When a fellow captive tells Solomon Northup to keep his literacy a secret, say very little and obey orders in order to survive life as a Louisiana slave in the 1840s south, the New York violinist replies, “I don’t want to survive. I want to live.”
Many of this year’s Oscar-acknowledged films carry this theme, with Dallas Buyers’ Club focusing on how surviving and living can work in tandem, Gravity‘s protagonist struggling to survive so she can return to Earth to start living again and American Hustle using the tagline “Some hustle to survive.” 12 Years a Slave has its own take on the dichotomy, examining the difference between surviving and living, and figuring out a way to avoid sacrificing the latter for the former. After Solomon is kidnapped and sold into slavery by two business partners (one played by Taran Killam — how could you, man from SNL and Disney’s Stuck in the Suburbs? How could you?), he struggles for more than a decade to find a way back to Saratoga and his family, all while enduring the brutality and horrifying realities of slavery.
The greatness of the film itself can be found in how uncomfortable it makes its audience. The emotional performance of Chiwetel Ejiofor in the lead role sweeps viewers away so that many times they find themselves not simply watching Solomon suffer but are Solomon. The same goes for Lupita Nyong’o, a newcomer to film and an actress likely (and hopefully) to bring home an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Her portrayal of Patsey, a slave pursued and eventually raped by Solomon’s second owner (Michael Fassbender), is absorbing despite how the atrocities she experiences are hard to watch.
Fassbender himself also turns in a spectacular performance that tops that of the other white actors involved in the film, which has garnered him a Supporting Actor nomination from the Academy. Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano and Garret Dillahunt‘s performances all insight the same amount of hate through their pure inhumanity, but Fassbender’s portrayal of Edwin Epps, and Sarah Paulson‘s role as his wife, are the most dangerous to viewers’ sensibilities — they are cruel, but they also have a backstory that humanizes them. Mistress Epps beats Patsy because she is the object of her husband’s wandering eye. When she tells her husband that unless he sells Patsey she will leave him, he retorts coldly: “Back to the hogs’s trough where I found you? Do not set yourself against Patsey, my dear. ‘Cause I will rid myself of you well before I do away with her.” Mistress Epps’ despicable actions — throwing a glass decanter, denying Patsey soap — have an intimate reason, and that proves scarier than the one-dimensional evilness of the other characters. Racism is still part of her hatred, but the jealousy that fuels her rage can be found in all of us, regardless of color or upbringing.
Less terrifying but more intriguing is Solomon’s first owner, Ford (aptly played by Benedict Cumberbatch), who recognizes Solomon’s educated background and uses it to his advantage while protecting him from an angry overseer (Dano). “If only you were a free white man,” he says after Solomon has solved a major engineering problem in his building plans. His relative kindness is endearing, but that line is like the snap of a whip, shocking viewers’ attention back to the real situation of the African-American struggle in the south.
That’s just where the screenplay’s strengths start. The entire script plays on juxtaposition, from the way Ford preaches to his slaves in a compassionate manner to Epps’ use of scripture to justify why they should obey his every order. Solomon’s speech is more sophisticated than his co-slaves and second owner, heard through his vow, “I will not fall into despair till freedom is opportune!” Meanwhile, Epps can barely string a sentence together that isn’t riddled with grammatical errors and liquor-induced slurs. Every utterance comes with the stink of whiskey on his breath.
The visuals of the film follow the same dichotomies. Similar to Beasts of the Southern Wild, which made post-Katrina devastation look whimsical, the Louisiana captured by the cinematographers of 12 Years a Slave is beautiful. Shots of the lush swamps and forests of the antebellum south are scarred by images of horror. Director Steve McQueen uses length to his advantage, making the audience squirm during what feels like hours of watching Solomon struggle to keep his footing in mud while his neck is still in an almost-lyncher’s noose. Hans Zimmer’s score, which is so similar to his theme “Time” from Inception that it’s almost distracting, is tasteful in these moments, allowing the diagetic noises of the plantation and southern wild to be the only soundtrack.
12 Years is not a film that can be “liked” or “enjoyed.” It can be examined, discussed and revered — the film itself is a very important one to our cinematic history, joining a small but potent pantheon that includes Roots as an unglamorous history lesson. Perhaps it can even be seen as a response Django Unchained. Where Tarantino’s 2012 film was a revenge fantasy that made the gore of slavery disturbing but the bloodshed of slave owners cathartic and (let’s just admit it) funny, 12 Years does nothing to assure audiences of a happy ending — mostly because although Solomon is able to escape slavery thanks to the only pure-hearted white character in the film (played by producer Brad Pitt), he is indelibly changed, and the slaves he bonds with, such as Patsey, are still trapped in their situation — surviving, but not living.
The verdict: Tread lightly into a theatre showing of 12 Years a Slave, but tread nonetheless. Its characters, situations and story provide not only a bleak and disturbing history lesson but a chance for self-introspection. Solomon’s goal to return to his free life forces us to ask ourselves the same question of whether our actions and decisions help us survive or let us live life to the fullest.