Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Film Review | 12 Years a Slave

Last Monday, the Supreme Court issued suo moto notices to two state governments, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, when a labour contractor from Andhra Pradesh chopped off the hands of two migrant labourers from Odisha who were working as bonded labour under him. A news snippet in many newspapers and sites, it carried no real shock value. Every now and then, tid-bits about subjugation and bondage of Dalits, tribals and lower castes make news. In many parts of India, slavery in some form is routine. Far away, Africa is many years behind other countries, in government and policy attempts, to abolish slavery. Closer home, slavery is an everyday reality in many parts of Nepal.

I watched Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave about slavery in 19th century America with silent exasperation. You have seen slavery in cinema before, almost always under a rosy, redemptive tint that extols the slave’s heroism and will, or occasionally laced with sharp irony as in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012). The reactions you can muster to this film are beyond moral disgust or tears. All I had was a distressed numbness. McQueen shows whipping and lacerating of slaves in long scenes—almost as a fetish; these scenes could easily be interpreted as torture porn. The slave’s servility and silence are taken for granted, they survive because of their silence. The stinging directness is, of course, to further McQueen’s intensely moral lens, as if urging, ‘America, look at your history.’ 12 Years a Slave is a cinematic equivalent of a polemical essay with moral heat in its belly.

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Lupita Nyong’o plays a young black girl, Patsey, who is serially abused in the film

McQueen leaves out the repreive and Northup’s weak attempts at objectivity completely. Structured in episodes, with flashback points, the film has a simple narrative. The director’s icy and unwavering stare at his subjects, seen in his earlier feature films, Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011), is evident in 12 Years a Slave too, although for different purposes. Here he is more of a polemicist, not interested in dysfunction or insanity of human beings.

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The British lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor carries off Solomon’s journey with just the right balance of restraint and histrionics, and Michael Fassbender, who has worked with McQueen in the director’s earlier two films, is a riveting study in evil insanity. He drums up enough vile to portray Edwin Epps, the cotton plantation owner who serially abuses a young black girl Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). McQueen denies Patsey the zest that Northup attributes to her in his memoir. Here, her scars are the bloodiest, and most sore; in one scene, the camera casually pans by her wounded eye streaked with blood. The language used in the dialogues has the formality and grace of that age, which makes the inhumanity of the story even more difficult to digest.

12 Years a Slave is a nightmare, and McQueen intends it to be so. Racism has never before appeared so intimately terrifying on screen. It is a modern classic.

12 Years a Slave releases in theatres on Friday.

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