I was having a bad day. And then I saw 12 Years A Slave and regained some perspective.
Director Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Solomon Northup’s incredible memoir was remarkable in its restraint. Though a strange thing to say about a film that has been lauded for depicting the horrors of slavery accurately and harrowingly, it’s not surprising given McQueen’s adeptness in showing versus telling, and capturing a moment’s deeper truth without resorting to platitudes or judgement.
An example (with spoilers): years after being kidnapped and sold into slavery, Northup meets a white man who is serving as an indentured field hand on the same plantation. Downtrodden after years of humiliation and forced labor, Northup finally works up the courage to ask the white man whether he would be willing to send a letter for Northup without telling his plantation master. The man agrees but quickly betrays Northup, which almost gets him killed by his sadistic, mercurial master if not for Northup’s quick wit and evasion. Nonetheless, McQueen shows Northup burning the letter, focusing on his face as the light from the alit letter — his desperate grasp at liberation — slowly extinguishes, along with his dwindling hope.
It’s a small moment, played beautifully by Chiwetel Ejiofor, that in other directorial hands could have been something lesser, like the protagonist shaking his fists at the sky or angrily monologuing. Instead, it was the perfect image of what slavery’s power did to beat down the slave’s hope and determination for freedom. Northup overcomes this oppression, but he was fortunate compared to his fellow slaves. The film is full of other subtly strong moments like this, driven by a cast of heavy-hitters. It also follows Northup’s memoir very well, though I hope viewers will be compelled to go back to the book to read the details of this story in Northup’s strong literary voice.