If cinema is an exploratory lens on collective experience and cultural realities, or a mirror on society, American cinema has long maintained certain blind spots in the rearview. Specifically, the veritable holocaust of Native Americans in the 19th century and the specter of slavery are elephants in the national room, yet rarely directly dealt with through Hollywood forces.
Suddenly this year, the subject of slavery has swept into theaters near us, through Quentin Tarantino’s chilling — but partially kitschy — Django Unchained, and, more chillingly, Steve McQueen’s harrowing and important American-British production 12 Years a Slave, which drops us into a Kafkaesque nightmare that was once an inhumane norm in American life. Based on the true story, and 1853 book by Solomon Northup, of a civilized family (and free) man in upstate New York who was kidnapped and ushered into years of slavery in the South, 12 Years a Slave is a coolly and beautifully crafted piece of work, given a special intensity through the lead performance of Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Slavery is such a loaded subject and an American tragedy whose ripples continue in the present day, and the dramatic turf requires a depth and authenticity of storytelling to convey it in the truest way. McQueen is a director with an uncommon vision and visual sense, whose gaze on a particular milieu is both unflinching and artistically vivid. In Shame, the world in his crosshairs was the demonic-like mental state of a sex addict (the amazing Michael Fassbender, who returns in eerily powerful form here as a particularly sadistic plantation owner who rationalizes his cruelty by saying, “There is no sin. A man does as he pleases with his property.”).
Knowing the backstory, which is embedded in the title, we recognize the happy-ending potential for this saga, about a slave with an escape clause and a life to return to — and work to do on the abolition movement. But that doesn’t take away from the clenching emotional grit of its eye on plantation life or the underpinnings of collective shame.
It’s hard to watch. It’s hard to look away or ignore the vaster horror this one man’s story represents.