It is a grim sight, the man hanging from a tree. His neck is noosed. His arms are tied behind him. The toes of two booted feet tap, tap, tap in the mud, neither foot firmly on the earth. Each skates a bit. But all that planting the entire foot guarantees is more drudgery. He continues to tap and struggle just the same — for hours and possibly days. The cicadas keep changing their tune. From a distance, we watch him. And from a distance, he is watched. Men and women leave their shacks and go about their duties as if the hanging man were a natural botanical product. They know him, and they know better than to help. He was bad, insurgently so. Now he hangs as an advertisement against insurrection. From a different angle, a finely dressed woman watches the man briefly from her balcony, turns around and heads inside. Children are playing. From the left, a woman, less finely dressed, sneaks him something to drink, and you feel the risk. She bets her safety to water this strange piece of fruit.
I’ve never seen a sequence that so elegantly uses duration to lay out an ecosystem of power and powerlessness, one that ripples across time, from the 1840s to the 21st century. 12 Years a Slave manages to do that again and again. It coolly clarifies the United States’ lasting social underpinnings: the seeds of black anger, black self-doubt, black resilience, white supremacy, and white guilt. The director is Steve McQueen, a 44-year-old Englishman. The screenwriter is the American entertainment-industry veteran John Ridley. Both men are black, and the movie they’ve made radically shifts the perspective of the American racial historical drama from the allegorical uplift to the explanatory wallop.
The hanging man is Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a violinist, carpenter, husband, and father, whose 1853 memoir gives the movie its source material. Northup was born a free black man, and a series of non-chronological flashbacks show that he enjoyed his middle-class life in Saratoga Springs, New York. His wife and children leave for a three-week trip, and to pass some of the time, he accepts an invitation to accompany two performers (Scoot McNairy, Taran Killam) to Washington, D.C. He awakens in a cell, chained to a wall and accused of being a runaway from Georgia. His back is beaten with a board until the board breaks. Then he’s whipped. In one of the flashbacks, a slave notices the Northup family walking into a shop and wanders, astonished, from his owner to gape at these unicorns. Now that man’s disbelief is Solomon’s.
The entire film presents savagery in civil terms. Paul Giamatti plays a slave trader who informs Solomon, with a slap, that his name is to be Platt. He goes on to sell a mother named Eliza (Adepero Oduye) to a New Orleans plantation owner named Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). He does so as she pleads not to be sold separately from two children. The pulse of Giamatti’s character never seems to go up. He kicks one child, and makes the other demonstrate for Ford how “it’s very like he will grow into a fine beast,” while their mother is dragged from the room. Whether he’s heartless by nature or circumstance is unclear. A well-appointed house doubles as his market, with men and women arranged for sale along the walls and Solomon playing his violin. You tend to see scenes like this in public, as tragic commercial theater. Domesticating it, as this movie does, compounds the awfulness.
Ford takes Solomon, too (the violin seems to impress him), and after Solomon beats a dim, bullying overseer (Paul Dano) and the overseer attempts to hang him, Ford cuts him down and ships him off to another, less benevolent owner named Epps (Michael Fassbender). On the Epps plantation, the burden of civility rests upon the shoulders of the slaves. Epps is a lunatic, and his wife, Mary (Sarah Paulson), is crazed with jealousy. With his red beard, drunken sexual appetite, and wretched insecurity, Master Epps chases, demeans, and insults the men and women he calls his property. When Epps greets a group of his slaves, he adds a shocking grace note to his welcome. He plants his arm on the head of a boy and leans. You can’t take your eyes off the child. He doesn’t move. He can’t. That’s not what furniture does. This isn’t a psychological movie, but the roots of so much national pathology are here: the belittling of black men by whites and by themselves, the nation’s ongoing discomfort with true equality and its easing fear of interracial desire.
The object of Epps’s lust is a petite field worker named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). Patsey has a striking, specifically African beauty (in some shots, Nyong’o’s skin is almost ebony). You notice her, as Epps has. He singles her out for her cotton-picking prowess and marks her as his extramarital favorite. She so hates the arrangement that she begs Solomon to end her life. He can’t. Nyong’o spends the movie acting at a slow boil. It’s Epps’s reaction to a bar of soap that shatters the docility of her quiet performance.
The central dramatic question ought to be how Solomon will get back to his former life. Another movie might have kept track of time. McQueen lets the years simply accrue. Solomon doesn’t know whether he’ll be freed. His attempts to make contact with the North are thwarted. Either his fruity ink is too weak (even in the 1840s, blackberries are a vexing communication idea) or his messenger too unreliable. He just toils away in his allotted hell. When a woman rolls over and puts his hand between her legs, he abides. When one Sunday Solomon fetches Patsey from a neighboring plantation and the woman of the house, Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard), explains to her guests her strategy for survival, he simply listens. Woodard invests that monologue with all her flighty, baroquely accented authority. It’s an exquisite piece of writing that acknowledges the cunning and self-delusion some slaves could deploy to make the best of a terrible situation. Ridley typed it up. Woodard turns it into cursive.
Some women used their sexuality. Solomon uses his violin. The notion of circumstance comes up once or twice in the film, and it haunts everything. Solomon believes that Ford will show him compassion because he can appreciate that they’re equals. After Ford gets him down from that tree, Solomon begs for mercy. He tells his master that he’s a free man. But Eliza has already warned him that any appeal to Ford’s humanity would be for naught. They’re businessmen; compassion has its limits. Ford cuts him down, yes. But he also leaves him bound and lying on his side. “You’re an exceptional nigger, Platt, but I fear no good will come of it.” There are few exceptions here. When a down-on-his-luck former overseer named Armsby (Garret Dillahunt) joins the field crew on the Epps plantation, he picks far less cotton than Patsey. But Epps doesn’t have him whipped as he does the blacks. If anyone’s exceptional here, it’s Armsby.
The indictment of the racial power dynamic in that cotton bale–weighing scene might as well be an indictment of the same dynamic in the movies. 12 Years a Slave is an easy landmark. It’s a rare sugarless movie about racial inequality. McQueen doesn’t even give you any orchestral elevation. The score is hard and churning and sparingly used. The movie is about Northup, and at several points an audience is free to remember that most movies about the Civil War and slavery have been appeals to our higher, nobler selves. They’ve been appeals to white audiences by white characters talking to other white characters about the inherent injustice of oppressing black people at any moment in this planet’s history.
This is how we get movies in which white lawyers defend innocent black men (To Kill a Mockingbird, A Time to Kill). It’s how we get romances — Jezebel, Gone With the Wind, Cold Mountain — that use the antebellum South and Civil War as backdrops but feature either the most entertaining black slaves or almost no slaves at all. It’s how you get Mississippi Burning, a thriller about three murdered civil-rights activists in which even the one-dimensional racists have bigger speaking parts than any black person.
It’s how you get Cry Freedom, a thriller about Steve Biko (Denzel Washington) that mostly locks Biko into flashbacks while a white journalist (Kevin Kline) tries to flee apartheid-era South Africa; a movie about the death of Medgar Evers that’s focused on his assassin; Steven Spielberg legislative historical dramas about white men fighting over who owns black people and what it means to do so. It’s how you spend 35 minutes hearing Christoph Waltz talk and talk in Django Unchained and get nervous that Quentin Tarantino momentarily forgot what his movie was called.
The quality of these films is not the issue. A few of them are great. But after decades and decades and dozens of titles, you get the political point. Movies1 are the most powerful ways Hollywood has to say it’s sorry. There is a kind of audacity in something like Lincoln, in which important white men get discursive about the moral quandary in which slavery mires the country. That debate required men to search their souls and vote accordingly. But after enough of these movies, you’re just hot with insult. You have to stop accepting apologies, accepting, say, The Help, and start demanding correctives, films that don’t glorify whiteness and pity blackness, movies — serious ones — that avoid leading an audience to believe that black stories are nothing without a white voice to tell them that black people can’t live without the aid of white ones.
McQueen and Ridley turn that dynamic inside out. Their movie presents the privilege of whiteness, the systematic abuse of its powers, and black people’s struggles to get out from beneath it. A different movie might have taken this story and turned it into a battle between Epps and the white men who feel a duty to free Northrup. That’s what we’re used to. There have been complaints that the movie is too violent, that it depicts too many lashings, too many cruelties, too much interracial abuse, that all the gashes on all the backs (what Toni Morrison poetically described as chokecherry trees) are just too much. But that’s a privileged concern. Jonathan Demme tried to alter the imbalance with a film of Morrison’s Beloved. It’s a frustrating yet deeply moving (and now cautionary) attempt to bring art, history, and politics into the same Hollywood space. Demme damn near burned the house down. There are easier Morrison books to film. But that one might have been the most necessary.
For as much as the movies have elided blacks from the center of their narratives, it has also padded a cozy nest for white audiences. Racists have tended to be vanquished by white heroes so that a black audience could feel a kind of gratitude. That was the alternate kick of blaxploitation: It redrew the lines of hero worship. Black audiences could cheer for themselves. The 1970s were a bonanza for predominantly black movies. Playing Harriet Tubman, Jane Pittman, the mother in Sounder, and Binta in Roots made a saint of Cicely Tyson. That era didn’t last. In the 1980s, black culture accelerated its permanent crossover into mainstream America, but the movies are still figuring out what, beyond comedies and action movies, that means. When it comes to race, Hollywood tells stories from the past or relies on ancient formulas because the familiar is easier to parse. The future? It tends to look a lot like After Earth.
McQueen was actually an ideal transitional filmmaker. He’s a visual artist who had made some short films of varying strength and seemed to be looking for a way to make longer movies. His first two films — 2008’s Hunger, about the starvation campaign of the imprisoned IRA volunteer Bobby Sands, and 2011’s Shame, about a sex addict in Manhattan — were built around white men, both played by Fassbender. What you saw in them was a visual artist doing some thematic exploration of behavioral extremity. You don’t watch either movie thinking McQueen had lost anything in changing mediums — well, except with Shame, perhaps his mind.
There the trouble was that all McQueen wanted to do was provoke. Watching Fassbender spiral out of control was the moviegoing equivalent of a small dog humping your leg. It was impossible not to worry that 12 Years a Slave would just be more humping. But here McQueen practices a kind of patience and restraint. Ridley’s screenplay pushes him away from sensationalism. The film is full of wide shots, watchful handheld camerawork by Sean Bobbitt, who also shot Hunger and Shame, and striking visual flourishes. The camera, for instance, hovers above a wagon, so that when the tarp is rolled back on the men and women curled in the wagon bed the effect is akin to the opening of a tin of sardines.
McQueen isn’t the first black director to do a slavery movie. He’s not even the first one to make this one. Gordon Parks actually made Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, an earnest, sanitized 1984 PBS American Playhouse production that I saw in elementary school about a dozen times when it was renamed Half Slave, Half Free. Haile Gerima’s didactic, highly mystical Sankofa, about a fashion model transformed back in time to an American plantation, made film-festival ripples in 1993. And Gilbert Moses directed a quarter of ABC’s Roots, the cultural event of 1977. McQueen’s film doesn’t have that show’s scope (Roots was broadcast on eight consecutive nights in a bygone era of monoculture), its retroactive camp, or its urgent need for racial reconciliation. The power of McQueen’s movie is in its declaratory style: This happened. That is all, and that is everything. No performance is bigger than it needs to be except perhaps that of Fassbender, who plays a dangerously silly man as though he were a dingo. McQueen has the character drunk on power, which allows Fassbender to cut a figure of flamboyance, a man who loves performing ownership.
Other actors come and go — Woodard, Quvenzhané Wallis, Chris Chalk, Michael Kenneth Williams, Brad Pitt — but it’s Ejiofor’s stoicism that stays with you. In other movies, he has managed to act past ridiculousness (he originated the drag queen in the movie that became the musical Kinky Boots) or rivet you with righteousness. Here Ejiofor has the challenge of being solemn without seeming passive. His isn’t that dignified detachment that some actors have to go for with a film like this. He doesn’t have to be a non-human deity. (That was some of the trouble with the Jackie Robinson we got in 42.) Ejiofor has a leading man’s carriage. He moves from scene to scene in a state of forlorn rumination. After the opening minutes, McQueen doesn’t waste time with flashbacks. He doesn’t need to. The movie’s right there in that woebegone face.
When the film ended I just sat in my seat. I didn’t know where to go. I didn’t want to go anywhere. This isn’t a post-screening lobby film. You don’t quite mill about after. What could anybody possibly say? In part, that sense of speechlessness is a response to the film’s muted artistry. In part, it’s a response to the movie’s transparency. For instance, you sometimes think the n-word has lost its power to appall, and yet every time it is used in 12 Years a Slave — as an appellation, a title, or a matter of fact — it hurts.
You hear the casual but hateful way in which Giamatti says it, and you wonder about the discomfort it must have caused him as an actor, or how Dano must have felt singing a whole bone-chilling ditty that uses the word over and over. Modern attempts to deaden its power by reclaiming it for casual overuse have not worked. The racist deployment of the n-word here only makes it more depressing outside the theater to hear two friends use any variation of it on each other or to listen to a 43-year-old superstar rapper use it nine times in a three-minute song about a white fashion designer. Hearing Woodard’s character address Solomon as N—– Platt doesn’t lessen the toxicity of the slur. It doubles it.
The film even permits you to see from 1841 all the way to the last couple months. What it costs to entertain is a central concern of this movie: Early on, we see how much Solomon enjoys performing, for appreciative, predominately white audiences. But over the course of the film he goes from accompanist to accomplice, from pride to disgust, providing musical accompaniment for atrocities, like the impromptu dances that Mr. and Mrs. Epps like so much. One night Epps blows into the slaves’ quarters and rouses them awake. He shepherds them to the big house and commands them to dance in their nightgowns. It’s such sad, uninspired dancing that you don’t know what pleasure either of the Eppses could take from it, beyond the perverse power to demand they dance at all. Mainly, Mrs. Epps sees the evening as an occasion to chuck a whiskey decanter at Patsey’s head.
I watched the joyless look on all those black faces and the amusement on the faces of their white owners, and I thought about last August 25. I thought of the handful of black burlesque dancers who jiggled and bounced in animal costumes for Miley Cyrus at the MTV Video Music Awards. Cyrus couldn’t have known the uncomfortable history she had reached into, what it means for black people to perform this sexually, this anonymously for a white woman, but there she was traipsing, like Mrs. Epps, among her fine beasts, performing an otherwise good song whose title normally refers to a nonstop party but also encompasses a depressing legacy of ownership: “We Can’t Stop.”
Not long after Cyrus and her circus left the stage, Kanye West appeared. West is no stranger to concert circuses. But on this night, he arrived alone to perform a dismaying breakup song called “Blood on the Leaves.” It warps a sample of Nina Simone’s version of the lynching ballad “Strange Fruit” while West obliquely sing-raps about an abortion. As West begins the first verse, Simone says: “Black bodies swinging in the summer breeze,” and the word “breeze” bleats like an alarm.
During the VMAs, the way West was photographed at the performance’s start — in a tight close-up, his face to the right of the frame — doesn’t prepare you for where it went once the song’s stuttering-brass beat joins him. He leaped to another part of the stage and did a flailing dance. He was not a man. He was a silhouette, enshrouded in literal blackness. His proportions grew and shrank as he jumped around in the dark like a shadow puppet. West had negated himself, but he wasn’t alone. He danced in front of an enormous light box that contained a large weeping tree. It was a piece McQueen made using a photograph of a New Orleans lynching gallows. And at various moments West got just close enough to be proportionate to its branches. “We coulda been somebody,” West screamed, placing an emphasis on “body” as though the word made him sick.
If West knew about McQueen, he also probably knew about the work of artist Kara Walker, whose depictions of the antebellum South feature craft silhouettes doing vulgar and violent things. For most of the year, Walker had a ferocious show up in West’s hometown at the Art Institute of Chicago called Rise Up, Ye Mighty Race!, which imagined a slave rebellion and was populated by her enormous stenciled silhouettes. It was more Django Unchained (crazed, confrontational, incendiary) than it was McQueen’s movie.
West had managed to conflate both artists with his own art while offering an incidental rebuke of the fiasco that had preceded him in the awards show. He has a messy genius. Sometimes I don’t think he knows where he’s going with it. But sitting there paralyzed after 12 Years a Slave allowed me to appreciate anew West’s loaded, taunting evocation of the past and how surreally far from it we’ve come. Men died on a tree that West was flirting with. McQueen’s movie refuses to let us forget that.
This column has been updated to correct the release year of Shame; it was 2011, not 2012.