By now, the early adoration of British video artist turned feature film Director Steve McQueen‘s unflinching take on the experiences of the pre-20th Century South, ‘12 Years a Slave‘ is well documented and universally consensed as being a foremost representation of the era. From its premiere at Telluride to successful runs in Toronto and, now, the 51st New York Film Festival, the film is a moving snapshot to a world of inter-human degradation, material focused authoritarianism and subjective definitions of self worth as instilled by the “learned” experiences consistently bestilled on the vulnerable from the omnipotent hierarchy of the free hand.
Adapted from his own literary documents, ‘12 Years a Slave‘ follows Saratoga, NY violinist (and 100% free man) Solomon Northup (a determined Chiwetel Ejiofor), who enjoys a life of respect from community, undying familial love, as well as all the intangible benefits of such a situation, perhaps taken for granted, stemming from education, literacy, culture and understanding. In Solomon we see the quintessential American family man who would later embody the nuclear representations of the 20th Century; 2.5 kids and a fenced in yard sitting in front of a two story house. He is more a representation of the red scare era than an African American reality, northern state or otherwise (lest we forget, even New York embodied certain restrictive tactics such as “redlining” of neighborhoods, as well as the virtual creation of the urban ghetto).
As stated, Solomon is an accomplished and touring musician, a family man of the highest esteem, and a figure widely respect throughout the liberal of New York. Perhaps to his detriment, however, Solomon is also trusting; a result of his unwaveringly positive outlook on the grandiosity of life and its time-based realities of forward progression, regardless of situation. It is this trait which ultimately acts as Solomon’s Achilles heal, quickly being tricked, drugged and chained into a cavernous dungeon, somewhere on the outskirts of Washington DC, yet ominously and omnipotently looked over by the rotunda of the, still in-the-making, Capitol.
Solomon’s baptism (through fire) into imposed self devaluation, as result of law-giving allowances in unwavering market capitalization focus, brings on a film filled to the brim with stunning and metaphor-heavy imagery; Most telling of which, a chained black man without answers, barely with the tattered clothes on his back, a forced identity and an inability to see anything beyond that which is directly in front of him. Upon the realization of new found reality, Solomon violently tosses in circumferential desperation, now the ‘Man Who Fell to Earth‘, on par with the science fiction tropes of the newly found strange place, albeit this time, the extra terrestrial terrain of indignation will be lined with the weeping willows of Southern dogma and stained with the pig slop of forced labor living.
With an unapologetic immediacy, Solomon embarks on the 12 year journey from Georgia to Louisiana, eventually returning to New York, encountering a collection of personalities (from the cunningly deceptive “humanity” of Benedict Cumberbatch to the bible thumping mis-literation of Michael Fassbender), white and non; slave and free; male and female, each with their own subjective takes on survival, the nature of property and the repercussions of blind faith in the name of complacency, ultimately allowing rigid racial disjunction continued perpetuance, as well as its esoteric components; some of which,unfortunately, still can be felt throughout the modern day experience, with examples coming in the form of drug war perpetuation and financial service deification (alongside resulting income inequality/futlity in social mobility) amongst others. Early in his journey, a bespectacled Paul Giamatti, as portraying an original “property” aggregator, sums the situation with the films most profound line, “My sympathies extend the length of a coin“, as he un-emphatically separates mother from child in the name of workload possibility.
The sentiment of market value, property ownership and the almighty deifications of dollars and cents holds true throughout ‘12 Years a Slave‘s nearly 2.5 hour run time, sometimes venturing into unanswerable territory as Fassbender’s Edwin Epps is solely able to justifiy his sadistic self empowerment by way of god given right in forsaking purchased property. Even more frequently, the self-justified claims of education and learenedness become justification fodder for, what we can see as, the rise of (another contemporary ill) the “idiot class”, or those who reap the benefits of education and privilege simply because it is possible, yet not entirely engaging into the critical thought aspect which makes up a truly educated mind (Ted Cruz, perhaps). As the film draws to its conclusion, brought on by the overly Christ-like presence of Brad Pitt as a Canadian contractor who simply does not understand American racial injustice, Fassbender’s determination to the self importance property provides in materialistic Capitalism has never held more true to a divided 21st Century world. Unfortunately, ‘12 Years a Slave‘ proves that, as a collective, society may not have come very far in its last 150+ years.
– Steve Rickinson