Lean close and gaze at what art historians refer to as the "Mona Lisa of photography"—the eight small copper daguerreotype panels of the "1848 Cincinnati Panorama" by Charles Fontayne and Williams S. Porter, one of the oldest photographs of an urban city. Look closer, thanks to cutting edge digital technology and the incredible resolution of the daguerreotype method and see what experts describe as the first candid images of free African Americans.
Trace these tiny figures busy at work, perhaps some at play, on the Ohio River landing, and think back to the 19th century and thousands of African Americans settling north in search of new lives away from injustices in the south. Imagine the everyday fears these free men and women may have had—the worry about being captured and returned to bondage due to laws favoring slave owners.
Jump 165 years and watch English actor Chiwetel Ejiofor and London-born, Amsterdam-based filmmaker Steve McQueen bring to vivid life this nightmare of lost freedom and revisited cruelty in 12 Years a Slave, the true story of Solomon Northup, a free African American in Saratoga, New York, who’s kidnapped in 1841, sold into slavery and ends up working on a Louisiana plantation for 12 years until regaining his rightful freedom in 1853.
Have you ever imagined what it must have been like for the people who lived and worked as slaves? Close your eyes, reopen them in your neighborhood cinema and experience the horrors of a slave’s life courtesy of the unflinching vision of McQueen.
One of the most critically acclaimed films among awards season hopefuls depicts look-away hangings, whippings, and human degradation with unsettling detail. It’s a brutal, challenging film to watch. It raises a simple question. Is 12 Years a Slave too honest for its own good?
Speaking the day after his film’s gala premiere in Toronto, surrounded by his producers and later in the day by his cast, McQueen says it was time to revisit Solomon Northup’s forgotten slave narrative and reintroduce him to the world. He says audiences are ready.
"I think about the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and it’s that kind of perfect storm," McQueen says. "People are ready to see and look and reflect on the unfortunate past and maybe at other times they weren’t."
Asked if he thinks these are journeys audiences want to take, McQueen responds with fire. It’s like questioning Gerhard Richter on his choice of brushstrokes. McQueen talks about taking audiences on a truthful journey into slavery. That’s clearly what matters.
"Truth is truth," McQueen says passionately. "Horrific is not what I’m interested in. I’m interested in understanding. Number one. It has to be a situation where you’re telling a story and where the audiences trust you. They trust the filmmaker not to exploit the situation but to sort of project it into a light that’s understandable and that everyone can reach for and understand the why. The vessel is Solomon Northup. Everybody in the audience is Solomon Northup. What he goes through you go through. That’s what always was key for me. That was the realization for this story and that’s how I wanted audiences to take that passage and take that journey."
Like his acclaimed short art movies Bear, featuring a naked McQueen encounter with another naked man; Deadpan, where McQueen recreates a classic Buster Keaton stunt by standing in the doorway of a building collapsing around him, and Prey, which focuses on a tape recorder playing the sound of someone tap dancing as a weather balloon takes it up, up into the sky, 12 Years a Slave is also formal in cinematic technique and precise to the point that you feel as though every visual image and audible sound was meticulously planned.
It’s also a journey story. In a sense that’s what the former Chelsea School of Art and Goldsmith’s College student has been doing since his Turner Prize-winning art films and installations. It’s just that with his feature–length movies he’s asking audiences to take journeys in human tragedy.
Relive the last six weeks in the life of Irish Republican Army inmate and hunger striker Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) in Hunger, McQueen’s first feature-length movie. Re-watch the journey of Brandon (Fassbender working with McQueen for a second time), a corporate New York 30-something struggling with sex addiction in Shame. Finally, here’s Solomon Northup, drugged into submission, frequently beaten, and pushed within an inch of losing his life.
McQueen’s point is direct. Reading a slave narrative or looking at the images of free African Americans in a daguerreotype does not compare to the impact of a movie."Reading slave narratives is one thing," he adds. "To look at images of slaves is another thing. Bring those images onto the movie screen, that’s the shock for the audiences right now, to see these images and see what happened."
Yet, reliving the 12 years of Northup’s servitude unfolding on a Louisiana cotton plantation, McQueen creates powerful moments of bold beauty, brief interludes of silent calm, and scenes of legitimate happiness.
The movie is dreamlike, like all of McQueen’s work, except this time the stunning photography and intimate camera placement shifts to horrifying scenes of degradation. The effect is commonly referred to as "hard to watch."
"I don’t know, it’s kind of strange in a way that it has a reaction," McQueen says. "That’s the power of cinema and that’s why for me it’s the best art form in the world. You’re presenting something that has been resurrected; presenting the images of life and death. If people respond to it, that’s great. That’s what I’m trying to do. Put something true on the screen whatever that is."
Despite the growing chatter of awards season predictions, one wonders if a movie as brutally realistic in its depiction of slavery as 12 Years truly has a chance for Oscar glory.
Did audiences stay away from Shame due to its NC-17 rating and explicit sexual content? Will audiences stay away from 12 Years a Slave due to its violent content and brutally realistic recreation of America's biggest shame?
"We’ve spent a lot of time over the last decade at Plan B trying to create a harbor that’s safe and in which movies, stories, and filmmakers can actually reach the vision they set out to make and their original intentions," Plan B President Dede Gardner says, joining McQueen. "I would never be so bold as to suggest the importance of the film. I don’t want to say what people should take away from it, but I think the movie is a piece of art and it stands on its own."
Whatever audiences and Oscars voters take away from it, the movie dream, or nightmare, that’s 12 Years a Slave is complex, powerful, and dark, and deserves to be seen.