I saw 12 Years a Slave the other night at BAM. I don’t know that there’s much I can say that hasn’t already been said. Yes, it’s excellent. Yes, the shot of Chiwetel Ejiofor hanging from a tree while slave children play around him is incredible in a horrible way. Yes, Brad Pitt is kind of distracting. Yes, Michael Fassbender is terrifying. Yes, McQueen’s long takes are brutal.
I have had three moviegoing experiences where, when the credits rolled, the audience members stayed in their seats and just cried, or stared forward in stunned silence. Each time, the scene was the same: darkened theater, dead silent but for occasional sniffles. Those three movies were Brokeback Mountain, Beasts of the Southern Wild and, now, 12 Years a Slave. The particularly jarring thing about 12 Years is that, for an American audience, being confronted with our country’s absolutely brutal history is a real challenge. For me the fetishization and commodification of the Black body was particularly disturbing—in one scene, Paul Giamatti has his slaves stand naked around a house as he highlights their various physical attributes to potential buyers—because I think we still see some of that objectification of Black bodies today. In general, you just have to think about how slavery has impacted us today, has shaped our national identity, as you watch the film.
I was also struck by the tension between the horror of Northup’s experiences and the beauty of the composition. McQueen is a smart filmmaker because he seduces you with these breathtaking shots. You want to look away as Northrup hangs from a tree while slave children play behind him, but there is such immense power in the beauty of the composition that you keep watching. Which is also Michael Fassbender’s appeal. McQueen’s camera is addicted to him. Again, Fassbender’s slave owner is so brutal that you don’t want to watch, but McQueen’s camera luxuriates in the actor and the audience does, too.
Fassbender’s performance was not nearly as wrenching as Ejiofor’s, for me, and the part that brought me to tears was right at the end. Once he is sold into slavery, Solomon Northup is told he will be referred to from there on out as “Platt.” At the film’s end (SPOILER ALERT), he returns home after being freed to find that his grandchild has been named after him. His reaction to hearing his real name—after years of being called Platt and trying to resist becoming Platt and letting go of all vestiges of hope—was stirring. There was such power in the idea that despite the efforts of society at large, he had not fully lost himself, or if he had, at least his identity had lived on elsewhere, through his family, and could be reclaimed.