You can count on one hand the number of films that depict the true brutality of slavery: There was the TV series Roots; Amistad, which mostly told the story of the slaves' journey; and last year's Tarantino-ized shoot-'em-up, Django Unchained. But a film that makes movie-goers look, and look again, and then a little more, at the gruesome realities of plantation life – the alcohol-soaked sweat of lecherous masters, the raw skin of seeping lash wounds, the oppressive, inescapable terror of nameless captivity – feels like a first.
This is what 12 Years a Slave, director Steve McQueen’s adaptation of the autobiography of a free African American man kidnapped and sold to Southern plantation owners, does so powerfully, sparing no terrorizing details about plantation life. "Steve was the first to ask the big question, 'Why has there not been more films on the American history of slavery?'" producer and actor Brad Pitt said last night at the film’s world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. "And it was the big question it took a Brit to ask."
The film, which received a standing ovation from audiences here, opens with a wide shot of Chiwetel Ejiofor as the protagonist, Solomon Northrup, standing shoulder to shoulder with fellow slaves in a field of sugarcane. The men, dressed uniformly in baggy white linen, have been skinned of everything except their ability to work and obey, an image that sets the tone for what follows. Through a series of flashbacks beginning in 1841, we learn how Solomon, an educated man of means from Saratoga Springs, New York, ends up snared in the swamps of Louisiana.
"I just wanted to see it on film," McQueen said in a discussion after the premiere. "I wanted to see that history, that story, on film. And it wasn’t told, and that was it. And obvious. And it’s that simple."
The massive ensemble cast includes Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Sarah Paulson, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Michael K. Williams and Quvenzhané Wallis, and the film was shot primarily on Louisiana plantations. Newcomer Lupita Nyong'o, who plays Patsy, the object of her masters’ attention, noted the set’s haunting past.
"The plantations are pregnant with history, and it’s just as beautiful as this film captures, but that so much pain could have been caused in such a beautiful landscape is mind-boggling. And it felt real," Nyong'o told Rolling Stone. "I was wearing a real woman’s slave garb, and that in itself was haunting, but it was exactly what we needed to do to be able to tell this true story." That tale is told with long shots on scarred faces, thighs slapped in naked slave markets, black men strung from trees by captors, all set amongst golden-hued bayou landscapes sweeping enough to make Terrence Malick shudder.
Along with its harrowing themes, the heft, technical prowess, and relevance seemed to shatter audiences, in the way a film like Schindler’s List might have in years past. (As one moviegoer said after the screening, "Harvey [Weinstein] is going to be so pissed," suggesting 12 Years is now the film to beat for Best Picture.)
Pitt touched upon the relevance in a year that has seen everything from the uproar surrounding the Trayvon Martin ruling to the dethroning of celebrity chef Paula Deen for the use of racial slurs. "I think what we saw this year is that we’ve been bumping up against each other, and we certainly felt minority America saying to majority America, 'Hey, there’s something bigger at work here. There’s bias at play and it’s not working.' Something majority America needs to listen to," Pitt told Rolling Stone. "And I think this film, again – Steve McQueen asked the right question. It’s such a part of our history, it’s such a part of our DNA, it’s something we can’t deny, that in some way we think we have settled and we have satisfied, and in some ways we haven’t."