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Into the Inferno

by Ross Douthat

A review of 12 Years a Slave

Twelve Years a Slave, the first non-Tarantino major motion picture in years to offer a slave’s-eye view of the antebellum South, would probably have been guaranteed admiring reviews and a Best Picture nomination even if it had turned out to be ponderous, turgid, and pedantic. Fortunately, it’s artful enough, moving enough, and sometimes ravaging enough to mostly justify the critical reception. Some of the reviews are promising too much: This is not a work of unmatched cinematic greatness, and its unflinching portrait of the mechanics of slavery sometimes gives the human side of things short shrift. But given the historical burden 12 Years carries, it’s still a film that acquits itself impressively and deserves to be admired.

The story is a true (or mostly true) one, based on a narrative written by Solomon Northup, a free black man and accomplished violinist from Saratoga who was kidnapped while on a visit to Washington, D.C., drugged, and shipped southward into bondage. With no one to trust, no one with any incentive to believe his story, and no legal or practical means of communicating with the North, the movie’s Northup passes from the comforts of middle-class respectability into the concentric circles of peculiar-institution hell: first the vicious efficiency of a slave trader (Paul Giamatti), then the hapless rule of a half-decent, would-be-Christian plantation owner (Benedict Cumberbatch), and then finally the infernal grip of the story’s Simon Legree figure, the ruthless alcoholic Edwin Epps.

Epps is played by Michael Fassbender, who starred — or, perhaps more aptly, whose body starred — in the two previous films from the 12 Years director, Steve McQueen: the political-prison drama Hunger and the sex-addiction movie Shame. Here, though, the flesh that matters belongs to Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup, who is stripped and lashed and sold, stripped and lashed and sold again, and whose astonishingly expressive face seems to wear the scars of his story as openly as his torn and crisscrossed back. And McQueen, to his credit, recognizes what he has in his star and keeps the focus on that ravaged, anguished, bewildered visage rather than succumbing (as his earlier movies did) to a kind of fetishization of bodies in extremis, an aestheticization of inhumanity.

I do not agree, in other words, with the few contrarians (including the high king of contrariness, the critic Armond White) who have indicted 12 Years a Slave for trafficking in a kind of Historically Important torture porn. The torture is there, but in ways that feel true and necessary rather than exploitative. There is one truly bloody flogging in the movie, and one extended, hard-to-watch scene in which Northup is suspended from a noose with his toes just touching the ground while the life of the plantation goes on around him, uninterrupted and barely fazed. But this is a long film about an outsider’s induction into a culture founded on cruelty and violence, and in that context neither sequence feels pornographic or unnecessary.

What I think the contrarians are correct in discerning, however, is an inattention to psychology in the film, a failure to burrow that far below the surface and get at the mental structures that made it possible to live as a master and to survive as a slave. The cast is excellent, and the characters believable, but they do not really change or come into sharper focus over the course of the movie. Ejiofor stares and gasps and endures, Cumberbatch smiles and temporizes, Epps snarls and raves and occasionally charms, and the supporting cast — including Lupita Nyong’o as the luckless object of Epps’s affection, Sarah Paulson as Epps’s monstrous wife, and (in the movie’s one egregiously false note) Brad Pitt as a sympathetic itinerant carpenter — has a similar consistency: To meet them is to know them.

The two exceptions are the smallest ones: Garret Dillahunt as a former overseer fallen on hard times, who takes a job picking cotton alongside Epps’s slaves and temporarily befriends Northup, and Alfre Woodard as a slave-turned-mistress at a neighboring plantation, who sips tea on a veranda while she murmurs about the damnation awaiting her lover and his class. In these blink-and-you’ll-miss-them roles, you get a real hint of the twisting complexity of antebellum life, the varied ways in which both whites and blacks made their way within the system, the strange gradations and hierarchies it created, and the varying sources of emotional resilience that its worst-used inhabitants discovered for themselves.

Because Ejiofor’s Northup is ultimately an outsider, and because, for all his suffering, he still functions more like Dante in this Inferno than like the truly damned — not least because we know from the title that he’ll eventually get out — his character does not give us enough on this score, and neither do most of the people with whom he interacts, slaves and masters alike.

Twelve Years a Slave opens a necessary window into the world of slavery, but it doesn’t quite let us see the system, the culture, from the inside out. For that, we need more movies that take up this necessary subject, and more filmmakers to follow where McQueen and his cast have bravely trod.

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