A “Truthful Statement of Facts”: A Review of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave

I can speak of Slavery only so far as it came under my own observation—only so far as I have known and experienced it in my own person. My object is, to give a candid and truthful statement of facts: to repeat the story of my life, without exaggeration, leaving it for others to determine, whether even the pages of fiction present a picture of more cruel wrong or a severer bondage.
-Solomon Northup, 12 Years a Slave

So states Solomon Northup in the first page of his grueling autobiography 12 Years a Slave; 160 years later Northup’s words are visually echoed in perhaps the best portrayal of slavery on film. 12 Years a Slave is a fictionalized historical drama by British director Steve McQueen that adapts Northup’s 1853 autobiography of the same title. Given the palette of slavery, McQueen’s film is difficult to watch at times—as it should be—and I agree with critics who have called the film essential viewing. Having seen McQueen’s major theatrical releases, Hunger (2008, about the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike) and Shame (2011, about a struggling sex addict), I knew he wouldn’t shy away from starkly depicting the brutality of slavery, of which, believe it or not, the film could have shown even more.

African American scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who served as a historical consultant on 12 Years a Slave, says the film actually minimizes the depiction of violence: “Slavery was a brutal, violent, sadistic institution. And I think that Steve McQueen showed remarkable restraint. It just hints at how violent slavery was… You can’t depict it and not show violence. That would be Gone with the Wind. But if you’re depicting it, there is a lot more violence in Solomon Northup’s slave narrative than there is in Steve McQueen’s film” (click here to read more from this article). Very true, and while the violence in 12 Years a Slave is visceral and unrelenting, it is fully necessary, much in the way that Schindler’s List needed to show the atrocities Jewish people faced in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany.

The unfortunate reality is that many suffer from a “collective amnesia” and fail to take into account that the Middle Passage—the capture of Africans and the brutal crossing of the sea into the New World—was a holocaust that ruptured, damaged, or destroyed the lives of over 20 million African people. 12 Years a Slave can’t tell the total story of slavery—the epigraph from Northup states the impossibility of this—but it is admirable for its heightened focus on the experiences Northup faced when he was captured, taken from his family, and sold into bondage. Given how realistic McQueen’s antebellum Southern opera feels, the film will set the bar for which other films about slavery will be compared.

McQueen’s early ventures into the art world are apparent, as many scenes are so horrifically beautiful (with very long and wide shots) that you feel as if you are watching a painting slowly combust before your eyes. Such as in the scene where Northup hangs from a tree—almost like a Tableau vivant—with his feet barely touching the muddy ground, which feels like an eternity on the screen. The beautiful southern landscape, along with the pious hypocrisy of the slave owners shows just how dehumanizing slavery was for all parties involved. And yet, despite this brutality the slaves found ways to make their lives meaningful, emphasized, for example, through the spirituals in the film. Recounting the emotive and philosophical power of slave songs, Frederick Douglass attests, “I have sometimes thought the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject could do” (Narrative 57). Douglass declares that the slave song is the final province of resistance to slavery.

Of course, none of the music, storytelling, or spectacular cinematography would be very affecting if the acting weren’t so phenomenal. As the lead, Chiwetel Ejiofor gave such a heart wrenching and brilliant performance that it would be a shame if he weren’t given an Oscar nomination. The rest of the star-studded cast also shine, or tarnish, as evil men and women who personify the malevolent machinations of slavery. Paul Dano is particularly vicious, that is until we encounter Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps, a cruel plantation owner who is married to an equally cruel woman played by Sarah Paulson. However, the surprise standout performance, for me, was Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey, a slave on the Epps plantation who suffers the cruel brunt of the Epps’ guilt, jealousy, and perverted rage. Her performance will haunt me for some time to come, as will the film, which is the most painful, and lucid depiction of American slavery I’ve seen in cinema.

Watching a movie in Canada about American slavery, made by a black British director, reminded me of how global and transnational slavery was. And while Canada no longer practiced slavery at the time Northup was captured—he is aided by a Canadian carpenter in the film played by Brad Pitt—it is important to remember that slavery is “Canada’s best kept secret, locked within the National closet” (Afua Cooper, Untold Story 68). In Canada, slavery was not denounced until 1793, and was not formally abolished until 1834. I mention this because the last thing we should do as Canadians is congratulate ourselves for not participating in slavery—because we did—and our continued poor treatment of First Nations people (who were also once kept as slaves) is a reminder of the legacy of injustice that still effects this country.

On a less somber note, 12 Years a Slave is additionally a film about the will to overcome injustice, to find hope where only despair seems plausible, and to remain ardent in the search for greater freedom, fraternity, and equality for all people. Dedicated to Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin), Northup’s book was published less than a year after his liberation. It became one of the best selling slave narratives of all time, and yet it remains unknown what happened to Solomon Northup. Regardless, Northup lives on in his book, and now his incredible story manifests in this gripping and powerful historical drama about the brutal inhumanities we as humans inflict upon one another. 12 Years a Slave offers no artificial Hollywood catharsis; rather, it presents an honest and harrowing parable of the evil of slavery as told through the real life experience of a man who was sent to hell and lived to tell about it.

Solomon Northup
Solomon Northup

Works Cited

Cooper, Afua. The Hanging of Angélique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal. Toronto: Harper Perennial, 2006. Print.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. New York: Penguin, 1986. Print.

50 MUST SEE HORROR FILMS

d10fbde9-f4b8-4d73-bdb0-9d2d2a341564

My wife and I watch an intense thriller or horror film around once a month. We ramp it up every October to around 10 horror films to celebrate Hallowe’en. I admit there were a couple films on this list she couldn’t finish and I don’t blame her… although she did make it to the end of Martyrs, so who knows what qualifies as too much? And why do we enjoy scary films, anyway? Probably for the same reason we stop and gaze at a car accident: it is purgative and cathartic to live and survive someone else’s suffering. Catharsis is employed by Aristotle in the sixth chapter of his Tragedy as a defense of literature for its ability to release ourselves from the reception of our experience of shock and horror.

Even the Pasolini film, Salo: 120 days of Sodom, which is not a horror proper but is still included on this list, is a visual representation of the Sade novel: the film is full of abject horror, grotesque materiality and torture, and yet the violence in that film is infused with representation— symbolizing fascism, corruption and power. So horror films provide both abject representation and escape, and some—perhaps the Saw and Human Centipede franchises—might be simply what is often referred to as “torture porn.” Brazilian theatre director and pedagogue Augusto Boal argues against theatre as an Aristotelian construct because he saw it in this form as coercion to support the dominant ideology. And while Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed, which clearly states that the only liberating theatre is the kind that directly engages the spectator in action, hence allowing the people (spectators) the means to production in order to rehearse and potentially engage in revolution, I wonder if Boal somewhat misjudges the power of the directly uninvolved spectator, or at least his reading of spectators who, while they might not be able to control the production of a fixed text, they do, in fact, control its interpretation. And while theatre and film serve different yet similar purposes, I think it’s important to remember that horror and tragedy and its representations have a history that extends to the dawn of human time.

I’m not justifying our watching of horror films so much as stating that all humans experience fear and nightmare. We as a species will continue to find ways to represent those experiences. Despite our somewhat laid-back lifestyle, my wife and I tend to watch a lot of horrifying and disturbing films. Here’s a list of some of my favourites—although the list is hardly exhaustive—in time for All Hallows’ Eve. I’ve provided micro reviews of each film with horror haikus for the top 13! Enjoy these cinematic nightmares!

50. The Conjuring (2013): Well-crafted horror film that reminded me of classics like The Exorcist and The Amityville Horror.

49. 28 Days Later (2002): One of the best zombie movies out there; in addition, it has a fatal political bend to it.

48. The Descent (2005): Great performances from an all-female cast in this creepy and claustrophobic decent into nightmare.

47. Lost Highway (1997): I love Lynch and this is a bizarre drive worth taking.

46. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992): Not as good as the T.V. show, but it has many of the same themes that make this disturbing and vivid surrealist dream worth viewing.

45. Carrie (1976): Teen angst horror-prom blood fest at its best.

Rewatching Carrie a little while ago I noticed that Buck 65 samples the theme in his song, “The Centaur.

44. Oculus (2014): A recent film that blurs reality and perception, showing that freight can be more effective than gore.

43. An American Werewolf in London (1981): Pitch perfect genre-crossing horror-comedy.

42. Leprechaun (1993): I could write an essay on all the reasons I love this B horror film. Perhaps the highlight of Jennifer Aniston’s acting career?

41. The Fly (1986): Wow, horror films before all the special effects crap were so inventive. The Fly is a macabre romance with all the early fleshy Cronenberg trademarks. Oh, and Goldblum.

40. Halloween (1978): A Hallowe’en horror film list would feel inadequate without this film that set the bar for modern slasher films like Scream.

39. The Blair Witch Project (1999): Set the standard for all the mock-doc horror films that are now so popular.

38. Scream (1996): Nice homage to early slasher flicks—many of which were Craven’s own—and revival of the genre.

37. Salo: 120 days of Sodom (1975): The film updates Marquis de Sade’s most extreme novel to fascist Italy in the final days of WW II. I can’t actually recommend this film, as you probably won’t enjoy watching it, but it does a great job in showing how we are often complicit voyeurs of the world’s most disturbing and real horrors.

36. Videodrome (1983): Insanely awesome. Videodrome is a disorienting, wholly strange experience about technology and cybernetic flesh and lust that still resonates today.

35. High Tension (Switchblade Romance) (2005): One of the crazy bloodbath French slashers you need to see to believe. The ending could be a little stronger.

34. Funny Games (2007): Michael Haneke remakes his own film with a strong performance from Naomi Watts. Easier to watch than the crime drama Irreversible, but that isn’t saying much. Is this voyeuristic sadism? You decide.

33. Ringu (1998): I gotta go with the Japanese original. Elemental nightmares with a dose of technological anxiety create an unnerving mix.

32. The Cabin in the Woods (2012): Meta-horror flick that is funny, scary, weird and wonderful, often within the same scene.

31. The Innocents (1961): Atmospheric British classic based on Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.

30. Se7en (1995): I was a little reluctant to include a mystery thriller because there are many I like even more than Se7en, but Se7en is unique for its disturbing exploration of the seven deadly sins, and does so in a more creative way than most horror films proper do.

29. The Red Riding Trilogy (2010): This British crime drama might not quite classify as horror, but it is an immersive and gritty neo-noir epic based on the Yorkshire Ripper.

28. The Wicker Man (1973): While the Cage remake would likely end up on a slew of worst lists, the original is a classic with a truly unforgettable ending.

27. Drag Me to Hell (2009): Horror veteran Sam Raimi delivers a modern campy thrill ride.

26. Los ojos de Julia/ Julia’s Eyes (2010): Full of Hitchcockian suspense. Your eyes will be glued to the screen.

25. Suspiria (1977): This abstract, glossy, and gory giallo horror is full of phantasmagoric style. The soundtrack is incredible.

Check out the original theme, and then listen to hip-hop producer RJD2’s use of the sample in his track “Weatherpeople”:

24. Let the Right One In (2008): Reenergizes the vampire genre. See Twilight if you want bad horror romance (I assume, I haven’t actually seen it), but watch Let the Right One In if you want an intelligent film with affecting storytelling.

23. Spoorloos/ The Vanishing (1988): The original, of course. I mean how many great foreign horror films has Hollywood unnecessarily remade? This film slowly unravels until we are presented with one of the most shocking endings in any film.

22. Mulholland Drive (2001): “Silencio.” In many ways this film parallels Lynch’s Blue Velvet as we gradually awaken into a living nightmare. Once Pandora’s box is opened the film enters into a mysterious realm that few, if any films, can travel, traverse, and transcend as beautifully and well as this film does.

21. Alien (1979)/ Aliens (1986): A poetic sci-fi horror tour de force. The more visceral Aliens is also fantastic and so I cheated and lumped it in with Alien. I also enjoyed Prometheus (2012).

20. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974): Also host to a surfeit of bad remakes, the original is low-budget exploitation gore at its optimum. Is this where chainsaw nightmare are made?

19. Rosemary’s Baby (1968): Polanski’s iconic thriller is a spellbinding film that will turn expectant mothers to prayer for safe passage.

18. Red White & Blue (2010): Well-acted and taut thriller that is also a severely distressing revenge film with a surfeit of torture. Need I say more?

17. Repulsion (1965): Schizophrenic decent into psychosis. One of Polanski’s best.

16. Antichrist (2009): Shocking and controversial art house horror. Another film on this list that is not for the squeamish. Check out the trailer below:

15. [REC] (2007): My favourite zombie film and one of the best uses of POV found footage.

14. Kill List (2012): Slow burn crime-thriller that gradually becomes a corporal horror.

13. Audition (1999)

the girl of his dreams?
eyes open, kiri, kiri
nope: mistress slasher

12. American Psycho (2000)

classic Christian Bale
psycho psychomachia
elegant malice

11. Martyrs (2008)

witness grisly form
french do more than wine & cheese
take your filmy skin off

10. Eraserhead (1977)

surreal & bizarre
reptilian cries pierce night
parenthood is hard

9. Silence of the Lambs (1991)

psychological
thriller: cannibal killer
hear screams: then silence

8. Dead Ringers (1988)

gynecologists
a trifurcated cervix
twins: macabre game

7. Blue Velvet (1986)

she wore blue velvet
Hopper wore a bug-like mask
I read Lynch meditates

6. The Loved Ones (2012)

observe with bright eyes
lobotomize your hard skull
prom’s complicated

5. The Evil Dead (1981)

old woods . . .
the dead come in
evil’s sound

4. The Exorcist (1973)

Friedkin’s freaky film
fact, fiction, or fantasy?
exorcise some faith

3. A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Clockwork

viddy this brothers
blood oozes like eggiweg
on moloko world

2. Psycho (1960)

shower with lights on
psycho thriller that Hitchcock:
master of suspense

1. The Shining (1980)

blood: redrum, RƎⱭЯUM
what’s in room two-three-seven?
surprise: here’s Johnny!

Need a reprieve from all the scary carnage? Here’s The Shining à la Seinfeld with a laugh track.

On this year’s Hallowe’en horror films to watch list: A Tale of Two Sisters, Inside, Pulse, Thirst, Re-Animator, Peeping Tom, Don’t Look Now, The Thing (1982), In the Mouth of Madness, Prince of Darkness, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), I Saw the Devil, and The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane. Maybe I’ll have to update my top 50 list next year after watching these. Happy—and spooky—Hallowe’en!

Also, here’s the imdb version.