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Admittedly, I was a bit confused at the beginning of “12 Years a Slave”. Steve McQueen’s film did not start off as a Steve McQueen film, the dominance of stylised camera and narrative which made me love his previous work (“Hunger” and “Shame” – both outstanding pieces of art) was replaced by a surprisingly straightforward approach to telling the story of a man kidnapped and sold into slavery. Abandoning his visual particularities would take away his powerful emotional capacity, right?

Wrong! Fortunately, and stunningly, McQueen is able to tell his stories, he proves here, in whatever way suits that story. The sex addict and the political prisoner of his previous features deserved an intimate, and sometimes visually excessive illustration that reflected their agitated and excessive state of mind. While Samuel Northup, the main character of “12 Years a Slave” certainly has his share of agitation and emotional upheaval to face, the situation he is confronted with is, however, completely different. For the most part, the film is about normality in slavery. About the regularity of being humble property after a short period of catastrophe. Catastrophe becomes the norm, and most of the film is in consequence showcasing the regular life on a farm in the rural parts of slavery-stricken North-America. It is not about the constant quest for the escape plan, the efforts to rise up against the landlord or the fight against the desperation of being bound and dispossessed. Northup’s only strategy is to stay silent, to keep a low profile and be as useful as he can be.

In this respect, the film is a calm, almost casual description of country life, and at times it is almost possible to forget the inhumanity that created this situation of a “free man” being picked out of his life like a sheep being picked out of its flock by a hunting wolf. Michael Fassbender makes sure we do not forget, however. His farm owner is not just part of the slavery machinery, but he is a terribly deviant and messed-up person, torn between power over land and lives, between his urges and tempers. Being subjected to this creature of arbitrary temper (with a not much less terrible wife pushing the right buttons when necessary), without any means of opposing it, turns out to be the curse of the slaves working on his farm. It also, I was mulling, it was the reason why some heart for opposition against their fates remained in these slaves at all. You can easily imagine how a group of slaves settles into their fates of being farm hands at the farm of Benedict Cumberbatch’s relatively calm and civilised master. At the Fassbender farm, any day can turn out to be one spent in the comfort of simple labour – or it can end in being whipped to death.

McQueen manages to make this unimaginable act of inhumanity that slavery is imaginable by not trying to demonise it. He is taking his time to give the audience a feeling for all kinds of normality the situation entails, and refuses to create a big drama out of either the pleasant or cruel moments. It is credible how the days of regular labour pass by, how sometimes a chance for escape goes unused, how even faced with unbearable cruelty, such as a man being strung up on a tree, such cruelty is absorbed, and ignored, with life going on around it. There is no “Spartacus” moment where the slaves rise against their master. Even though that master is by all standards a terrible person, he is not a particularly evil villain, but a regular member of society, backed by this society’s legal and ethical code. By rising against him a slave does not become a hero, but merely a dead slave.

There is also no dramatic soundtrack score that would explain the seriousness of the situation to those who did not yet get that now’s the time to raise your weapons! The moments of particular cruelty are almost all very silent, because they do not require anybody to talk or shout, and a slave is better off in general only doing what is required. There is very moving singing, indeed stirring emotions not the least among Solomon Northup. But this is singing on the fields and at funerals, and it is very calm and intense, a masterful use of music to indicate a forthcoming change of pace and attitude.

Steve McQueen has proven (if he needed to) that he can master more than just moments of heightened excess, presented with artistically heightened artistic intensity. He can calm down the narrative pace, can engage at length with a wider cast of characters, can focus on a small group of people and by doing so open up the view to allow a stunning glance at a whole society at guilt, rotten and inhumane to the core without even realising it for the most part. While watching this, at one moment I had a horror vision of this story being in the hands of less talented directors and script authors – and I felt very very happy that it was McQueen who was telling this story with great calm, with lack of pathos and without any perceived compromise.

(It’s bit unfair to assign all praise to the director, I know. The cast is fabulous throughout, even though co-producer Brad Pitt is responsible for an odd and unnecessary moment that certainly was necessary from some financiers’ point-of-view…)

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