Post-cinema trip discussions touched on how little this had to say about the legacy of slavery and what it means for us today. In fact, any comment in this direction is confined to a single shot of Chiwetel imprisoned in a cellar and the camera moving up to reveal the skyline of Washington D.C. – suggesting that it is literally built on the backs of slaves.
Instead the film addresses the more abstract question of what it means to be a slave, for owner as well as owned. As has been pointed out everywhere, Chiwetel is an African American, not an African, and yet his being ripped away from his recognisably bourgeois lifestyle brings home to the western bourgeois viewer the injustice of the whole trade, since Africans also had families and liberties before they were coerced onto the slave-ships.
Chiwetel Ejiofor's performance is brave and noble, serving as the point of entry for the audience, the viewfinder through which we observe mid-19th century American slave society. He's an actor I have a great deal of respect for, managing to appear in two of the best science fiction films of recent times (where he essentially plays the same character). But Michael Fassbender's performance is more interesting and integral to the film's purposes, as it captures the way the owner class are corrupted by the institution of slavery.
Fassbender is a brute: in his first scenes he gives scriptural justification for whipping his slaves, like a torturer describing his tools to the victim. But he is also the adult version of the Paul Dano character Chiwetel encounters first. Dano commands the slaves to clap while he mockingly sings "Run, Nigger, Run". We also see Fassbender orchestrating his slaves in a deeply surreal dance at his house. His violence, like Dano's, is caused by a childish petulance at not getting what he wants. They are both spoiled children who have grown up in a society that replaces their toys with human beings.
Brad Pitt plays a small but crucial role at the end of the film, handing Chiwetel the possibility of freedom. Amidst the respected but relatively unknown cast walks in one of the biggest Hollywood stars around to berate Fassbender for owning slaves – the glamorous hero coming to the rescue. This may have wound people up the wrong way, but I suspect Steve McQueen knew exactly what he was doing. Played by Pitt, the part has a distancing effect that takes you out of the film, but perhaps this is intentional, since Pitt's intervention is exactly an insertion of anachronistic values into an environment where they do not exist. I think it's a clever use of star-power.
Finally, and this is where I am less certain in my interpretation of the film, having my confidence shaken by this revealing interview with the director in the Guardian where he admitted that he never examined himself. In McQueen's previous film Shame I identified some interesting contrasts between the the two main characters, and since they were of two different genders, I speculated about whether there was a bit of gendering going on. 12 Years a Slave may contain a subtle piece of gendering as well. There are two coin-transfer scenes: both attempts to purchase an escape. But for Patsy, the only escape she sees is death, and she isn't brave enough to go through with it on her own, while Northup is able to dream of an end to slavery. I'm not going to push this as far as I did with Gravity, however, as Patsy's experience and opportunities are different from Northup's. The parallel is worth thinking about, however.
Interesting also that when Northup is reunited with his family, he feels he has to apologise for his absence – ridiculous since his kidnapping is not his fault. But cycling back to the beginning of the film, where we see Northup in a moment of infidelity, the apology can be given a different gloss – an admission that whilst enslaved he could not fulfill his responsibilities as a father and did not always remain true to his family.
The final paragraph of the Guardian interview confirms what many critics and audiences have said – the violence in the film is extreme, but it is the opposite of gratuitous. Instead, it's something that is "important" and necessary to be seen and experienced. Almost a way to be shriven if not absolved for this crime in our collective past. Simply bringing that sense of what slavery was like is the film's ultimate purpose, and how it achieves its moralising effect.