'12 Years a Slave' uses subtlety, preserves history

Steve McQueen’s '12 Years a Slave,' screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, showcases brilliant performances and beautifully tells the true story of freeman Solomon Northup.

Billie Holiday’s haunting and passionate voice echoes over the song “Strange Fruit.” The 1939 blues standard is a harsh cry and protest against the brutal racism and lynchings that were an everyday occurrence in the United States.

Steve McQueen’s film 12 Years a Slave, depicting the true story of the enslavement of freeman Solomon Northup, echoes Holiday’s seminal song. It is a rapturous meditation upon America’s original sin and, like “Strange Fruit,” is brutally honest and yet tinged with a sorrow so personal and vivid that the film is transcendent.

McQueen’s direction continues and improves upon the visual themes he established with his two previous films Hunger and Shame. Just as in those two films (which presented the harsh realities of hunger strikes and sex addiction), McQueen keeps his camera fixed on the small, day-to-day tragedies so as to fully convey the overall crushing experience of his subject. From trace flies landing on fresh scars, to dark blackberry juice sliding down the edge of a plate, to a dying ember of a charred letter, McQueen lingers on seemingly extraneous moments.

12 years

However, it is this patience and forethought to stay in the moment, no matter how insignificant or savage, that gives 12 Years a Slave its resonance and strength. McQueen forces the audience to look at and absorb the physical and emotional pain inflicted upon Northup (portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor with a fiery grace) by several slave traders, including his brutal owner Edwin Epps (played by a commanding Michael Fassbender). The audience is not only an observer, but a participant in a breathing history.

Holiday sang, “Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh, then the sudden smell of burning flesh.” 12 Years a Slave is a similar symphony of release, searing torment and a shining example that “strange fruits” hung in America.

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