Review: 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen

12 Years a Slave Week continues with MovieMaker’s Editor’s Weekend Pick, in which Kelly Leow attempts to express the poignant, brutal experience of watching Steve McQueen’s triumphant third feature.

“Prayer Before Birth”

I am not yet born; O hear me.
Let not the bloodsucking bat or the rat or the stoat or the
club-footed ghoul come near me.

I am not yet born, console me.
I fear that the human race may with tall walls wall me,
with strong drugs dope me, with wise lies lure me,
on black racks rack me, in blood-baths roll me.

I am not yet born; provide me
With water to dandle me, grass to grow for me, trees to talk
to me, sky to sing to me, birds and a white light
in the back of my mind to guide me.

I am not yet born; forgive me
For the sins that in me the world shall commit, my words
when they speak me, my thoughts when they think me,
my treason engendered by traitors beyond me,
my life when they murder by means of my
hands, my death when they live me.

I am not yet born; rehearse me
In the parts I must play and the cues I must take when
old men lecture me, bureaucrats hector me, mountains
frown at me, lovers laugh at me, the white
waves call me to folly and the desert calls
me to doom and the beggar refuses
my gift and my children curse me.

I am not yet born; O hear me,
Let not the man who is beast or who thinks he is God
come near me.

I am not yet born; O fill me
With strength against those who would freeze my
humanity, would dragoon me into a lethal automaton,
would make me a cog in a machine, a thing with
one face, a thing, and against all those
who would dissipate my entirety, would
blow me like thistledown hither and
thither or hither and thither
like water held in the
hands would spill me.

Let them not make me a stone and let them not spill me.
Otherwise kill me.

–       Louis MacNeice, 1944

The Irish poet Louis MacNeice wrote his seminal poem “Prayer Before Birth” to mourn the vast psychological wreckage of the Second World War, but forgive the anachronism for a minute; it comes closest in my mind to channeling the power of Steve McQueen’s third and most ambitious feature film, 12 Years a Slave, opening this week in U.S. theaters.

It’s hard not to hear the echo of MacNeice’s desperate paean in McQueen’s emotional epic. The years 1944 and 1853 (when Solomon Northup, eponymous ex-slave, published the bestselling memoir the film is based upon), and the institutions of war and of slavery, elide all too easily. And “prayer” is the right word to describe this film: not a brief, sharp howl, but a low and sustained supplication to the will for survival, given entirely without pomp and circumstance through unaffected performances and virtuosic cinematography. Its sprawling cast—lead by the remarkably assured Chiwetel Ejiofor, with Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Sarah Paulson, Lupita Nyong’o, Pauls Dano and Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Alfre Woodard, and others—is uniformly excellent in a range of roles both major and minor. And DP Sean Bobbitt’s camerawork paints classically beautiful images (cool, lush Louisiana cotton fields, the iridescent glow of torch-lit skin) with relentless realism and elegance.

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Pacing a film as chronologically expansive as this is always difficult (how do you pace the Odyssey?), but editor Joe Walker keeps the pulse of the story alive, helped by a script that makes room for deeply-felt silences. It is with this tone of restrained, solemn distance (previously employed to great effect in Shame) that 12 Years gets at the heart of the dehumanizing processes implicit in both slavery and cinema. Unflinchingly, the film tests the limits of both its protagonist’s humanism and our own; in a story this harrowing an audience’s natural instinct for empathy is curbed, punished, even. Survival for Solomon is based upon an economy of kindness and selfishness, of give and take, of warmth and coldness, negotiated not just by the slave but by every character in the story. Watch Michael Fassbender’s rabid, bewildered plantation owner Edwin Epps conduct this trade in every scene.

How painful it is to sympathize, as Solomon himself finds in a climactic, agonizingly vivid scene where he is forced by Epps to hurt a fellow slave. How horrible to feel at all for anything outside of our own bodies. Better to allow this cruel world’s transformation of a human mind and body into that of an animal—or worse, into a blunt metal instrument, “a cog in a machine,” “a thing with one face,” a “lethal automaton” sans agency—to happen. Better to die, or better yet, pray for one’s own birth to be undone.

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Or is it? In an interview for MovieMaker’s Fall issue, McQueen speaks about his attraction to what he calls the “discarded visible,” or the socio-historical truths a culture finds too challenging to grapple with face-on. 12 Years plays with the idea of visibility and blindness quite overtly—see its title card blinking gracefully onto screen as Solomon blows out his bedside candle. And while the institution of slavery deals best in darkness and obscurity, the institution of cinema deals in light. We must look at this history, the film seems to say, and we must feel in spite of ourselves. Like Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, it pits no less epic a battle as one between cinema and slavery (though in as opposite a manner as is conceivable, of course).

More accomplished than that film, and more hopeful, ultimately, than MacNeice’s elegy, 12 Years a Slave is a pool of water held in cupped hands, intact and unspilled. MM

 

12 Years a Slave opens in limited release on Friday, October 18, 2013, courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

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