Steve McQueen's epic picture recounts the true (and horrifyingly common) story of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in upstate New York who is captured and sold into slavery. One minute, he's tucking his children in at night, and the next he's chained to a slave ship barreling south of the Mason-Dixon. The material here is nothing new, per se, but McQueen's unabashed imagery (and Northup's story) provides a shocking angle for one of the most shamed times in American history. McQueen set out to share an amazing man's journey, and find his own slim sense of peace with the concept of slavery. "I went into this film to try to embrace the issue, and master it, and make it mine, as such," he said at a New York Film Festival screening. "I was trying to look for a way into the tale, and the way in for me was the story of a free man who gets caught into slavery. And, what I liked about that was that everybody can relate to being taken away from your family, so you're on that journey with him."
Northup's first plantation was a comparatively not-horrendously-intolerable place (if a slave plantation can even be described as such), led by Benedict Cumberbatch's mild-mannered master. The fact that Solomon starts his journey here feels like a mean joke played by fate — he is later sold to a violent drunk of a plantation owner, played to complete terror by McQueen's favorite muse, Michael Fassbender. Master Epps is the lowest of lows, and the way he treats Solomon is the least disturbing, almost overshadowed by his abusive obsession with one of the younger female slaves. "The thing with Michael Fassbender's Epps is that he doesn't know how to deal with his condition of feeling passion for a slave," said McQueen. "And, the only way he knows how to deal with it, or destroy that love, is violence. Violence is a very interesting thing in the sense of how it perpetuates, over history and within families and among people you love."
12 Years a Slave doesn't spare the viewers — or our senses — a single thing here. You're forced to bear witness to all the atrocities of the time: Hangings, whippings, rape, all of it. It's hard to decide which is more difficult to stomach: A young girl being whipped into submission for stealing a bar of soap, or the seemingly nonchalant attitudes of everyone else on the plantation. As dreadful screams or the sounds of rope tearing into flesh permeate the yard, the other residents don't even flinch, and the master's wife barely pauses to fix her dress. This is where that whole "blind with rage" thing comes into play.
It feels almost privileged to call this movie hard to watch, since we had the luxury of covering our eyes during the most nauseating scenes, and, more importantly, to walk out of the theater and back to our indulgent lives. But, we think that's kind of the point. There's nothing we can do to strike this era from our national history, but, as McQueen urges, awareness and education can help heal. "I think the film has begun to help, because people are talking about slavery again," he said. "We need to just try to keep it in focus and try to have that conversation. It's a difficult one, but a necessary one. If people are living together the way we are, they have to try and help each other."
Luckily for our psyches (and the fact that we still had to head back to the office after the screening), 12 Years a Slave isn't just despair after despair. There are redemptions, hopeful moments, and even the occasional hero. Pack the tissues, because there are some real tearjerker moments — the movie's final scene left many a hardened reporter reduced to sniffles. All told, it's ultimately a story of survival, and an incredibly strong man who never gave up hope. "Survive, survive, survive, that's the biggest thing," said McQueen. "The characters learned what they needed to do to survive, what they needed to block out. And, ultimately I'm here today because some members of my ancestors survived slavery in whatever way they could. They had to deal with it by simply surviving."
12 Years A Slave hits theaters on October 18.