12 Years a Slave follows the story of Solomon Northup from life as a free man in New York to his kidnapping and sale into slavery in the American south. Like in his previous works, Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011), director Steve McQueen doesn’t shy away from the more brutal aspects of human nature. There is an omniscient, documentary-like point of view to 12 Years a Slave that asks us to observe and question the motivation of those onscreen. It is not an easy film to watch, but it is one that is incredibly important to do so.
The setting is historical, but this is not a historical film. The story of Solomon Northup is used as a gateway to challenge our individual position both in the creation of said history and our present day existence. As we watch, we are not simply observers of the dehumanization of the African American population—we are also accomplices. As new slaves are lined up for inspection by potential buyers, their seller describes them like cattle. The more fit of the “specimens” are stripped naked, showing off their attractive bodies. When a confrontation breaks out as the seller tries to separate children from their mother, Solomon begins to play the violin, creating a new spectacle for us to enjoy. This is the kind of spectator-ship that McQueen promotes, the enjoyable objectification of other human beings with a unsettling twist. As we watch, we become complicit in the brutality because we are safe and separate and unable or unwilling to step in.
This is a theme that carries throughout the film; passive acceptance is almost as damaging as active repression. As Solomon is strung up by his neck, with just the tips of his toes to support his weight, everyone—slaves and free men, blacks and whites—ignores him. For all the overt brutality to be found in the film, this is the most haunting image. It is symbolic of the culture of fear that permeates every soul in the film, whether it is the fear of a beating, fear for one’s life, fear of being ostracized by ones community or fear of that which is different and unknown. As Solomon slowly chokes to death, the slaves look away out of fear of ending up in his place and of retribution and the whites look on in fear of what may happen if they relent.
McQueen recognizes that in the end we are all human. He understands what drives us to do unspeakable things, and he doesn’t condemn us for it, even as he doesn’t accept it. Throughout every injustice that Solomon experiences, he retains an unrelenting belief in his worth as an individual and a trust in others. This is what makes 12 Years a Slave such an incredible film. For all the brutality, there remains a faith in the perseverance of the human spirit—we can and will survive anything.