12 Years a Slave never lets the audience escape from the violence inherent to American slavery. McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt keep the camera fixed on a series of violent acts. When Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) arrives in a Washington D.C. slave pen, a slave catcher batters him with a paddle. After Northup’s near hanging by John Tibeats (Paul Dano), he remains hanging by the neck, his toes tapping on the muddy ground just barely preventing him from choking. The longer the scene drags on, the greater the possibility that Northup will lose his tenuous balance and die. Edwin Epps’s (Michael Fassbender) whipping of Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) towards the end of the film brings this extraordinary violence full circle. Epps whips her on suspicion of sleeping with another white man. The scene grows especially disturbing as Epps orders Northup, at gunpoint, to whip Patsey as well. Mrs. Epps (Sarah Paulson) watches the spectacle in satisfied approval, as Patsey, the object of Edwin Epps’s sexual desire, suffers horribly. These moments of extraordinary violence remind the audience that violence stood at the core of American slavery.
The film also reminds its audience of the casual and systematic violence that pervaded throughout the Slave South. In a New Orleans slave pen, Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti) demonstrates the physical attributes of a young male slave in one moment. In the next, he beats Eliza (Adepero Oduye), a female slave, for crying at the potential separation of her family. Freeman, then, calmly immediately returns to his business. His ordinary business transaction becomes Eliza’s worst nightmare. In the middle of a midnight dance, Mrs. Epps throws a whiskey decanter at Patsey’s face, badly hurting her. Mrs. Epps, then, orders the dancing to continue as if nothing had happened. In another scene on Epps’s plantation, slaves endure whippings for failing to meet their work quotas as children frolic in a field and slaves go about their daily work. As Northup’s life rests on the pattering of his toes, the other slaves go about their lives, ignoring the nearly dead man only a few feet away. Only a brave female slave shows compassion and brings him a drink of water before fleeing in terror at the arrival of Northup’s owner, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). In these scenes, violence proves devastatingly banal.
12 Years a Slave highlights the wide range of experiences endured by the enslaved. Eliza fathered children by her master and received special favor from him. She had slaves to serve her until her master’s family orchestrated the sale of her and her children south. Clem, a slave in Burch’s slave pen, swears that his master will redeem him. Clem rejoices and embraces his master when he appears to reclaim him. Patsey, Epps’s best cotton picker and the object of his lust, demonstrates the vulnerability of slave women to sexual exploitation by their masters and hatred from their mistresses. Mrs. Shaw (Alfre Woodard), the black mistress of a white man, prides herself on being served by slaves and not having to work the fields. Her horrifying pragmatism and scorn for her fellow slaves highlights how some slaves carved out comfortable niches for themselves.
There is a similar diversity in the white characters and their role in perpetuating slavery. William Ford is a kind master, but only as kind as a system that brutalizes an entire race of people allows. He protects Northup from murder, but chides him for his character and behavior. Tibeats, the dimwitted degenerate, tries to demonstrate his mastery over Northup and winds up on the wrong end of a vicious beating. Chapin, Ford’s overseer, saves Northup’s life, but only because Ford would lose money if Northup died. Freeman traffics in human flesh as easily as if he were selling produce. Mrs. Epps, the coldly unsympathetic plantation mistress, lashes out at her husband and Patsey alike.
Fassbender and Ejiofor warrant special attention for their performances. Fassbender's Epps is Southern ideas of slave mastery taken to their most brutal and extreme. He terrifies his slaves by bursting into their cabins and demanding they dance for his amusement. He surprises Northup with a barely contained menace that never rises above a whisper. While giving instructions, he casually rests his arm on the head of one of young male slaves. He lusts after Patsey with unrestrained abandon, raping her for his own gratification and entering into a crazed passion at the suspicion of her sleeping with another white man. Fassbender’s performance embraces the unchecked power of mastery.
Ejiofor ably captures Northup’s descent into the horrors of slavery. At the beginning of the film, his voice is cheerful and buoyant. By the time he reunites with his family, his voice, worn down by year of enslavement, cracks and stammers. The voice of Solomon Northup remains, but is irrevocably broken. Ejiofor conveys the strain of Northup’s enslavement just underneath the surface, knowing never to express too much anger at his situation. He chides Eliza about crying over the loss of her children. Northup sympathizes with her plight, but demands that she, like him, vow to survive rather than submit to grief.
The film also juxtaposes white and slave religion. Both Ford and Epps read the Bible to their slaves, dictating it to them and stressing a message of submission. The slaves sit or stand silently as their master imparts his lesson. When left alone, the enslaved sing spirituals and embrace a participatory faith. Slaves engaged in collective religious services as a way of binding together and seeking strength to survive the tortures of enslavement.
By showing Northup’s sale from Washington D.C. to New Orleans, the film highlights the importance of the domestic slave trade. Public understandings of slavery in America have stressed the importance of the Atlantic Slave Trade and the horrors of the Middle Passage. Yet the United States ended its participation in the Atlantic Slave Trade in 1808 and the American slave population had long since begun growing through natural reproduction. A large domestic slave trade emerged to facilitate the movement of slaves from the Mid-Atlantic to the expanding slave South.
12 Years a Slave represents the best film about American slavery by placing the African American experience at the heart of the movie.