(This review contains numerous significant spoilers. You have been warned.)
Some years ago a friend who is a very fine amateur photographer showed me one of his favourite images, of a woodpecker clinging to the trunk of a tree as it pecked away at the bark. He showed me two versions of the same photo. The first - the original - had the tree positioned on the left of the frame, with the bird on the right. The second version was simply reversed, so that the woodpecker was now facing right, hammering away at the dark shape that ran down the right side of the picture. 'The second one is better,' Mark said, quite correctly. By why? Other than being mirrored, the images were identical. 'The tree trunk on the right stops the eye,' he explained. ‘Since we read from left to right, our eye approaches images the same way. The first version allowed the viewer to linger briefly on the bird before "escaping" out the right-hand side of the frame. Reversed, the eye comes into the picture, and is then blocked from leaving by the tree.' Such is the psychology of the visual.
Consider now the poster for 12 Years a Slave. Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the New York free man kidnapped and thrown into slavery in the deep South, is running. Escaping, presumably, at full sprint. To the left. Back into the arms of the slavers rather than the arms of his family. To present him running to the right would be to offer him freedom, liberation. Hope. To the left lies utter hopelessness and despair.
This is a review of a film, not a poster. After all, we don't pay our hard-earned to stand in the foyer and admire the artwork. So why the focus on the poster?
To me, this is simply one sign of the attention to detail the director and producers of this film have shown. Miss-steps? There are few, if any. The sudden jump to Mistress Shaw, a black lady of means we had hitherto not met had me briefly wondering if the projectionist had spooled the wrong reel. (But since 'projectionist' isn't a job any more, that couldn't have been it.) Of course, it wasn't a miss-step at all. On reflection it is jarring in precisely the way it was intended to be. (Read about the screenwriter's take on this here.)
Jarring moments are many in this film. Each is good for the way the story is told, most not so good for the characters. The extended scenes of violence, sparing nothing, do not feel like torture porn. Mel Gibson could learn a thing or two from director Steve McQueen about using cruelty and violence in a deeply troubling, 'please make it stop' kind of way, rather than rejoicing in the gore and splitting flesh. In the way it should be used. At no time does the violence in this film feel gratuitous. Excessive, yes, but then, slavery was nothing if not an excessive use of violence.
In one scene that had me practically hiding behind my hands, Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), the beautiful, delicate young slave girl and reluctant lover to the slaver owner Epps is being lashed for possessing soap. Egged on by his stony, jealous wife, Epps is determined to lash her to death, to strip the flesh from her back. Except he hasn't the guts to do it himself, so he hands the task to Northup. What follows is one of the hardest things I've ever watched. In the end, as her cries turned to whimpers, I actually found myself hoping that she had died, in much the same way that we hope a badly injured animal will soon breathe its last and feel no more pain.
'A badly injured animal.' There it is - in one scene McQueen had managed to make me deeply sympathetic to a character, whilst forcing me to adopt some of the distorted psychology that allows the powerful to dehumanise the weak. It's powerful film-making, powerful storytelling, utterly immersing and involving and implicating the viewer.
Equally impressive were the moments of silence, and the moments of confusion. To deal with the first: in one of the brief flashbacks, Northup is in a store in New York, about to spend a far too much on a travel bag for his wife. Another black man, also well dressed, comes into the store, only to be followed in by his master, who apologises to the storekeeper for the 'intrusion'. Off camera, someone says, 'It's no intrusion'. It sounds like Northup, or perhaps it's the storekeeper. The white master's expression suggests it is Northup, but before you've a chance to be certain, the black man has been bustled out and normality returned. And you get on with the story, the 'intrusion' forgotten. And again, we become faintly complicit in the world we are watching.
One viewer review I read complained about some of the 'long, boring, pointless scenes where nothing much happens.' Perhaps they were referring to the scene where Northup is being hanged, but is then lowered barely enough for his toes to reach the muddy ground below, just to make sure he learns his lesson. Ankles and wrists bound, we watch his toes scrabble for purchase as he dances a silent, desperate dance. Meanwhile his fellow slaves go about their work around him, too terrified of reprisal to cut him down. He hangs like that well into the evening, and we watch for a full five minutes, maybe more, an eternity in cinema-time. Like the lashing of Patsey, it is long, and excruciating to watch, even from a comfortable cinema seat.
But perhaps the greatest achievement of this film is the way it forces us to re-examine that old question, 'What would I do?' Would I stand up to the SS guard, would I offer sanctuary to the Tutsi refugee being hunted by men with machetes, would I climb into the carriage and ride away to freedom, leaving other black men and women behind to continue to be slaves?
Of course, that is precisely what Northup does when his chance at liberation comes knocking, and it hits the viewer like a sledgehammer, especially as the last thing we see, just as a blur in the corner of the frame, is Patsey fainting and falling to the ground in front of the plantation house. As we wonder how he can possibly go back to his old life with a clear conscience knowing what he is leaving behind, we remember a scene much earlier in the film, where a friend is liberated at the dock and hurries away without so much as a glance back at a shocked and incredulous Northup.
The performances in 12 Years a Slave are flawless. Both Ejiofor and Nyong’o were rightly nominated for Academy Awards (Nyong’o won) but equally impressive are Michael Fassbender as Epps, Sarah Paulson as his cold, heartless wife, and Benedict Cumberbatch as the relatively kind slave-owner Ford. But the performance amongst the secondary characters which really stands out is Paul Dano, the vindictive, petty overseer Tibeats. When we first meet him, he sings a chirpy Southern ditty titled 'Run Nigger Run' which, in a sublime piece of editing, goes on to overlay a montage of hard manual labour, gleefully cruel overseers, and a pressed and ironed Cumberbatch presenting a Sunday sermon to his assembled 'property’. The topic of the sermon? The biblical extolment of owning other humans. With the sinister soundtrack of Tibeats’ song, this scene is properly chilling.
As with so much good cinema, it’s hard to say that this is a movie to enjoy, so much as one to appreciate. If there is a weakness in 12 Years a Slave, it is its slightly hamstrung narrative arc, entirely by virtue of being a true story. But if the final scene ends with what feels like something of a cliche, it is rightly followed by an awkward moment as the viewer, along with Solomon Northup, is forced to wonder, ‘What happens now? Does life just go on? Do things go back to normal? And how can they, knowing what we now know?’