No saint: Michael Fassbender as slaver Edwin Epps in "12 Years a Slave"
The film 12 Years a Slave is breathtaking. See it. Based on the 1853 autobiography of a free black man captured in the North and transported to the South, it takes a long, unflinching look at the institution that was American slavery.
Aesthetically, the film is overwhelming, but in a deeply uncomfortable way. From the opening shot, the series of stills the director Steve McQueen offers us have the grandeur of a Gainsborough. Refusing to choose between painting landscapes or portraits, Gainsborough opted to portray the 18th-century gentry who commissioned his works against the natural environment which was their property. His combination of clean composition and perfect perspective — lord and lady in the foreground, ordered arable in the background — communicates a world distinctly at ease with itself, a world you want to live in, or at least retire to.
In 12 Years a Slave this aesthetic is carried over but the roles dramatically reversed. Now it's servants rather than masters in the foreground, the background not their property, rather the site of their labour. This makes for uncomfortable viewing because the backbreaking toil and unwatchably brutal beatings take place against the loveliness of the Louisiana plantations, the fecundity of the fields, undisturbed algae over gentle bayous, Spanish moss drooping.
This contradiction, this lack of consonance between what the film looks like and what it's about lies at the heart of many great films. Making a picturesque film about a horrible thing: that's what any director taking on a historical travesty aims to do. But that contradiction is even more acute when those historical travesties happen to have taken place in idyllic locations. Shoot a movie about the First World War, and include close-ups of young men drowning in the mud of Ypres — aesthetically, things line up. But when the Allies fought the war in the Pacific — territory Terrence Malick explored in The Thin Red Line — what ensued was evil under the sun, mass killing under the palm trees of paradise, with wondrous birds and rare species spectators of the slaughter.
But the ugliest aspect of this beautiful film is its depiction of how slavers used the Bible to justify what they were doing. Understanding this legitimation is vital to how we view Christianity in the 21st century — how we answer questions about the relevance of the faith, its relation to history, its perspicuity.
The skewing of scripture features prominently in McQueen's film because he has remained faithful to Solomon Northup's narrative a year after his (spoiler-alert) rescue. This, for example, is how Solomon (played by the extraordinary Chiwetel Ejiofor) introduces his first master, the "good slaver" William Ford (the ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch): "In my opinion, there never was a more kind, noble, candid Christian man. Yet the influences and associations that had always surrounded him, blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of Slavery." And the film also sticks to the text when it has the "evil" slaver Edwin Epps (played by Michael Fassbender in a performance as vicious and terrifyingly arbitrary as Ralph Fiennes's SS officer in Schindler's List) provide an exegisis of a parable from the gospel of Luke. This is the moral Epps takes from the story of the watchful servant: "That nigger that don't take care — that don't obey his lord — that's his master — d'ye see? — that 'ere nigger shall be beaten with many stripes . . . That's Scripter!"