Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 24, 2014)
Based on a true story, 2013’s 12 Years a Slave takes us to upstate New York circa 1841 to meet Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ojiafor), a free black man. A working musician, he enjoys a middle class life with his wife Anne (Kelsey Scott) and young kids Margaret (Quvenzhané Wallis) and Alonzo (Cameron Zeigler).
Solomon takes a gig in Washington, DC, but this doesn’t end well. His “employers” drug Solomon and sell him into slavery. Now named “Platt”, Solomon attempts to plea his case, but he lacks proof of his free status and no one believes him.
This sends Solomon on a cruel journey over more than a decade of slavery. He goes to a couple of different locations, with most of his time spent as a cotton picker on the plantation owned by borderline psychotic Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). There he endures a fair amount of abuse, though he continues to hope he will eventually regain his freedom.
And of course, he does – the title alone tells us that Solomon will leave slavery behind after a dozen years. That means we know that Solomon will find a way out not related to the Civil War.
Because Slave comes with a preordained time span to be covered, it runs into a mix of narrative problems. It needs to tease us with Solomon’s potential freedom, but it can’t grant this to him until 1853. So how does it maintain a character arc?
Answer: it doesn’t. In truth, Solomon becomes a near cipher rather than a fleshed-out personality. While he goes through a lot of harrowing experiences, the film doesn’t develop him especially well; instead, it tends to use his vantage point as a way to show the experiences of others.
That’s really the main emphasis of Slave. One might think it’d become something akin to the Kunta Kinte parts of Roots, as we see one man’s frequent struggle to escape slavery, but that doesn’t become the case. On occasion, we see Solomon attempt to regain his freedom, but much of the film focuses on the characters around him and their lives.
Which is why I refer to Solomon as something of a cipher: he just doesn’t get a lot to do during the film. Obviously I can’t fault the movie’s decision to keep him semi-passive, as that probably followed the historical record. Nonetheless, it creates an odd hole at the center of the tale, as we find a lead character without a lot of prominence.
Arguably the highest level of drama comes from the relationship between Epps and his slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o). Though married, Epps uses his position to repeatedly rape Patsey – much to the dismay of his wife (Sarah Paulson). This leads to multiple conflicts, some of which involve Solomon.
At times, Slave feels like it’s mainly about Patsey – and that might not have been a bad thing. She comes with a more obvious dramatic tale than Solomon – at least on a day-to-day basis. In theory, the concept of a free man sold into slavery seems highly intriguing, but as I mentioned, the actual events don’t present much meat in terms of Solomon’s particular arc.
I suspect that’s why it relies so heavily on the events that surround Solomon: since it can’t take too many liberties with his actual story, it needs to find drama elsewhere, and Patsey becomes the most obvious party. She gets into the viewer’s heart more powerfully than does Solomon, partly because she comes with an unknown fate; while we’re keenly aware that Solomon will eventually go free, we have no clue if Patsey will live or die, stay a slave or gain freedom.
Even within Patsey’s story, though, I think Slave lacks in real character/narrative development. The Passion of the Christ comes to mind as the film most analagous with Slave, largely due to their emphasis on brutality. While neither offers truly unrelenting violence, those elements dominate.
I understand the choice to do this in both cases. Slave doesn’t want to sugarcoat slave live, so it pours on the whippings, beatings and other forms of abuse, both emotional and physical. As with Passion, I think this emphasis backfires.
At times Slave feels like nothing more than 134 minutes of brutality – and 134 minutes of brutality in search of a story. Slave comes with a much broader narrative than Passion - the Mel Gibson film really did little more than catalog Jesus’s last moments – but it still feels like it exists to depict pain and suffering first, with character/story in the background.
Obviously slavery was a horrible institution; even without the violence, it would’ve been an abomination, but the severe cruelty and degradation make it worse. Those elements need to be a component here if Slave wants to tell an accurate tale.
But I don’t think it requires the severity on display, and the nearly unrelenting brutality threatens to alienate the viewer. Violence presents greater emotional impact if used sparingly; while I get the point of the movie’s heavy level of savagery, I don’t think it serves the narrative in the end.
Unlike Roots, which managed an appropriate balance. Though made for 1970s TV, the epic mini-series clearly conveyed the misery and pain of slavery; for instance, the scene in which Kunta Kinte gets his foot amputated haunted me for years. But Roots also told a broader tale and involved us in the characters.
Because Roots addressed slave life so well, does that mean no one else should touch the subject? Of course not, and I think 12 Years a Slave comes with a valuable story. However, I feel it tells the tale in an off-putting manner that blunts much of its natural impact. Slave has powerful moments but so overwhelms us with its brutality that it loses a lot of its natural human drama.