12 Years a Slave: Review

In his first three feature films, Steve McQueen has addressed an infamous prison hunger strike, sexual addiction, and slavery in the American South. Like his first two films, Hunger and Shame, 12 Years a Slave (releasing Friday, 10/18) juxtaposes beautiful cinematography with horrific human behavior. The result is a demanding viewing experience that must be seen.  

12 Years a Slave is one of the few slave narrative films to focus on the reality of free black citizens who were kidnapped and sold into slavery. Solomon Northup (Chiwitel Ejiofor) is a free black man living in Saratoga with his wife Anne (Kelsey Scott) and two children, Margaret and Alonzo. When his wife goes away for work and takes the two children with her, he accepts a short-term job as a musician for a traveling carnival (he’s a talented violin player). He goes to Washington, D.C., where he plays for a week. On his final night in the city, his employers take him out and get him drunk. He wakes up the next morning chained in a cell and, a few days later, is sold to slave trader Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti), who promptly changes his name to Platt and sells him to plantation owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch).

Ford is a “kind” slave-owner, but his foreman/overseer, John Tibeats (Paul Dano), is a dangerous combination of ignorance and malice. When Platt can take no more of Tibeats’ mistreatment, he physically attacks him. In order to protect Platt, Ford sends him to transfers him to another plantation, owned by Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Unfortunately for Platt, Epps prides himself on his ability to break even the most disobedient slaves. Epps swings back and forth between moments of bombastic religious fervor and violent alcoholic benders, but his hatred and abuse of his slaves never wavers. In fact, his conniving wife Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson) fuel his fire as she (rightly) suspects that Epps has sex with some of his slaves. Throughout his twelve-year ordeal as a slave, Platt witnesses and experiences the brutalities of the slave system: separated families, physical and verbal abuse, religious exploitation, oppressive work and living conditions, torture, and the list grows mercilessly. Platt toils away under Epps’ harsh rule until an itinerant laborer and abolitionist, Bass (Brad Pitt), agrees to contact his friends in New York, who eventually come to his rescue, free him, and reunite him with his family.

Benedict Cumberbatch as the “kindly” slaveowner Ford and Chiwitel Ejiofor as Platt/Solomon.

There are numerous angles from which to approach 12 Years a Slave for a discussion of its theological and/or religious implications. My friend Bo Sanders will be writing about the film for Homebrewed Christianity, and the two of us partnered together on a podcast devoted to the film that we will post later this week. Here, I just want to highlight a couple of important elements of the film as a film and its function as a site of both memory and theological conversation.

12 Years a Slave benefits from fantastic performances throughout, but especially from Ejiofor, Fassbender, Paulson, and Dano. Again, McQueen’s combination of cinematography and staging create truly unforgettable images. Hans Zimmer’s score is appropriately haunting and reminiscent of Johnny Greenwood’s work in There Will Be Blood. Joe Walker’s editing frequently results in brilliant transitions and prophetic overlaps that condemn not only the practice of slavery, but Christianity’s role in it. Yet a narrative like 12 Years a Slave demands a director as fierce and fearless as McQueen. Like Hunger (and I as I’ve heard about Shame), McQueen refuses to look away from the disturbing and the horrific, which in the hands of some directors would be gratuitous. The violence and disturbing imagery in 12 Years a Slave is never that. In fact, I would argue that it could have been worse. Rather than cutting away from or aestheticizing scenes of abuse and torture, McQueen forces us to watch as whips tear and fists pound flesh.

Sarah Paulson as the vile Mistress Epps and Lupita Nyong’o as the brutalized Patsey.

One particular scene demands attention. When Platt lashes out at Tibeats, the overseer gets one of his cronies to help him hang him. Another overseer stops them in the middle of the act, leaving Platt in a perilous position, half-hung with the rope straining at his neck and his toes reaching for solid footing in the muddy soil. Platt is forced to stay that way all day until Ford arrives and cuts him down. McQueen lets this scene run for several minutes, with nothing but the sound of nature, slaves at work or play, and Solomon choking to accompany this disturbing image. As much as the violence that slaves had to endure, this scene reveals the psychological abuse and transformation they underwent. None of the slaves would cut him down for fear of retribution.

This psychological torture lies at the heart of Platt’s experience as he attempts to hold on to hope and not sink into despair. He does this by vehemently clinging to his true identity as Solomon and not his slave identity of Platt. This struggle begins to get at a central theological component of 12 Years a Slave, particularly the reality that, often, theology is anthropology and vice versa. Who Solomon Northup is as a free man and who Solomon Northup is as Platt the Slave shapes our understanding of who God is. If Solomon is a free man, then to be human and a child of God is not determined by race (and, we could add, by any other “obvious” identifier). God is a loving God who embraces all of God’s creation. On the other hand, if Platt is a slave to be bought, sold, and abused, then he is certainly less than human and loved less by God. In this chilling scenario, Epps is God, and God is Epps.

One of the film’s most unnerving moments in which Epps (Michael Fassbender) thinks he has uncovered Platt’s plans to escape.

The brutal Epps simultaneously reveals the ways in which slavers used religion to justify their system of oppression. He hypocritically uses “slaves obey your masters” scripture passages to keep his “property” in line while simultaneously disobeying his master by getting drunk and raping his slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), all under the watchful eye of his wife. Epps is a warning for any of us tempted to use scripture to referee identity politics. Unfortunately, Epps has no equal “religious foe” in the sense of an abolitionist fueled by religious conviction. What we have instead is Bass’ “to-the-rescue” humanism, which, rather than providing a moment of historical insight, raises more questions. Who is this character and what are his motivations? We all don’t see examples of the ways in which slaves initiated their own religious experiences and how these helped them endure their brutal existence.

Another theological impact of 12 Years a Slave is to consider film as a site of memory, which asserts that memories and the act of remembering have broader implications. If we consider films as diverse as Roots, The Color Purple, Amazing Grace, Lincoln, and 12 Years a Slave, we are implicitly being asked to remember in a variety of different ways. While all of these films are important in their own way, I would argue that McQueen is forcing us to remember in vastly more complex ways than Spielberg, for example. McQueen’s juxtaposition of beautiful cinematography with an unflinching attention to the brutalities of slavery creates an unforgettable, haunting film that forces us to once again re-examine both our past and present. McQueen’s daring, challenging film is a must-see for everyone (of the appropriate age, of course), but especially for people who claim the Christian faith.

12 Years a Slave (123 mins.) is rated R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality and will be in theaters Friday, 10/18.