by Jake Kring-Schreifels
The local cinema is currently housing several movies that are about spaces grand and beautiful as much as they are about isolation and detachment. Without even considering Robert Redford’s latest venture in All is Lost, Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips and Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity tackle both the infinitudes and limits of water and space, respectively, and the depths to which their main characters struggle to survive. There is indeed a perspective of smallness that pervades these films, a humbling that occurs within the consuming expanse of sea and cosmos. Away from the noise, the pain, the injustice, these places offer a temporary, peaceful silence followed by personal crisis. What does it mean to scream alone in space? Does it matter that Coastguard doesn’t receive the Captain’s calls of a hijacked ship in the abyss of the Indian Ocean? In the midst of suffering, they cling to memories, to faces, to dreams, if only to once return to the chaos from which they’ve left.
Steve McQueen knows something about these themes, too. In fact the young director has made a living off telling and creating stories of survival amidst isolation and loneliness and the will to survive, physically and mentally. His debut feature Hunger is a deeply intimate portrait of Bobby Sands, who led the 1981 IRA hunger strike in Northern Ireland. McQueen’s follow up Shame focused intently on the life of a sex addict in a haunting, dark Manhattan, a psychologically traumatizing journey given cold aesthetic life. Both starred Michael Fassbender, both displayed McQueen’s strong thematic eye, and both dealt physically with the body, in Hunger’s boned degradation and in Shame’s incessant thrusting necessity. The respective jail cell and apartment settings become claustrophobic, cyclical entities that carry the weight of each personal, unending tragedy. These men are trapped by more than just four walls.
12 Years a Slave, his third feature, continues to explore a glass barrier this time through the lens of slavery in American antebellum south and it is gut-wrenching cinema. It is specifically about Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living with his family in Saratoga, New York who is kidnapped and traded down to Louisiana. The script, written by John Ridley, is based on Northup’s memoirs and it remains tethered to them, illustrating the unfiltered realities and banalities of slavery’s oppressive reign. Northup is a family man of highest esteem, learned and literate, and a worthy violinist. This last characteristic, along with an unfettered trust in humanity, finds his ugly and unfortunate fate in the hands of two circus employees (Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam) who travel down to Washington D.C. He awakens to find himself shackled in a dark room, accused of being a runaway slave. In Gravity, astronaut Ryan Stone perilously gives updates to Houston in the blind. Captain Phillips asserts his nautical coordinates to a non-responsive coastguard. Here, Northup proclaims that he is a free man directly to his white trader. He is beaten and whipped. He may as well be speaking to himself.
Northup soon enough discovers the inherent pain living as a man with superior knowledge but with the inability to display it. “Do and say as little as possible,” whispers a slave chained with him on their southbound ship, a command commonplace in this context and yet so foreign to Solomon’s sensibilities. A riverboat transfers them to their trading port and McQueen isolates the thrashing and churning of its wheel rotating in the water, an overbearing noise that ominously ripples on into the film, just as he used the repeated clanging of pots in Hunger. It’s a rhythmic and institutional sound. A dead body is thrown overboard and the wheel’s waves pave the temporary blemish.
After docking, the human cargo is herded to auction homes to be sold. Mothers and daughters are separated and sobbing consumes the ornately tailored interiors. Northup is told to play violin over the mess so as to not spoil the mood. The main white seller played by Paul Giamatti gives Northup the name Platt and he’s quickly slapped for addressing the seller’s mistake. This type of encounter will happen again later after Northup is sold to a plantation owner named Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), when he speaks back and eventually mauls a sadistic overseer Tibeats, played by Paul Dano. Tibeats condemns Northup’s construction work to which he replies, “if there’s something wrong, it’s wrong with the instruction.”
This earns him a noose around his neck, tied tightly like a pulley to a tree branch. There he hangs gasping for breath, ever so slightly tiptoeing the evasive mud beneath him. This happens for several long minutes in one take and you feel every second of it. It’s a beautiful day. The sun is sweeping over the plantation in the background and pours between the leaves. The breeze rushes through and the branch creaks from his weight. The camera just lingers there without any orchestral buildup and the normality of life that surrounds this horrific exploitation continues its afternoon. It’s amazing filmmaking. Ford rushes shortly after and cuts down the rope and carries Northup inside. He took akin to his violin playing and for his safety ships him to another plantation owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a bearded, drunken, biblical man whose cruelty exposes itself in waves of anger.
The majority of the film and of Northup’s life in Louisiana takes place in Epps’ cotton fields and under the sometimes-stricter authority of his wife (Sarah Paulson), who wields power in her stern glances and cold commands. In this new life Northup must transition his intellectual prowess into the collective submissiveness of his chained brethren. His hands are tuned to the fiddle, not to the careful plucking of cotton, the haul of which he must present to Master Epps each day. Anything less than an arbitrary 200 pounds becomes grounds for whipping and McQueen makes certain we feel the tragedy of this monotony. Other movies might just show this cotton-weighing only once, but we see it again and again. “It is the literal, unvarnished truth, that the crack of the lash, and the shrieking of the slaves, can be heard from dark till bed time, on Epps’ plantation, any day almost during the entire period of the cotton-picking season,” the original Northup wrote. How do we understand this experience but by hearing its evils as white noise?
Memory. “It’s the greatest curse that’s ever been inflicted on the human race,” posits Jed Leland in Citizen Kane. And so it seeps through Northup’s own search for meaning and hope. We receive flashbacks early on in the film but they soon they stop. We don’t need any more contrived visions of his family or of his status to understand the ultimate despair he suffers each day knowing how his personhood, his citizenship and treatment in this life derives from a geographical boundary and a piece of ownership paper. The disconnect is present, too. The other slaves have no hope of returning home, have no knowledge of their potential beyond the borders of the fields. Even Northup’s attempts to subversively speed up his escape are minor tragedies. Blackberry juice doesn’t work like ink.
For some, the depictions are too real. The breaking point will probably come when Epps unleashes his whip upon Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), a young girl with whom he becomes infatuated. He forces Northup to lay down the torture himself and it becomes a savage affair. This isn’t Tarantino, whose depictions, regardless of their veracity, have a built-in fantastical, often aesthetically comical appeal. McQueen never blinks. You’re right there with Patsey, and you jolt in the cracks, wince as the blood splatters, witness the flesh detach from the back. So much of our conversation about race and the hierarchical tower of white over black find their foundation in these scarcely seen depictions. You see this and then you think about Oscar Grant’s bullet–torn back in this year’s Fruitvale Station and you question progress, and what that word actually means.
But what is too real? And what does it mean when you turn away from the screen in sickness? There is a tendency to look at the Civil War and feel justified as a country, as white people, especially after seeing Lincoln, and a far less tendency to realize the sometimes even worse conditions experienced postwar within Reconstruction under the specter of Jim Crow. Solomon’s final salvation comes in the form of a progressive bearded Canadian messiah (Brad Pitt) who might feel like another white-helping-black cliché (a la Christoph Waltz) were his abolitionist actions not actually true. Hans Zimmer’s Inception-inspired score delicately molds the emotional payoff.
So many scenes stick with me. Late in the film, Ojiofor stands alone in a field and stares into the distance slowly turning his head until his eyes stare into you. It doesn’t even fit narratively and yet it captures the nightmare reality he’s been forced to live. Later he stands with his slave family during a funeral procession for a deceased member. They sing in spiritual “Roll, Jordan Roll” and Northup stays quiet. But soon he immerses himself in song. He has to. At a certain point it doesn’t matter if no one else can hear him. At a certain point, he just needs to hear himself.