Today, I saw '12 Years A Slave' at the Barbican and judging by the emotional state of my fellow audience members at the film's conclusion, few would be going home untainted by the experience. It is a worthy contender for any and all awards that are thrown at it. Yet, one detail should not be overlooked in any evaluation of this film, the role of Brad Pitt. A role I shall look at later as the more I think about it, the more cynical I become in my feelings about this superbly produced treatise of slavery, power relations and their inexplicable connection to the misappropriation of religion.
'12 Years A Slave' is Steve McQueen's first film since the controversial and unsurprisingly successful film about one man's addiction to sex, 'Shame'. 'Shame' was another exquisitely made film, Michael Fassbender as Brandon Sullivan and his insatiable libido continued to resonate with the viewer, long after they went home. My observation at the time the film was released that I found the film very detached and quite objective remains true three years after its release. The film would have been quite different if any of the characters in the film had contracted a sexually transmitted infection but clearly this was not of interest to Steve McQueen, who wrote the film with Abi Morgan. 'Shame' is a film for people who do not need to be emotionally bludgeoned with the moral conceits of some Hollywood screenwriters. Significantly, Steve McQueen did not write the screenplay for '12 Years A Slave', it was written by John Ridley and based upon the 1853 autobiography of Solomon Northup, the central protagonist of this film. As such, the possibility for the same level of detachment from the director is impossible. He provides the means through which an extremely and profoundly emotive story are presented to the viewer. I offer this as an observation, not as a judgement as regardless of the limitations that the director may have found himself under, either financial or narrative based, his authorial vision shines through in certain key scenes.
The most horrific scenes in the film and make no mistake, the film is a collection of atrocities and the most troubling are often the most subtle, are probably the attempted lynching of Solomon and the whipping of Patsey. The attempted lynching of Solomon comes about as a result of the growing animosity of John Tibeats towards Solomon, which culminates in Solomon beating John with a vehemence that is only stopped by the intervention of another plantation worker. Solomon is subsequently hung from a tree, an act which is at odds with the 'rules' surrounding slave ownership. The rope is loosened by another plantation worker who goes to get the plantation owner, William Ford. The rope is around Solomon's throat and the risk of strangulation is still very real. Solomon has to keep moving on tiptoe to prevent asphyxiation for occurring. The director shoots the scene in long shot as other workers on the plantation move near to the hanging man continuing with their daily tasks as he continues moving to save his life. Through a sequence of shots, the viewer is privy to the fact that this atrocious act is being viewed by people around the plantation. The other scene that brings tears to your eyes is the scene in which Edwin Epps is pushed by his wife to whip Patsey, the 'slave' to whom he has been paying particular attention late at night. Edwin Epps passes the whip to Solomon first to perform the act, revealing how conflicted his character is. The whipping is watched by Edwin and his wife and Solomon. The viewer has the added horror of the reaction shots of the whipping as Patsey is screaming. Edwin eventually takes over from Solomon and the subsequent sequence of the cleaning of Patsey's wounds brings tears to the eyes of both Solomon and the viewer.
No consideration of this film should overlook the quality of the acting from almost all of the cast (with one exception). Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps takes the role of sadist to the next level. His treatment of 'his slaves', the way he punishes those cotton pickers who do not exceed their previous day's quotas through whipping and his repeated sexual abuse of Patsey, shown graphically on one occasion leaves the viewer shattered. If Edwin Epps as a plantation owner depicts all that is fundamentally rotten in human existence, Benedict Cumberbatch as William Ford offers a slightly ineffectual but wholly benevolent plantation owner. The juxtaposition of their characters helps the viewer to understand that the plantation system with its hierarchical structures helped to bring out the best and worst in those considered the 'masters'. Power has a tendency to corrupt but it can also liberate those who aspire to do good. Gender roles are largely subverted. The female characters are fully rounded and developed. Patsey played by Lupita Nyong'o has a strength of character that is never more in evidence than when she pleads with Solomon to end her life. She is no longer prepared to accept the never-ending cycles of abuse she is subjected to. Solomon refuses. Solomon Northrup played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, the subject of this film, cruelly conned and kidnapped before being sold into slavery is an Everyman figure. The focal point for the viewer. He experiences the atrocities in this film, so that we will hopefully never have to experience them again. One of the simplest moments in this film and also the most powerful involves him looking directly at the viewer. His close-up, an image of exhaustion yet hope. He never gives up, although throughout the film, we are privy to moments when he feels like it. Most notably, the masquerade ball scene where he plays the violin and the music becomes slightly discordant as the viewer is reminded that at one point in his previous life, he would have attended such gatherings.
Then Brad Pitt as Samuel Bass saves the day...
I cannot express how frustrated I am that Brad Pitt, who also produced the film, ended up in the role of the labourer whose radical views concerning equality and slavery and growing empathy for Solomon's plight, effectively leads to Solomon being freed from slavery and returned to his family. I cannot decide whether his involvement in the production of the film led to him being offered this role or whether Steve McQueen genuinely felt that he was the right person for the role. I am left with a slightly bad taste in my mouth as a result of the choice. Indeed, one wonders whether the casting choices were as is often the case with the production of certain films, determined by the need for financial backing. There is an argument to suggest that replacing the known actors with new actors may have granted the film a greater relevance, although this could have adversely effected its chances at the forthcoming awards ceremonies and indeed, may have made it difficult to produce the film in the first place.
Whatever my feelings concerning the casting of Mr Pitt, this film is possibly one of the most powerful films I have seen for years. Its exploration of religion and its connection to slavery, both in a negative sense, religious doctrine is used as an excuse for acts of brutality by Edwin Epps and also positively by the 'slaves', as songs with a religious focus give them hope and a reason to continue with their struggles, provides a rich subtext, which will no doubt provide a rich seam of material for future studies. It's a film of horror and superlative acting, almost the perfect film. It deserves to be seen in the cinema.
Barry Watt - 12th January 2014.
'12 Years A Slave' is in all good cinemas now.