and a slave woman sleeping side-by-side on a cabin floor covered with other slaves. Northup rolls over and finds her face next to his, the whites of her eyes blazing in the dark, and what ensues is an abortive sexual encounter characterized by groping and shifting that is more animal that human — more elemental than a child’s “first time” — and which ends with what seems to be more a failure of communication, of connection, than of blood flow and animal lust. Thus, it appears that McQueen is setting up an opposition that is prominent in Northup’s autobiography — as well as in other early American slave narratives, like Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano — one which associates language (and literacy in particular) with power, life, freedom, and identity, and its loss with bondage, both actual and metaphysical.
In his adaptation, however, McQueen chooses to largely forgo this traditional trope, opting instead for his own potent vocabulary of formal tension and the human body’s frank demand for recognition. Indeed, the movie’s few clunky or didactic bits come in dialogue. One particularly flat-footed scene, for instance, has a vaguely Mennonite-ish and Canadian Brad Pitt (one of the film’s producers) engaging the brutal planter and slave owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) in a Socratic dialogue about liberty and equality. We know his words to be true, if not truisms, but they ring hollow all the way in the movie’s third act, especially when compared to the faces that fill McQueen’s frames. (Here I am tempted to say that no filmmaker since Bergman has made such evocative and painterly use of the human face; for this reason, at the very least, this is a film to see on the big screen.)
A few or a few thousand words on the universality of values, the equality of men, or the role birth-luck plays in the difference between slave and master can at best play handmaiden to the expressive power of McQueen’s faces: the slave Patsy’s (Lupita Nyong’o in a laudable debut) beautiful visage scarred by the violent caprices of her master’s wife as she begs Northup to kill her (in horrifyingly elaborate detail); an older female slave, silent for some time before leading a group of slaves in a funeral song hardly differentiable from a field song; and especially a narrative non sequitur, low-angle cutaway of Northup’s face, a monument to something ineffable, tremendous, beyond the grasp of art and imagination. Ejiofor’s yellowed eyes traverse the farther distance behind the camera before meeting the gaze of the audience for a disconcerting moment and then moving on, back into a landscape that, for us, is essentially unimaginable.
The force of Northup’s stare, as well as those of his fellow slaves, recalls McQueen’s short film Bear (1993), which seemed to make visible the dangerous erotic power of the male gaze, and to a lesser extent 2002’s Western Deep (who can forget the face of the miner caught in McQueen’s spotlight?) and Hunger (Davey Gillen at the center of the raucous mass looking like Christ painted by Velásquez or Mantegna). In all of these films, the director explores the ambivalent power of the looking and looked upon human in confinement. Neither accusatory nor plaintive nor any one thing, Ejiofor’s silence in this scene, reflected and reverberated by McQueen’s many sunset cutaways of cypress treetops and hanging Spanish moss (themselves reminiscent of his use of claustrophobically dark and silent shots in Western Deep), forces the audience to acknowledge the brute fact of Northup’s abused humanity, a humanity that Ejiofor’s eyes, when they meet ours, remind us that we all share alike. McQueen’s non-narrative shots of faces and landscape take the audience past the point in moral and historical investigation where words fail, to a new understanding to the early scene of failed love and communication, to the place where there are no answers only humans. “I spoke aloud,” wrote Northup upon finding himself first in chains, “but the sound of my voice startled me.”
Since Hunger, McQueen has, perhaps paradoxically, been accused of both an audience-directed sadism and inappropriately aestheticizing the suffering of his subjects. These are particularly interesting criticisms to lodge against his two most painful works — Hunger and 12 Years — since these films are pretty scrupulously based on actual events (or, more precisely, focused on the human beings caught up in those events). Slate critic Dana Stevens, for example, labels McQueen’s aesthetic as “miserabilist” and speculates that the aim of his feature oeuvre might be to “see how much human suffering and moral degradation [the audience] can take.” Such a statement might make sense in a review of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist or a critique of Michael Haneke’s professed paternalistic sadism, but in the case of Hunger the charge of aestheticization misses both the importance of Christian iconography for that film as well as the juxtaposition of that iconography to the starkly unaestheticized contests of brutality between the inmates and their jailers. In this case of McQueen’s adaptation of Northup’s harrowing narrative, the charge again begs a number of moral, historical, and aesthetic questions.
To recite the obvious answers to these questions, however, is to miss an important feature of 12 Years in particular and the director’s oeuvre more generally. McQueen is essentially a humane filmmaker. Yes, McQueen depicts the ravages of self-starvation in Hunger and hangings and tortures in 12 Years — and we are “made” to watch the gashes bloom on Patsy’s back as Northup is forced to whip her — but even McQueen’s most brutal sequences are never principally about pain or degradation. There can be no question that the violence in this beautiful movie is incredibly ugly, but it is equally clear that the filmmaker derives no satisfaction from gore. Nor are the rare embellishments of pain and suffering — most notably, and in all fairness to the “miserablist” critics, in Northup’s hanging scene — gratuitous. Even in his depictions of thoughtless brutality and animal debasement, the stress of the scene is on the humanity common to both slave and master, jailed and jailer. McQueen confronts his audience by demanding that we recognize what Immanuel Kant called the “humanity in the person” in situations in which his characters, due to the historical circumstances in which they find themselves, do not or cannot.
This is, of course, the cruel irony and moral dilemma of the hanging scene, and it is what distinguishes McQueen’s film from another recent slave piece, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, in which white and black bodies alike serve as mere vehicles for violence. That McQueen’s ambivalent evocation of the humanity of both jailer and jailed in Hunger does not exactly translate to a nuanced depiction of the strange and consuming bonds between slave and master is perhaps a sad but unavoidable fact. His film is largely true to Northup’s narrative, after all, and the situation of a Maze Prison jailer and antebellum slaveholder are not, we would like to imagine, morally equivalent (though the absurd contingency of the power differential is still there in both cases). Still, one cannot help but wish that the characters around Northup were more finely drawn — though Sara Paulson as Mistress Epps does a magnificent job embodying the way petty emotions ferment into evil in those who occupy the intermediate rungs of power. Ditto Dano’s Tibeats. Perhaps McQueen and Ridley wished to stay true to the narrative flattening of the world presented in Northup’s book, or perhaps, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, there is only so much reality today’s moviegoer can take.
McQueen’s humane commitment is a through-line from his less narrative gallery films to his full-length feature releases. Even his disorienting short works that feature humans only briefly or by reference — like 2009’s Giardini and Static — as well as his more explicitly human films — like Western Deep, Caribs’ Leap (2002), Exodus (1997), and Five Easy Pieces (1995) — speak to the universal desire for the expression of self and assertion of dignity, as well as the ways the world continually subverts, degrades, and perverts those urges. What results from this dialectic is a difficult story of entanglement between identity, history, and the demands of morality. McQueen’s dialectic is perhaps most evident in the short works Western Deep and Caribs’ Leap, pieces which are typically displayed simultaneously on loops and, of course, side-by-side. Western Deep, a 24 minute film of black miners toiling in gold mines miles beneath the surface of South Africa and engaging in absurd group exercises and medical tests, is projected beside Carib’s Leap which depicts, inter alia, a figure falling through the air — neither jumping nor hitting ground, forever tumbling through the light — filmed at the site where, in 1652, hundreds of ethnic Caribs chose to leap to their deaths rather than surrender to the colonial French Army. The paring of these works is emblematic of McQueen’s oeuvre in that it is undeniably gorgeous, but also terrible in the demands of indeterminate content and incredible force that it makes on the viewer.
Ultimately, however, McQueen is not a didactic artist. He seeks to provoke — there can be no question of that — but he does not preach. In his feature films, and in many of his short works, McQueen has used portrayals of humanity in extremis to ask uncomfortable, ambivalent questions. Whether depicting the chthonic transformation of men in the world’s deepest mine or the descent into the putatively bestial and subhuman in Hunger and 12 Years, humanity in McQueen’s films shines through even in — or especially in — the most inhuman of contexts, when autonomy is at its lowest ebb, and confinement, both literal and figurative, is the name of the landscape. In this sense, he reminds me of another great ambivalent humanist, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who once wrote to Tolstoy’s friend Nilkolay Strachov of his search for human truths in the extremes. It is hard not to understand Dostoyevsky’s letter to Strachov as an implicit jab at Tolstoy’s relatively bourgeois approach to the subject matter of “human experience,” and it is similarly difficult not to view past films dealing with slavery less generously in light of McQueen’s achievement. Like Dostoyevsky, McQueen seeks insight, if not redemption, at the limits of experience and morality, under the conviction that, to paraphrase the Russian (if I’m allowed another paraphrase), the stars shine brightest in the darkest night.
One comes away from reading 12 Years a Slave, which ends with Northup “restored to happiness and liberty,” filled with admiration for its author. It seems simply incredible that any man could endure even one year a slave, much less that the human mind could pass through such an ordeal and emerge not only intact but capable of generous, lucid, and occasionally artful prose. Though McQueen’s adaptation ends at the same place the book does — with Northup reunited with his family in New York — the film strikes a decidedly different note. When Ejiofor’s Northup, now dressed in a freeman’s clothes as he had been before his ordeal, walks through the door of his home and is greeted by his family dressed in their Sunday best, he wears the face of Job when presented with his new, replacement family. The sensation is no longer one of amazement that a man’s mind could survive such an ordeal intact, but the hard realization that it cannot.
The look on Northup’s face at the end of the film is one I recognized from a time when I was doing civil rights work in the Deep South, when I met a man by the coffee maker who was unfamiliar with the workings of the machine’s digital display because the day before he had been released from prison after serving more than 20 years for a crime he did not commit. I do not want to detract from a wonderful period film by reminding the reader that the phenomenon, writ broadly, is not fully relegated to history, but the point should be made. (See, for example, these profiles of recent exonerees in Louisiana, men who spent decades in prison for crimes they did not commit, not far from where Northup was enslaved a century and a half earlier.) The point is one, I think, that Solomon Northup, who dedicated the remainder of his free life to the causes of freedom, equality, and justice, would approve of, if not insist upon.
Lowry Pressly is a writer of fiction and cultural criticism.