Image by Courtney Nicholas
Twelve Years a Slave is a real account, written in 1853, by a man named Solomon Northup, a freeborn black man from New York who was an accomplished violin player, and had worked a variety of professions, but was led away from his home and family under the pretense of playing violin in a circus—and then kidnapped and sold into slavery. The book was not well received when it was published in 1853; some considered the account fiction, which it was not, and it was found by the young Dr. Sue Eakin in the mid-20th century, who spent her life championing the book. In 2013 it was released as a film by the video artist, Steve McQueen.
The book and the movie detail many of slavery’s horrors, as experienced by Northup; he just set them down as they happened to him, almost like a catalog in the spirit of De Sade: a catalog of horrors. Is this captivation by the horrible why the 19th-century book and the contemporary film are so attractive? I shudder to write it, but why are they so attractive? Yes, they are both beautifully rendered: the book in its great presentation of time and place, a true glimpse into the past, even if it is an ugly one; the film is shot beautifully in Louisiana (look for the house that also appears in Homefront starring Jason Statham). Northup wrote the book to relate the monstrosities he experienced firsthand, in an effort to have slavery abolished. Twelve Years was published before the Civil War. He says at the end of the book that he will not criticize slavery; the nonfiction account of his experiences is his testament from which readers may judge. But when it was released, it didn’t sell, so how much good did it do? In addition, Northup tried to sue his kidnappers, but he lost his case.
The movie was released 148 years after the Civil War. It was not made to abolish slavery, obviously. What are its purposes beyond entertainment? To teach history, ostensibly the real history, not denuded of its brutality? Funny that McQueen and many of his actors are non-Americans telling American history. Not that he shouldn’t, but it's funny to think about. A bit of the old Alexis de Tocqueville approach? I suppose Steve helped tell about the brutality of his own country in his first film, Hunger, about the Irish Nationalists’ prison hunger strikes against Margaret Thatcher and the British.
But damn, the thing about the film Twelve Years a Slave is that it is so beautiful. It was shot in Louisiana at the same time as This is the End and Django Unchained. All three productions were camped out in New Orleans, and every weekend Jaime Foxx would DJ a party so everyone could unwind from the hard shoots. Not that the This is the End gang needed to unwind like the others—they were having fun all the time, but they probably still went out... There were murders in New Orleans at the time, as there always are. There was also a night when the whites were told by local bar owners not to go out because it was the night of the Bayou Classic football game, when Gramble played Southern and the French Quarter was filled with African Americans.
Watch Michael Fassbender in Twelve Years a Slave. He has been in every McQueen film to date—did McQueen’s parents like the actor Steve McQueen? Just wondering...—first as the hunger striker, Bobby Sands, in Hunger; then as the sex addict in Shame. He wasn’t such an addict in my opinion, though. I mean, what did he do? Watch porn and screw a handful of people a week? I could point to quite a few folks who do that. And that scene where he’s at his lowest point and wants to fuck and goes into a gay club, and it’s depicted like the seventh level of hell... I mean, it goes back to the horrible representations of gays in the 70s, where the gay club is meant to signify everything dark and depraved. Then the guy gets a minor blowjob, from, Oh no, a man! The horror! Anyway, in Twelve Years, Fassbender plays the plantation owner, Epps, a stupid man with power over others. Epps is portrayed as stupid in the book; a drunk who fully takes advantage of his position as an owner of human beings, and Fassbender plays him with beautiful charm and ignorance: the man in love with his slave, who rapes her, and then hates her for not loving him; the man who blames his blighted crops on the sins of his slaves; the man who considers his slaves no better than baboons, because he’s seen “one of them critters” in New Orleans, and it had “just as much sense” as his slaves (a line straight from the book).
Watch Fassbender take over the film. It is the Northup story, but once Epps enters, the movie starts to focus on him. He doesn’t quite take over, but he is an additional engine, and a dynamic one. He gets moments alone that are not presented in the book, so that his character’s emotions can be explored. Because Northup’s emotions are kept in check both by the performance and by the editing (we hardly ever see a clear shot of him expressing full-on grief, most likely to avoid sentimentality) Epps gets all the flashy acting stuff to do, the extreme emotional ups and downs, while Northup is the stoic survivor. Even the normal close-third-person perspective, where we don’t see anything that Northup doesn’t see, is twisted once Fassbender enters, as Epps gets scenes without Northup’s presence, breaking the pretense that this is Northup’s narrative. Does Northup secretly witness Epps having sex with the slave Patsy in the dark? Doubt it. And there is absolutely no way that he would witness Epps’s private condemnation of his slaves as he watches them work in the field. Epps and Fassy have shifted the narrative toward themselves.
Watch Fassbender play the drunk tyrant, the dancing fool, the tortured rapist, the grinning punisher, the religious hypocrite, the jealous master, the fiendish whipper, the adulterer, in spite of his knowing wife (she is fully aware of the affair he carries with his slave, Patsy). The climax of the film is actually his public whipping of Patsy in front of his wife. It is a scene more about the tension among Epps and Patsy and Mrs. Epps than it is about Northup. This is Fassbender’s film. I don’t say that because the other actors don’t give equally strong performances; it has less to do with the work by the actors and more to do with the way the characters are framed and the kind of material they are given to perform. (As a contrast watch Fassbender in The Councilor and see him in a passive role. He didn’t suddenly turn into a lesser actor—he filmed it immediately after Twelve Years a Slave—but he was given a part that doesn’t take action, he just sits and suffers.) If this is, in fact, a movie about Epps the slave owner as much as Northup the slave, what does that mean for the audience? We get to watch an incredible actor behave like a monster and we like it, we love it, because he is so charming, and handsome. We like watching humans get beaten, and if such beatings are framed in the right way, in this case, in an important film about American history, then we will lap up all that brutality and want more. I know I did. I watched it two nights in a row. I love this film. I’m beguiled by it.
*A little postscript after watching the film for the third time: Northup is a hero for the ages, and McQueen has given us a gift.