The obvious comparison for Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, given their similar Oscar-bait pedigrees and chronological proximity, is to Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Both tackle the subject of slavery, both return the national gaze to our most tragic and indefensible moment, and both emphasize, in particular, the horrors of the lash of involuntary servitude. And yet, the differences between Tarantino and McQueen’s films illustrate the particular nature of McQueen’s triumph. Tarantino is scrupulous about slavery in the manner of a bloodthirsty prosecutor laying out a damning indictment in order to speed the execution process. Django is, in the fashion of its predecessor Inglourious Basterds, a historically flavored revenge film, its emphasis on the bloody comeuppance delivered to comic-book representatives of evil. Slaveowners and Nazis fill the space traditionally occupied by mustachioed twirlers of revolvers and bald-pated practitioners of the evil chuckle.
Unlike Tarantino, McQueen, who debuted with the powerfully stripped-down Hunger, about IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, gives himself no license to rewrite history. Slavery is real, inflexible, and seemingly unending. Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man and musician kidnapped and sold as chattel, drops helplessly into the maw of the Southern slave economy. There are no German dentists there to rescue him, nor are any arsenals laid open to ease his revenge against his oppressors.
This is the real past, where unimaginable horrors were an unremarked daily backdrop. Solomon, in one of the most disturbing scenes in the film, is saved from lynching at the hands of a vicious overseer, but then left hanging, his toes barely touching the muddy ground. Ejiofor blurrily occupies the foreground as slaves go about their daily work in the background. The scene goes on surprisingly long, its duration a symbolic stand-in for the unimaginable duration of slavery itself.
The first American epic, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, had depicted freed slaves as the cause of widespread social and political unrest in the post-Civil War South. The Ku Klux Klan, astoundingly enough, are the heroes of this story, their guerrilla warfare against Reconstruction bringing harmony to the warring brothers of the country by reminding them of their joint service “in common defense of their Aryan birthright.” 12 Years a Slave, while only indirectly referencing Birth, is perhaps the most profound rejoinder yet to Griffith’s unthinking racism. Slaves have all the dignity lacking in their white oppressors.
12 Years undoes some of the easy triumphalism of its predecessors—their treatment of slavery as a hurdle to be leapt on the way to success in the courtroom or the battlefield. Moreover, films like Edward Zwick’s Glory and Steven Spielberg’s Amistad, each well-crafted entertainments, treated the African-American experience as ideal fodder for films featuring the quiet heroism of white men.
Spielberg’s biopic Lincoln came in for some criticism, as well, for its mostly limiting the African-American presence, in a film about the outlawing of slavery in the United States, to a brief prologue of the president speaking with two black Union soldiers, one reciting a portion of the Gettysburg Address. But Lincoln is more in keeping with the revisionist mood of Django and 12 Years than the likes of Glory and Amistad. Its mission is to restore Lincoln as a brilliant political, not just moral, figure. As such, slavery per se plays a secondary role in Lincoln to the political issue of slavery, as it unfolded in the halls of that same unfinished Capitol.
12 Years’ closest predecessor, in its telescoping of a collective experience into an individual story, and its quiet attention to the bestiality of slavery, is actually the groundbreaking television miniseries Roots. Kunta Kinte (LeVar Burton) is whipped mercilessly for his refusal to adopt a new slave name, and one can see a similarity between Kunta and Solomon, each stubbornly insistent, at one and the same time, on preservation of self and on self-preservation.
12 Years is an individual’s story that gestures at the collective experience, part of contemporary American film’s interest in widening its lens to take in the once-invisible stories at its margins. (In this, 12 Years bears as much resemblance to recent gay-themed films like Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven and Mike Mills’ Beginners as to Django.) This is the story of Solomon Northup, but it is also the story of slavery in the United States, telescoped and compressed into a single life. An overhead shot of slaves laid side-to-side aboard a ship for their journey south is immediately reminiscent of drawings of Middle Passage ships, and a beautiful shot of Solomon in chains, crying out for help after his kidnapping, pans up a brick wall and out to the unfinished Capitol.
The work of democracy remains unfinished as long as men like Solomon are treated like property.