The first thing that I have to say about director Steve McQueen’s third feature film is that it is a lot better than I expected; it is also, happily, a little less preachy than anticipated.
The second thing that I have to say is once again I find myself wondering why the Hell The Bible wasn’t banned long ago. It certainly—along with its companion piece The Koran—appears to be responsible for a disproportionate amount of the world’s ills. That great philosopher of our times, Homer Simpson, may have described The Bible with reasonable accuracy as ‘that big book that everyone has in their home but no one reads’; but it’s pretty obvious that of the ones who are reading it, some of them are managing to interpret it in very strange ways. Seriously, how many crazy people have said that ‘God told me to do it’ as opposed to ‘the latest horror flick made me do it’?
Take a look at plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) in 12 Years a Slave. He preaches a riot of Scripture to his slaves but the gist of it seems to amount to: I have the right to lay the lash on you up to 150 times. That’s not good. He also seems to credit God with just about everything. Commenting on his prize slave he mutters dreamily:
“She was born and bred in the fields, a nigger among niggers. God gave her to me.”
12 Years a Slave is based on the 1883 memoir by Solomon Northup (played brilliantly by Chiwetel Ejiofor) who was living as a respected and free black man in New York, but who found himself lured to Washington under the pretence of a job, drugged and sold to slavers.
These early scenes, as this talented and dignified man is beaten until he simply reaches a point where he just needs to survive, are superbly done. We can really feel for him as he comes to terms with the loss of both his liberty and his family. Unfortunately, after that, the episodic nature of McQueen’s way of filming it and scriptwriter John Ridley’s way of telling it means that there is a real distance between us and what is happening on the screen.
Essentially Solomon finds himself owned by various men: Paul Giamatti (very bad person indeed); Benedict Cumberbatch (reasonably good person but unlikely to break a nail over you) and Michael Fassbender (screamingly bad and probably insane with it).
The acting from all involved is first-class but I felt that one who is wasted is Paula Dano, so good recently as the mentally challenged youngster in the excellent Prisoners. As soon as he appears as the utterly racist overseer John Tibeats we could write the script ourselves.
Yet 12 Years a Slave emerges, as I said, as a far better film than I had expected– although the tag line on one of the posters claiming it as one of the greatest films ever made is just ridiculous. McQueen keeps it tightly under control and there is one astonishing—and genuinely agonising for the viewer—sequence where Solomon is left dangling from a noose, his toes barely keeping him from leaving the ground altogether. As the day moves on field hands are at work, children are at play and he just hangs and hangs. It’s a truly distressing scene and with the exception of the flogging of Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) near the end is the most harrowing in the film.
The cinematography by Sean Bobbitt is out of this world and the eerie and haunting score by Hans Zimmer makes me want to hear all of his stuff again, because I haven’t really been a fan until now.
One thing: a lot of viewers seem to have been put out by one of the film’s producers—Brad Pitt—appearing as a sort of wandering labourer in a small cameo. Myself, I thought that he was excellent and needed by that time.
Look, it’s one of those movies that will very likely do well at Oscar time because liberal white America would be afraid not to make a huge fuss of it. And a lot of viewers will emerge upset at how very wicked an institution slavery was. The problem is that if you were the kind of idiot who thought that there might be a defence for treating people as property in the first place, then you’ll have forgotten about it the next day.
For the moment, let’s be content with handing out a few awards, patting each other on the back and congratulating ourselves on how wise, liberal and humane we are.
[Interestingly, I’ve just discovered that some of the pro-slavery Scripture is real and some isn’t. So here’s your starter for ten: can you tell which is which?]