Throughout “12 Years a Slave,” I asked myself what it means to be “based on a true story.” Clearly, Solomon Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is a character steeped in reality. His fight for freedom stems from the pages of a memoir published in 1853, which describes the similar circumstances of a black man, a free American and an accomplished violinist, who’s kidnapped and sold into slavery.
I’m sure a lot of people think that because it’s a true story and because it deals with such a brutal part of American history that still in some ways lingers today, that this is what makes “12 Years a Slave” an important picture. Like Anne Frank, Northup shows more clearly than any history lesson what happens when the average person is forced to endure untold levels of pain and cruelty. If people choose to take this as a reminder of why such cruelty should be resisted and fought against, “12 Years a Slave” will have accomplished enough.
But it’s an important picture for so many more reasons than just its true story label. It’s an important picture that understands veracity is only half the tale, and the other half you’ll never find inside a history book.
Steve McQueen makes films that feel real and immediate, with real-world parallels like the IRA conflict in “Hunger” and an extremity of emotional and physical suffering that’s still rooted in something recognizable, such as uncontrollable lust and loneliness, suffered by Michael Fassbender’s sex addict in “Shame.” But he’s never been interested in replicating real-life or capturing it verbatim like a documentarian. Even on “12 Years a Slave,” which at times zooms in to show the day-to-day toil of something so simple as cotton-picking, an act we often imagine but have never see in such excruciating clarity, the facts are never the sole end. They’re tools used to break through to a character’s psyche and the emotional truths contained therein.
Take an early sequence where Solomon, forcefully rechristened Platt in his slave life, works the plantation of a benevolent priest played by Benedict Cumberbatch. He and the other slaves are rounded up by their carpenter boss, a typically snivelly Paul Dano, who has them clap along while he sings a vicious mockery of a slave song, “Run, Nigger, Run.” The singing continues over a montage of the slaves working, and ends with a sermon by Cumberbatch’s slave-owner, preaching over the faint, insistent refrain of Dano’s song. It’s a dizzying cacophony of the taunts and chants and scripture all used to subjugate slaves and keep them tame. It’s also an effect possible only through the magic of filmmaking.
McQueen has called “12 Years a Slave” a fairy tale. Certainly, the contents of the story are darker than anything in the Brothers Grimm, but the devices he and cinematographer Sean Bobbit use are just as fantastical, turning plantations into halfway-homes between the serene and terrifying just by focusing on poplar trees at twilight. Every scene plays out like the next step in a fairy tale hero’s quest for enlightenment. Solomon faces trials ripped from Campbellian myth and he meets figures that edify him in the midst of their mutual suffering. The most memorable might be Patsey, a long-suffering slave mistress played by Lupita Nyong’o, apparently in her first feature-film role. She tears to shreds the “brown sugar” stereotype, enduring across her back more than just the whip’s end; she fends off attacks against her soul. She is a victim who resists dehumanization, so long as the camera preserves her willful, set gaze.
Her slave-owner is played by Fassbender, one of many big-name white actors here, alongside Cumberbatch, Dano, Paul Giamatti, and perennial ensemble sore thumb Brad Pitt. Fassbender may very well earn Oscar gold for his turn as the unhinged and violent Edwin Epps, which is fearless and self-assured, everything that makes for a great performance. But is his insane rapist a role that needs celebrating? Fassbender, I suspect, knows he’s playing a necessary evil, and the real honors should go to Ejiofor and Nyong’o and all the other black actors who cannot hide behind prestige. They’re burdened with the full weight of history, and somehow in their performances they’re expected to transcend this history and then transform it.
Yes! To transform. We should celebrate these actors and Steve McQueen, a British man who crossed national boundaries to take a true story of one man in desperate circumstances and transform it into a series of ruthless but passionate images filled to the brim with the incalculably human. “12 Years a Slave” is the appropriate response to insidious dreck like “The Help” and “The Blind Side” — films that call themselves true stories to hide what really matters. They’re not stories about human beings but rather white guilt and the middle-class need to repent for past generations’ sins. “12 Years a Slave” won’t let you off so easily. It’s a film filled with spirit that may have come directly from between the lines of Solomon Northup’s writing. And that’s not just based on a true story. That’s the only story there is.