The Machinery of Hatred: Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave
The institution of American slavery, as portrayed in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, was an evil so ingrained, it manifested itself in simple, mechanical actions: the rudders on a transport ship, the cracking of a whip, the tuning of a violin.
Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Solomon Northup is working as a violinist and living happily as a free man in upstate New York. His wife and children are leaving on a three week business trip, so Solomon agrees to perform in a traveling circus as far away as Washington. After his employers get him drunk, he wakes up in shackles in a basement prison. With no proof of his freedom, Solomon must take heed of his cell mates’ advice to stay quiet. The captives are shipped south. The rudders turn.
The first act stands in stark contrast to the rest of the film. It is propulsive in pace and almost light on its feet. Hans Zimmer’s score—somber, respectful, but otherwise forgettable—briefly comes alive during the kidnapping sequence. Its percussive passages add to the scene’s sense of dread. As Solomon slowly loses hope, the despair so powerfully conjured in these moments is sustained and amplified.
Solomon’s imprisonment is spent at two different plantations; one owned by the seemingly benevolent Master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), the other by the cruel Master Epps (Michael Fassbender). McQueen marks each of these terms with a centerpiece shot which reflects Solomon’s time under the rule of each of these men. Under one of Ford’s overseers, he is hung from a tree and left there until Ford shows him mercy. McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt hold this shot for a disconcertingly long duration, with Solomon’s struggle framed in the foreground. The background is populated with the other slaves, going about their business, ignoring the atrocity right in front of them. McQueen not only forces the audience to watch this ordeal; they wallow in it. When the next cut finally comes, Ford’s horror at the scene reflects our own.
It is during Solomon’s time with Epps that the all-consuming, pervasive evil of slavery is truly exposed. In one tremendously graphic scene, he is forced to whip another slave, a woman with whom Epps is infatuated. He does it to protect himself and the rest of the slaves from Epps’ threats. In that moment, the burden of Epps’ hatred falls on his shoulders, and it is a weight he cannot bear. It’s here where he finally lets go of past freedom. That makes him no different in the eyes of true evil. The whip cracks.
In one of the film’s more striking moments, Solomon looks directly at the camera. There is no accusatory note on the character’s face, but the eye of McQueen’s camera is laying judgment on the audience. We go about our lives every day in the light of our dark past and in the face of the injustices of our present. We are the fellow slaves, the fellow human beings that will not cut Solomon down from the tree. This look is an indictment. No matter what relief the narrative might bring, McQueen will not allow his audience to feel any sense of accomplishment.
Throughout the film, Solomon is asked to play his violin. In the beginning, it is his vocation and his passion. Ford treats his talent like a gift, asking him to play at dinners and to “bring both of them joy for many years to come.” After years pass, with Solomon now on Epps’ plantation, Solomon is forced to play the fiddle and make the other slaves dance a lifeless dance for Epps. Like his freedom and his humanity, Solomon’s passion and his art are torn from him; he smashes his violin.
Many will condemn 12 Years a Slave for the same reason they condemned Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993). Telling one rare story of triumph among millions of sorrow seems irresponsible. Still, those stories also need to be told. When Solomon’s emancipation finally comes, there is no celebration. This is not a victory for the character or the audience. Solomon went through an unspeakable horror and was denied the joy of seeing his children grow. We are left thinking of the slaves left behind. Many will view this as a story of perseverance and the determination of the human spirit. However, Solomon’s reunion with his family is not a joyous one; there is a sense of relief, obscured by sorrow. Solomon’s embrace of his daughter is halting and awkward where it could be effortless and weepy.
One man goes free. A decade later a law is passed. Over one hundred years later racism still occupies our country’s heart and people are still enslaved all around the world. This film balks at the idea of a post-racial America. By depicting a dark passage of history, it shows us how little has truly been accomplished.