As I've mentioned before, I've become dimly aware, over the last couple of weeks, that we've had 12 Years a Slave sat under the TV in the "to watch" pile for over a month now. It's not been a concious choice, but it did start to feel like we've been putting it off, its reputation pitching it as a worthy but hard-going film meaning that we'd started to feel like we needed a bit of a run up to it. Which is daft, of course, because serious, weighty films shouldn't be a duty, they're a conversation between the film-maker and the audience, and even with a terrible subject matter like slavery that should still be engaging and fulfilling. So this weekend we decided, come what may, that it would make the top of the watch list, and so we settled down with it as soon as the kids were safely dispatched to their rooms.
The film opens with a gang of slaves been shown how to cut canes, and a few brief vignettes of the life our protagonist, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is enduring, before flashing back to a more conventional opening show his pre-enslavement life. There are a few more dabbles with a non-linear structure here and there, but by and large, after this, the film unfolds conventionally, eschewing narrative or directorial fireworks in favour of just letting the tale tell itself. It's worth mentioning this up-front, because it's easy to draw comparisons to Spielberg's Schindlers List, but where that film is filled with elegiac visuals and striking "moments", 12 Years a Slave feels like it's director Steve McQueen doesn't want to impose himself in quite the same way. As such, there are few moments I felt really stood out of the film, leaving a smooth continuum of horror that has a different sort of impact.
Solomon Northrup is properly introduced to us a staggeringly normal family man, He's got a life, a job, a station in society. As a black man living in a white society, there is a number of subtle moments that mark out his difference to the society around him, but at the same time he's shopping in the same shops, walking in the same parks, and dressing the same as everyone around him. It makes his sudden abduction, brutal "renaming" and sale - quite literally - down the river all the more shocking and Solomon's journey of amazement that such a thing can happen is also ours. There is a sense of documentary around this opening section; the detail of his abduction and the process of moving, selling and controlling slaves, is starkly laid out.
From there, Solomon's journey is one through the antebellum South, one of endurance in the face of horror. There is an ambiguity in the heart of the film that is fascinating - with the focus on Solomon characters pass in and our of the narrative almost arbitrarily, many of them we never learn any history or future, faces lost under the tides. The film resists heavy-handed beats, because a simple telling is powerful enough.
Along the way it even manages to say something interesting about the Plantation Class themselves, contrasting the "good" slave owner from the "bad" one, although the best you can say about Benedict Cumberbatchs' Ford is that at least appears to have some vestigial awareness of the wrongs of the system he benefits from, rather than Micheal Fassbenders' Epps, who has just succumbed totally to it. Both characters come though the film as fully human though, a credit to the script and the performances that don't absolve us - the audience - my making them easily discarded monsters.
I'm not sure I'll rush to see 12 Years a Slave again. It's a fantastically gripping, well made study of a very dark period in Western history, a stain on our self-declared march towards enlightenment and freedom. But it is a very hard watch, unflinchingly brutal in revealing the horrors of the everyday life of millions of people for decades - for all Solomon is able to escape it, his story is remarkable for it's rarity. I'm not sure I'll watch it again, but I'm very glad I watched it once.