The most harrowing moment from Steve McQueen’s brilliant and painful 12 Years a Slave, comes just past the halfway point of the film.
Slave master Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) is questioning his slave girl and concubine Patsy (Lupita Nyong’o) about her whereabouts the previous afternoon.
Patsy swears that she had merely attended church and obtained soap for bathing, but Epps does not believe her and orders her disrobed, tied to a tree and beaten.
Initially, Epps asks Solomon (called “Platt” by the slave master and played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) to strike the punishing blows to Patsy’s bare back. When Solomon fails to deliver the whipping with sufficient panache, Epps snatches the whip and whales on her himself.
Most directors would have merely focused on Patsy’s cries and pleas to convey the horrific nature of the moment, but McQueen goes a step further by panning the camera to her back as it receives the damaging blows.
The combination of somber music, Patsy’s moans of pain and the blood ejecting from the X-shaped lashes creates one of the most moving moments of modern cinema.
12 Years a Slave tells the story of Solomon Northup, a married, father of two living free in Saratoga, N.Y., in 1841. He is an accomplished violinist and respected member of the community.
One day, he is coaxed into traveling to Washington, D.C., to take a job as a musician. Shortly after a night of drinking with his supposed fellow performers, he awakens in a filthy cell in chains and stripped of his clothing, the documents affirming his freedom, and, ultimately, his dignity.
One of the things that makes 12 Years a Slave such a powerful film is the confidence director McQueen shows in his actors, and his own direction, to tell this story.
Many directors would have felt the need to embellish at times, depict the slavers as cartoonish caricatures or fill the soundtrack with music designed to elicit sympathy from the audience during the most gut-wrenching moments.
But McQueen does none of that.
He is aware that there is inherent drama in the situation Northup finds himself in. All he must do is depict it honestly and without fear and trust his actors to drive the scenes home. This is “less is more” taken to masterful heights.
McQueen, a British filmmaker, who previously directed Fassbender in the acclaimed film Shame, allows scenes to linger, creating a sense of normalcy for the slaves despite their horrific circumstances. Consequently, he emphasizes the feeling of powerlessness in their predicament.
One scene involves a man being strung up to a tree by a noose and hanged by slave owners.
The lynching is halted, but the man is forced to wait, still hanging from the noose, until his master arrives to cut him down. Only his toes touching the marsh below protect him from strangulation. The scene goes on and on, as the audience becomes uneasy with the man’s struggling breaths. Meanwhile, slaves are walking around him attending to their daily rituals (carrying water from the well, crocheting, etc.) as if seeing a black man attached to a noose is as common as seeing the sun rise.
The cast is universally splendid.
Ejiofor delivers an amazing performance as Northup. His sorrowful eyes and expressive face convince you that he has seen the most frightful atrocities. Nyong’o is amazing. She plays a woman whose spirit is slowly broken by the endless cycle of pain and abuse and creates one of the most tragic figures in cinema.
The film also gets great supporting work from the likes of Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti, and Paul Dano, each of whom become a prominent figure in accentuating the immediacy of the film.
There have been big screen depictions of slavery in the past, in films like Amistad and Lincoln. But, despite the merits of those films, they barely scratched the surface in their depiction of one of the most shameful human rights disasters in American history.
12 Years a Slave looks at that period and just presents the horrible truths right on the table.