A Real American Horror Story: On Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave

University of Southern California
Published February 19, 2014

Daniel Pecchenino reviews Steve McQueen's 2013 film 12 Years a Slave.

Daniel Pecchenino
University of Southern California


Promotional poster for 12 Years A Slave

At the 2013 New York Film Critics Circle Awards (NYFCC), English filmmaker Steve McQueen was named Best Director for his stunning adaptation of Solomon Northup's 1853 memoir Twelve Years a Slave. While McQueen didn't pick up the same trophy at the Golden Globes a few weeks later, he arguably took home that night's biggest prize when 12 Years a Slave was named the best drama of the year by the Hollywood Foreign Press. Having been nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, expect the film and its auteur to garner several more golden statues. Just don't expect the drama to be confined to the movie itself.

When McQueen went up to receive his honor at the NYFCC Awards, someone in the crowd allegedly shouted: "You're an embarrassing doorman and a garbage man! Fuck you. Kiss my ass." Most media outlets identified the heckler as City Arts film critic and provocateur Armond White, though White has denied the charge in his typically self-aggrandizing (perhaps justified) fashion.1 Even if White didn't try to publically humiliate McQueen, the fact that he has been accused of doing so isn't shocking. White, film criticism's most notorious gadfly, is the most prominent and caustic critic of McQueen's nearly universally lauded film.

White's opinions aren't frivolous and uniformed, and it isn't simple trolling when he calls 12 Years a Slave "torture porn" in his City Arts review, likening it to the Saw franchise and the—quite literally—execrable Human Centipede. 12 Years a Slave does depict slavery as a "horror show" at the expense of portraying the inner lives of slaves and the relationships they forged under totalitarian circumstances, but in doing so it does not ally itself with slasher films or low-budget thrillers like Paranormal Activity, which are practically minting money at the box office. Instead, it combines gothic terror tropes with classic Hollywood narrative and aesthetic elements to call into question the American variation on the desire to be terrorized by the supernatural, the psychosadistic, and the patently absurd. Our history is laced with horrors we can't bear to look at and think about for more than the length of a television news report or tweet, yet we continue to seek out the next great scare in the most unlikely scenarios. McQueen understands that the limits of this search will not be reached when horror films get too bizarre, but rather when they depict the horror too close to home, the horror that helped build the United States and continues to haunt us.

Solomon Northup in his "plantation suit," ca. 1853. Engraving from Solomon Northrup's Twelve Years a Slave (Auburn: Derby and Miller, 1853). From Archive.org.
Solomon Northup in his "plantation suit," ca. 1853. Engraving from Solomon Northrup's Twelve Years a Slave (Auburn: Derby and Miller, 1853). From Archive.org.

12 Years a Slave was an important American story long before Steve McQueen put it on screen, and it was a part of a much more critical national discussion than the one about what Armond White did or didn't say. Released in the wake of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, Solomon Northup's 1853 slave narrative was the kind of "as-told-to" tale that was central to the abolitionist project. It presented northern white audiences with a sympathetic figure, a professional and classically cultured black family man living in Saratoga Springs, New York, who was kidnapped into slavery by agents offering him a brief, lucrative job playing his violin in Washington, DC. Northup, portrayed in the film with subtle opacity and strength by Academy Award nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor, would spend over a decade in bondage under the mistaken identity of a runaway slave from Georgia, hiding the fact that he was once a free man from most of the people he met in order to avoid even more brutal treatment. Northup's masters ranged from being relatively kind to besotted and brutal. His captivity ended, due in no small part to a white Canadian itinerant abolitionist (played in the film by Brad Pitt, who also was one of the movie's producers) who got word to Northup's friends in New York.2 In the end of both the film and his memoir, Northup is reunited with his family, but those who caused his ordeal are never brought to justice. The world then lost track of Northup, as the date, place, and manner of his death remain unknown.

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, 2013. © FoxSearchlight.
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, 2013. © FoxSearchlight.

Like McQueen's previous two films, 2008's Hunger and 2011's Shame, 12 Years a Slave is gorgeously shot, edited with a jeweler's eye, and uses its sound design to bleed scenes into one another. This technical proficiency is part of what makes 12 Years a Slave, like its predecessors, at times excruciatingly difficult to watch. Two scenes of extended torture are among the most perfectly framed in the entire film. The first, an uncomfortably long shot of Northup hanging by his neck just low enough to the ground that he can touch his toes to the mud that continuously slips out from under them, shows us how alone every slave ultimately was. It is implied that Northup hangs for hours, while other slaves who have a chance to cut him down continue with their chores, trying not to get involved. It is important to note that Northup was not strung up by his relatively benign master William Ford (played by a pitch-perfectly milquetoast Benedict Cumberbatch), but rather by an indebted carpenter (Paul Dano) working on the plantation who was jealous of Northup's intelligence and rapport with his master. When Ford eventually finds Northup, he cuts him down and apologizes. The other slaves likely knew this would happen given their master's temperament and earlier treatment of Northup. Still, the carpenter was a white man, and one who felt within his rights to hang one of Ford's slaves as payback for an earlier altercation. Cutting down their fellow slave could have led to a quick death if the enraged carpenter were still lurking around the plantation. The film's isolation of Northup, and therefore all of the slaves, within a crowd, speaks of the culture of privilege that allowed white men with even miniscule amounts of authority to destroy social bonds through sanctioned violence.

Actors Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o, and Chiwetel Ejiofor in an excerpt from 12 Years a Slave. In this clip Patsey explains that she has gone to a neighboring plantation for soap.

The second major scene of torture takes this idea to its logical endpoint. After the incident with the carpenter, Northup is sold to Edwin Epps, a notoriously brutal, drunken, and crazed plantation owner hauntingly portrayed by McQueen's muse, Michael Fassbender. Ford does this after Northup reveals that he is a free man wrongly imprisoned—establishing that an evil cultural logic guided even "good" slave masters. On Epps's plantation, Northup finds it difficult to learn the skill of picking cotton and is whipped when his haul is below average. Patsey, a young slave woman whose picking prowess makes Northup look particularly bad, is the apple of Epps's deranged eye. He drips honeyed, violent words on her and rapes her later in the film. Epps's obvious lust does not sit well with his wife, a prototypical icy mistress made even colder by Sarah Paulson's performance. She begs her husband to beat Patsey, only to be rebuffed until Epps thinks that Patsey has snuck off to another plantation to sleep with its lecherous owner. Patsey actually had gone to get soap to wash off the filth of suffering under Epps. What follows are some of the most stunning and horrifying few minutes in mainstream film.

Sarah Paulson as Mistress Epps and Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey, 2013. © FoxSearchlight.
Sarah Paulson as Mistress Epps and Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey, 2013. © FoxSearchlight.

In an attempt to break (but not kill) two slaves with one whip, Epps binds Patsey to a post and demands that Northup lash her. This order is all the more heartbreaking because earlier in the film Patsey, portrayed in an Oscar-nominated performance by Lupita Nyong'o, asked Northup to drown her as an act of mercy, a request he refused for fear of going to hell. As Patsey stands stripped and Northup holds the whip in his hand, they might as well already be there. Forced to obey his master, Northup whips Patsey, but not hard enough for the liking of Mistress Epps. Eventually, Epps takes over and cuts Patsey's back to ribbons, each stroke of the whip sending a fine mist of blood into the air above Patsey's head. As viewers, we see the shot from just in front of Patsey, foregrounding her agony, but not letting us forget its wicked source, the gradual diminishment of her vitality, and the protagonist powerless to end her suffering. In one shot, McQueen forces us to confront the perverse horror of slavery without the filters of history, text, or, as is the case in Quentin Tarentino's Django Unchained, a film that many critics have compared to 12 Years a Slave, the stylized detachment of "cool" violence. This scene is overheated, but not overdone, torture, but not porn.

If these two scenes were the only striking moments in 12 Years a Slave, it would still be one of the most significant artistic renderings of American slavery. But what makes it a contender to take home multiple Oscars is that it depicts the terror of slavery and institutionalized racism on multiple registers. Indeed, two other scenes in the film brought me back to Jean Toomer's gothic dramatic short story "Kabnis," from his 1923 poetic novel Cane. "Kabnis" offers a suffocating account of Jim Crow racism wherein the reader follows the mixed-race Fred Kabnis underground in Georgia, where the mystical figure of Father John tells him that the great sin occurred when "th [sic] white folks made the Bible lie" (116). Likewise, one of the creepiest scenes in 12 Years a Slave is when Epps preaches a gospel to his chattel that justifies and demands their subservience to his will. By making "th [sic] Bible lie," slave owners like Epps helped cement cultural attitudes that survived the Civil War and Reconstruction to terrorize African Americans in the US South deep into the twentieth century. To this day, we hear the echoes of this sermon in political rhetoric that demonizes the Civil Rights Act and blames welfare programs, not the entrenched racism that found its justification in twisted interpretations of the Bible, for the poverty of African Americans.3

The gothic trope of entrapment that Toomer dramatizes by having the climactic scene of "Kabnis" take place underground is figured aboveground in 12 Years a Slave. At one point during his captivity on the Epps plantation (time in the film feels distorted and out of joint, a product of the never-ending nature of enslavement), Mistress Epps asks Northup to go to the store to pick up some goods. He is given a list and an identifying tag and sent on his way. For a brief moment we can see on Northup's face the hope that he might be able to escape. He isn't being watched, save by the God who allegedly demands his servitude, and the woods around him seem to provide endless routes to freedom. But quite quickly, Northup stumbles upon a group of white men preparing to lynch a few black men. The audience immediately imagines Northup being added to this execution, but he is saved when one of the lynchers reads his tag and sends him on his way as the other men are hanged. Deep in Louisiana, there's nowhere for Northup to run, so he must retrieve the mistress's goods and head "home." This echoes a theme that would become central to the works of African American writers from Richard Wright to Toni Morrison to Mos Def: in America, the only way for a young black man to survive is to play by the rules he had no role in writing.

Of course, there are parts of the stories of slavery and of Northup's life that McQueen's film leaves out. We never learn what Northup's family was doing during his twelve years of captivity, and while we are presented with a couple of scenes of slaves ministering to each other's wounds, sleeping, and talking about their awful conditions, there's very little of the mundane in the movie. In this sense, 12 Years a Slave is again like a horror film: terror builds upon terror, pushing all else into the background, only to release the viewer and Northup back into polite society, still in shock. However, unlike horror film franchises that dream up a slightly new scenario for the inevitable "two years later" sequels, we know that there will be no break in the violence, both casual and spectacular, on Epps's plantation. Every night has the potential for slaves to be called from their quarters and forced to dance, bleary-eyed and aching, for their master's pleasure. Every day has the potential to be the day that the mistress will throw a cut glass decanter into the face of a perceived rival for her husband's attention.And even when the Civil War ended, and with it the South's peculiar institution, the legacy of slavery's totalitarian racism lived on. This is the "horror show" McQueen's film walks its viewers through, and Armond White is correct that this choice certainly limits our understanding of the complexity of the lives of individual slaves. But in doing so, 12 Years a Slave challenges audiences that shell out hundreds of millions of dollars a year in search of terror to look behind and around them at our streets, our prisons, our decaying urban schools, and the slave trade that still keeps many women bound to men every bit as bad as Edwin Epps. Viewers numbed by years of cheap thrills need a film like this to remind them that horror is real and persistent, especially if you try to ignore it.

About the Author

Daniel Pecchenino is a lecturer in the writing program at the University of Southern California.

  • 1. David Denby, "Privilege and Bad Manners," The New Yorker, January 7, 2014, http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/culture/2014/01/steve-mcqueen-armond-white-controversy.html. In a statement to the Hollywood Reporter, White refers to himself as "the strongest voice that exists in contemporary criticism," and claims that several influential New York film critics are using the concocted incident as a chance to convene a "Communist-style special 'Emergency Meeting' supposedly in the interest of legislating 'decorum'—a meeting based entirely upon something that none of them actually heard and one that is really intended to purge me from the Circle." See Scott Feinberg, "Embattled Film Critic Armond White: I Never Heckled Steve McQueen," The Hollywood Reporter, January 7, 2014, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/race/embattled-film-critic-armond-white-669032.
  • 2. Pitt's presence in the film is one of 12 Years a Slave's few missteps. Having such a recognizable star come in and play a kind of angel figure distracts us from both the miracle of Northup's staying alive and the power of Ejiofor's performance. Had the role been played by a younger, less well-known actor, it would have highlighted the randomness of Northup's delivery from bondage. This problematic choice to cast Pitt (perhaps made by Pitt himself in his role as producer) has had repercussions outside of the film itself, as a poster advertising 12 Years a Slave's Italian release featured a huge headshot of Pitt looming over a much smaller full-body profile of Ejiofor. The poster was quickly recalled, but not before it led to a backlash from critics who felt the marketing was focusing on the film's white stars (there was also a poster featuring Michael Fassbender, who at least has a lot of screen time) at the expense of its two black leads, Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong'o. The poster was made by a third-party distributor and reflects a long-term problem Hollywood has had in marketing films focusing on people of color, particularly in international markets.
  • 3. Recently, Phil Robertson, one of the stars of the astoundingly popular A&E television show Duck Dynasty, gave an interview to GQ in which he said (among many other things) that: "I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I'm with the blacks, because we're white trash. We're going across the field. . . . They're singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, 'I tell you what: These doggone white people'—not a word! . . . Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues." See Drew Magary, "Duck Dynasty's Phil Robertson Gives Drew Magary a Tour," GQ, January 2014, http://www.gq.com/entertainment/television/201401/duck-dynasty-phil-robertson.
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