Every frame of a movie should make you feel something, but what happens when a movie makes you feel conflicting emotions. That’s something that
Steve McQueen is really good at in 2013’s Best Picture winner, 12 Years A Slave. It tells the true story about a free man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the American South. And the way the film depicts slavery is rightfully horrifying, but it’s horrifying not just because of the brutality shown but because everyone in the film is numb to the suffering of others at some point. And you don’t have characters monologuing about how terrible slavery is. At least, not until the very end when Deus Ex Brad Pitt comes to save the day.
“Then what is true and right is true and for all, white and black alike.” Instead the theme is presented to the viewer through juxtaposition and layering. McQueen regularly places images with conflicting tones right next to each other in the film so that you are constantly confused about how to feel. Sometimes they are right after one another like in this shot when Solomon is captured. The camera pans up and we see the Capitol building, a building that in another context is supposed to represent freedom. But because of the previous image represents blindness to the mass suffering of the people it is supposedly there to protect. In other moments, conflicting tonal images are in the same shot. Like in this early one in the film when the slaves are eating a meal in a depressed silence. In the background, free children are laughing and playing. This is repeated in the hanging scene where McQueen lingers on the shots of Solomon nearly suffocating to death for a full three minutes with only a single other slave coming to help him. The plantation re-animates itself behind him and in the background children begin to play with his hat and the other slaves go about their day, afraid to help him in any way.
There’s another shot like this in the film but here the focus is shifted out of focus and the distance slaves are lashed for not picking enough cotton while we watch slaves continue to work, unable to say anything about the brutality. McQueen also edits the film in an interesting way to constantly contrast the past and the present. Like in this scene when a slave Solomon had befriended is saved by his master. Solomon calls out to him for help, but Clemens does not stick his neck out. “Clemens! Clemens! Clemens!”
“Get him back!” We then get this seemingly innocuous scene of Solomon and his wife at a store when he was free and him doing the exact same thing to another slave trying to escape: ignoring his plight because he is powerless to do anything. There’s so many different emotions in these shots that any glimpse of happiness is drowned out by the shots of depression and pain. Even more impressive is McQueen’s use of sound in the film, especially the music. Now, music can change everything in a film. It’s even more important than what you see on screen because it gives the image context, it tells you how to feel.
Most of the music in the movie is very light and sorrowful but every once in a while there’s extremely
heavy music used. Mostly it’s used on Solomon’s forced journey to the South and it has the power to make anything horrifying. I mean he travels there on a paddle wheeler.
It’s about the most adorable looking form of
transportation out there but not when you shoot it like this… And that brings us to the most repugnant scene of the entire film when Tibeats sings this song. Now, I’m going to give a warning here that this next part of the film does include the n-word. That’s unavoidable considering the topic matter but I just wanted to point that out before I play this clip. “[email protected]#* run, [email protected]#* flow, [email protected]#* tore his shirt in two. Run, run, the patty-roller get you. Run [email protected]#*, run Well you better get away!” Makes you wanna barf, doesn’t it? Well, this will make even more sick. Here’s some history on the song: that song is actually one that slaves would sing to each other. Slaves weren’t allowed to leave their owners plantation, but occasionally they would go to visit friends on other plantations. So owners set up slave patrols to stop this from happening. So, this song is about a slave evading the patrol, since it was better to run in that situation than to try and explain yourself. So when Tibeats sings this song at them, something that was supposed to be a meager form of comfort for them, is compromised by virtue of him being the one singing it. He is mocking them and their hopeless situation. And on top of that, he forces them to be part of their own humiliation by making them
clap the beat of the song he’s singing. We then cut to the reality of their situation as slaves, further emphasizing their humiliation. But then it also cuts to Mr. Ford giving a sermon
and it compromises that, as well. “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac,
and the God of Jacob.” “Run [email protected]#* run, the the patty-roller catch you.”
“When the multitude heard this, they were…” In an instant, this moment of piety is tarnished by their complicity with slavery. This happens once more in the film when the sounds of Eliza weeping are played over the images of the sermon mixing them in a really sinister way.
“The same is the greatest in the
Kingdom of Heaven and who so shall receive…” All of these moments of conflicting tone help to articulate the struggle slaves faced.
Not just the brutality, but the fact that others are numb to their suffering: that the government is ignorant of what is happening; that supposedly pious people are blind to their sins.
McQueen does all of this without a monologue and that’s why 12 Years A Slave is one of the best pictures ever made. My name is Sage. Thanks for watching and make sure to subscribe for more videos about the Best Pictures. You can check out last week’s episode here to see Birdman was made to look like one continuous shot.