I don't want to say that casual racism was king in the lily-white, upper-middle-class town where I grew up, but it certainly wasn't hard to find. Very few minorities live in Medford, New Jersey. So it was easy for a bunch of dumb kids with no context, and no real understanding of humanity as a whole, to say whatever they wanted. It was nowhere near a hotbed of ignorant, unfriendly speech, but there were certainly very few repercussions to dropping an unexpected slur.
I count myself amongst that crowd. I don't believe I had an ounce of hate in my heart, but I also never thought about what I was saying, or how my indifference might appear to others. Or, perhaps most importantly, where it came from. The history surrounding such a negative, heartbreaking mindset and how it ruined so many lives and families in the not-too-distant past.
In Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave, that history is laid out in unrelenting fashion. There have been movies about slavery before, but perhaps never this bleak and powerful. No one flinches in this film; Academy Award-nominated actors shout racial obscenities and brandish bloody whips with no remorse or objection. America in the 1840s is presented in all of its unimpressive glory: A sad, hateful place where an entire race of people were considered nothing more than property. And, unfortunately, treated as such by many without a second thought.
McQueen's debut feature, 2008's Hunger, dazzled with its quiet courage and lengthy dialogue-free scenes. His follow-up, Shame, tackled a sensitive subject (sex addiction) with vigor but occasionally felt a bit too distant and raw. But, to borrow a quote from Quentin Tarantino, this one may be his masterpiece. McQueen is an expert at visual storytelling; his films often propel ahead with very little exposition or explanation. They're character-driven in a very basic way; we're given a taste of what drives people and left to determine how those motivations contribute to the decisions they make.
But when his actors do speak, when Chiwetel Ejiofor's kidnapped slave Solomon Northup squares off verbally with Michael Fassbender's plantation owner Edwin Epps, the sparks fly. Tensions mount whenever the two appear together; Northup has to conceal his intelligence or risk death, and Epps uses religious fervor as a cover for the hatred and lust he spews upon his 'property.' Ironically, Northup's continued survival probably hinges on the fact that Epps and his peers can't seem to fathom a black man who's more intelligent than themselves.
This, of course, is a constant theme throughout the movie. The chasm between races in the eyes of, well, everyone, is vast. Respect is occasionally offered from whites to blacks, but never in a manner that befits equals. Men who seem compassionate will change their tune on a dime when it suits their needs. One former slave, a field hand who now serves as the mistress of a plantation owner, boasts about her own survival around several others who remain in captivity.
There's a quiet desperation that envelops everyone. Even those who openly admit that slavery is wrong, to the point where they verbally spar with slave owners over its morality, can barely bring themselves to commit a tiny, almost untraceable deed that ultimately ends up changing lives. There is fear in people's hearts, and by tolerating evil on a daily basis they're tacitly accepting that black people are somehow worse than white people. Fassbender and Ejiofor, in their respective anger and desperation, serve as polar opposites in that spectrum of human existence.
Both actors, as usual, are fantastic. I expect several award statues in their immediate futures. But it's Ejiofor's show, and he proves more than up to the task. This is a man who must've been salivating for a truly meaty role, who slummed through 2012 and Salt while portraying a very able second banana sort in Children of Men and Talk to Me. He's on-screen for nearly every second of 12 Years a Slave, and his face conveys desperation like you've never seen before. Some light streaks of gray in his hair offer an idea as to how much time has passed since his kidnapping and subsequent, but you can also see the hope draining from his soul with every moment he's under the control of people like Epps.
And he's right to lose faith. In 12 Years a Slave, it's all for none and one for one: get yourself out and worry about the others later. It seems like even those opposed to slavery used tiny acts of kindness to justify ignoring massive acts of monsterism. Outstanding bit performances by Paul Dano, Benedict Cumberbatch and Paul Giamatti reinforce that idea; each man, in his own way, exists as a gear in the slavery machine that powered America for far too long.
The ultimate message is not one of hope but unexpected, maybe even undeserved, salvation. As the final scene came to a close, tears were streaming down my face. Not just because of the emotion on-screen; I was trying to imagine myself in a similar situation as to what Northup went through, with barely a dream of seeing the people I love ever again. To have my freedom stripped away for reasons that defy logic. It's practically unfathomable, and yet it's something that thousands upon thousands of human beings went through in this country (and still go through today).
I wept because we're all human beings, and because innocence is no excuse for belittlement or mistreatment. When people turn a blind eye or accept that indecency is commonplace, people suffer. And even though this version of Northup's struggle was at least slightly fictionalized (and 170 years old) I couldn't help but think back to the lingering bits of unsympathetic banter uttered not too long ago in South Jersey. To make a better future, we need to embrace the past. And by making movies like 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen is using one of the world's most popular, influential mediums to do just that.