Filmmaker Steve McQueen is clearly fascinated by texture. During a lively Q&A after an advance screening of his remarkable new movie 12 Years A Slave, McQueen allowed how everything in the movie derived from Solomon Northup's harrowing, first person account of being kidnapped from his life as a free black in Saratoga and sold into slavery in the pre-Civil War South. But during the process McQueen admitted that one has to listen to the story one is making, and let it determine its own cinematic form.
And so Northup's story is gently punctuated by these curious shots of wood, of the trees lining the distance, of a sparse meal of bread and berries on a metal plate. This malignant enterprise of slavery is soon felt in the crannies of that wood, and the storytelling is so patient and quiet yet so deliberate that that malignance can be seen on/in everyone - a shot of the face of Mary Epps (Sarah Paulson) reveals the same kind of malignant presence, tangible in her very atoms.
"Malignant" here is a better word to describe McQueen's subject than "evil". 12 Years A Slave is refreshingly free of one-dimensional concerns as a good guy/bad guy dynamic, and what makes the movie such a painful, harrowing experience is that everyone's humanity is in clear view, paying tribute to the adage that when one man has his boot on another's neck, both are oppressed. Solomon finds no real comfort even among comparatively benevolent slave owners (including Benedict Cumberbatch's Baptist landowner), for taking his side in a conflict is a threat to society - we see all of them calculate the costs of such an act, and decide against it. The storied, vicious slave owner Edwin Epps (McQueen regular Michael Fassbender) holds a genuine, if twisted, affection for slave Patsey (newcomer Lupita Nyong'o, holding her own among this stellar cast). And Solomon himself is beautifully realized in an absolutely stellar lead performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who captures his intelligence, innocence, kindness and desperation, never Hollywoodizing his role into the realm of feel-good heroism, but making keenly felt his despair, his sadness, his moments of real, soul-crushing defeat.
McQueen never once overexplains the copious details of this world, but we're finely attuned to all of them. Northups moments of defiance (even his logic) never offer any kind of release or catharsis, because we are well aware of the painful consequences that will likely result from even the smallest display of Solomon's intelligence. McQueen's detail extends to the realities of the violence inflicted as a matter of policy on slaves by their owners, and how no one has any recourse when that violence turns personal.
12 Years a Slave is by no means easy to watch (it isn't meant to be, either). It is a harrowing depiction of a shameful period in American history, and a miraculous restoration of the voice of one who weathered the worst it had to offer. And yet the minutiae of the movie's details serve more universal purposes, allowing us to reflect on if American (or even human) society has really advanced. Seen during an ongoing shutdown in which a minority of American politicians (Southerners, surprise surprise) are holding the government hostage to subvert a crowning (and legally enacted) piece of legislation by the nation's first minority president, 12 Years a Slave proves illuminating. Some malignance is as deep as our very atoms, and one wonders if it will ever be shaken loose.