On Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave.

by Jacqueline Valencia

History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” – Ulysses, James Joyce

Yesterday I had the luck of meeting up with multidisciplinary artist Andrew J. Paterson. We were meeting up about the The 8 Fest (a Toronto film festival featuring all forms of small-gauge film). Our conversation went from my liberally using the word “avant-garde” while he made me think about what really fell under the constraints of “experimental” film. It’s a muddy muck to navigate for any medium or genre, however, besides the purists and the scholars out there, there are those that just want to be provoked. Of course, we can also go full out and question what makes a movie a film and vice a versa.

After my meet up with Paterson, Steve McQueen‘s 12 Years A Slave started processing in my brain. I had watched it a few days previously. McQueen’s short film history came up as part of this thread, particularly his short Western Deep. Western Deep is a short film of his studying the exploitation of migrant labourers in the TauTona gold mine in South Africa. Putting it under the experimental umbrella is McQueen’s method of filming a moving image essay with minimal sound and colour collage. Its narrative plays out in the claustrophobic and cattle-rearing like conditions of its subjects. It’s a powerful piece of art, only it’s a living art/exposition piece with a statement: that these people are living in bondage. (Christopher Campbell provides a neat write up and the film here: http://www.filmschoolrejects.com/features/watch-12-years-a-slave-director-steve-mcqueens-2002-film-western-deep.php)

It’s disturbing to think about people in bondage, especially after reading things like, there are “more slaves now than at any other time in history”:  http://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorialopinion/2012/10/23/more_slaves_now_than_at_any_other_time_in_history.html

Going from Western Deep to Hunger, then Shame, and 12 Years A Slave, McQueen has shown a passion for exploring the constraining situations imposed upon people. He isn’t afraid of realistically displaying the emotional and physically visceral output of bondage and the struggles of humanity from it. This is why looking back at Western Deep and the experimental nature of its composition was important for me to think about while rendering 12 Years A Slave.


The film based on Solomon Northup‘s similarly titled real life account of a free man kidnapped and sold into slavery, is a beautifully heart wrenching film that reveals the very truths that society tries to futily forget about slavery: that it happened and continues to happen to this day. McQueen utilizes the same obscured environment explored in Western Deep to make the audience feel confined within the circumstances of his characters. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt‘s lens aids this by taking the viewer from dark to sepia tinted settings to textural infusions of colour throughout the film, thereby jarring and releasing the viewer. The film is a continual sensory experience and it never gives into coddling i’s audience and never strays into the sentimental.

“A lot of people complained that the shots were too long and uncomfortable,” says the lenser. “[Director Steve McQueen said] ‘That worked perfect then, and we’re not going to change that.'” – Sean Bobbitt

As noted in the article linked above, two scenes play out that uncomfortableness: Solomon’s (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) hanging and Patsey’s (played by Lupita Nyong’o) whipping. The scenes are right in your face and there’s no rescuing the audience’s eye from the atrocities. In fact, they’re played out as either every day occurrences or under places of extreme duress. What makes the situations all the more surreal are the gorgeously rich southern environments where they take place. The sun shines bright and beautiful among the cotton pickers in the lush fields of New Orleans. The night sounds calm and reassuring in the violent and depressive slave camps.


I have mixed feelings about McQueen’s treatment of the women under slavery in this film. Impressive was that he dared to show the suffering of mothers torn apart from their children or how women were treated way worse than cattle than the men were or, better yet (for my own digestion), how mulatto women were bandied about at a higher price. Let us also not forget a different view of the slave owner’s wife (played by Sarah Paulson). Here she remains just as corrupt as her husband, and not the magical white women saviour trope to the slaves.


Where my mixed feelings lie, I guess, have more to do with how women treated each other, but seeing as this was a film exposing slavery based on Northrup’s novel, I’m not sure how much I could expect on that. I’ll have to read the book to analyze further.


The acting in 12 Years A Slave is neither subdued nor is it outlandish. Performances of note by Ejiofor, Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender, Paul Giamatti, and Benedict Cumberbatch are palpably tempered, revealing emotions in their eyes and gestures until scenes erupt into disturbingly violent instances. The terror is there in every frame of the film.

When I started watching it, a thought came to mind, noted in a tweet: “My hesitation in watching 12 Years A Slave is confirmed: watching it with that same back of the head shame/great fear in watching a horror film.” It’s a completely validated feeling, for when the film finished I was left with one question: “Where’s my revenge? Where do I plug in this anger and this shame? Where’s my relief?”

The typical film narrative will give its audience an introduction, a plot, a conflict within that plot, and an eventual resolution. The resolution itself could be an actual ending or an implied hanging fragment. Sometimes it’s entirely for the audience to decipher in their renditions of the overall film. In 12 Years A Slave, Solomon is freed and reunited with his family, but he doesn’t get the justice we expect because under the laws back then, a black man could not testify against his kidnappers. Were my feelings of helplessness based on that knowledge?

I don’t think so.

I believe that, like an experimental film, 12 Years A Slave is a moving image essay of real life situations brought to the big screen. It is not a documentary, but there are actors here reenacting scenes from a novel based on true events. There is no conclusion and no release from the feelings resulting from watching the film. McQueen and Bobbitt  manipulate textures, lighting, and scenes reminiscent of tableau vivants to keep the gaze of its audience that is still in denial.

Why are you not looking? Why are you still looking? Why can’t you do anything about it?

It’s a continual push and pull. You need to know and you don’t want to know, but you must know. It’s an imperative. Slavery is a truth in our human history. We should never forget. It’s still happening. Look again and realize the agency and lack of responsibility in your denial.

“What if that nightmare gave you a back kick?”

Wake up.


What Movies About Slavery Teach Us About Race Relations Today

*12 Films That Dared to Tackle Slavery

12 Years a Slave exposes the brutal relationship between white and black women of the era

The Surprisingly Central Role of Slave Women in “12 Years a Slave” (just found this)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.
<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: